Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mormon Mondays (on Tuesday): Now I Ain’t Sayin’ He’s a Gold Digger...

Joseph Smith is one of the most fascinating men in American history, yet he tends to get ignored in American history classes. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about this man until I independently started reading about the Latter-day Saints and their history. I think that it’s something of a travesty that the founder of a major American religion gets ignored in these classes, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s probably near-impossible to cover him in a completely objective way. The problem with covering Joseph Smith is that, unlike the prophets of the ancient major religions, we have a full written record to contend with. This may not seem to be a problem at all; in fact, from a historian’s point of view, this is a blessing. However, because a large number of people believe that he was a messenger for God, and that his revelations were divinely-inspired, his prior criminal record becomes an issue. In fact, the question that everything hangs on, including the Book of Mormon, is this: how much can you trust a potential conman? Was he lying about certain aspects of his past, or did he really have certain magical powers? A historian trying to deal with his life in an objective way is stuck with the unenviable choice of stating that he had magical abilities and found a new testament of Jesus Christ in the Americas, or that he made it all up. No wonder this thorny issue gets skipped.

One aspect of his life that is difficult to deal with is his career choice before becoming a prophet. Around the same time that he was being visited by angels, Joseph Smith achieved an impressive degree of fame by being a treasure hunter. He did this with a seer stone, which he plopped into a hat and then gazed into, burying his face in the hat to block out the sunlight and “read” the relevant data from the stone. He was known for having some impressive skills finding treasure by using this technique. These skills were all the more impressive when you discover that he never actually found any buried treasure anywhere at anytime. Whenever a dig would turn out to be fruitless, Smith would state that the treasure was being pushed further down into the earth due to wicked spirits. These wicked spirits were a godsend for ol’ Joe. At one point during a dig, the shovels banged into what seemed to be wood. This, clearly, would have to be treasure. To make sure, Smith was asked to take a peep into his stone and find out if it was safe to dig it out. He refused. As it turns out, the spirit of one of those pesky dead Indians was guarding it, and would not allow it to be removed. So even when his seer stone led them to hit “pay dirt,” they still never got any real treasure from Smith’s skills. That didn’t stop folks from paying him a decent salary, in addition to a place to stay for leading them to the right spots.

The evidence of his treasure hunting is documented in the records of a court case, when Smith was brought to trial for some misdemeanor. He also admitted to it later, saying that he only earned about $14 a month for it. These activities were not unique to Smith, but were fairly common to people at the time who held what has been referred to as a “magical worldview.” It seems to be pretty straightforward that he participated in these activities, but the most intriguing part about it is the implications it has to those who believe Smith to be a true prophet of God.

According to Dan Vogel, author of Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (2004), there are three possible explanations for Smith’s treasure hunting:

1. Smith saw imaginary treasure in his stone.
2. Smith pretended to see a treasure in his stone.
3. Smith saw real treasure which disappeared before being unearthed. (Vogel, 2004)

If we believe that he saw imaginary treasure in his stone, then he may have been confused and really did believe that there was treasure, but was mistaken. Sometimes an idea can be so powerful that a person thinks that they see or feel things that are not present. It is fully possible that he thought he saw treasure, but was wrong. This doesn’t make it right, but it could be an understandable mistake.

If we believe that Smith lied about seeing treasure, then this causes some major problems with his character, and how reliable he is as a prophet of God. Knowingly lying about being able to see treasure, and bilking believers out of cash has serious implications for his future career as a full-time prophet. Especially troubling is that the same technique he used to “see” buried treasure (burying his face in a hat), was also how he translated the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon. If this technique was fraudulent in one instance, there is little reason to believe that it was somehow legitimate in another.

If we agree that he did actually see real treasure in his stone, then we are forced to except the reality of a magical worldview. The means that the angry souls of dead Indians really did guard buried treasure, and would shift it about in the earth to prevent the living from stealing it. Because other people at the time also participated in these activities, then we would have to believe that they potentially may have been able to locate buried treasure as well, yet were unsuccessful due to malevolent spirits. It would be odd if Smith, using the same techniques as many others, was the only one who truly saw the movements of spirits underground and knew where to find treasure.

The treasure hunting aspect of Smith’s past tends to get downplayed, but this was a major part of his life before he had his visions and started his church. A prophet does not have to be perfect, but if they turn out to be a conman, then it takes a gigantic leap of faith to ignore certain lies while taking others as the word of God. Some of his claims become especially difficult to reconcile with known facts when we get into his later translation of the Book of Abraham. This was a translation from an Egyptian scroll that he purchased, which was later translated by specialists and discovered to be funeral rights and not the scripture that Smith created. Further allegations, such as the Book of Mormon being plagiarized, will be dealt with later. I am not saying that Joseph Smith was a conman. What I am saying is that if he really was able to do the things he claimed he was doing, then we are living in a much stranger world than I previously believed, and there are a lot of pissed-off Indians underground that don’t want us to steal their treasures.


  1. Verse 2: "Now I ain't sayin' you a gold digger, you got needs..."

    And Joseph Smith had needs. At his worst, his needs were money and power. But I grew up around a lot of Mormons. They, and some of their literature about Smith, suggest Smith was simply overwhelmed and frustrated by denominational infighting. His religious cynicism led him to spiritual revelation. And from revelation, "he got that ambition, baby, look in his eyes. This week he mop the floors, next week its the fries..." Or it's Utah.

    Okay, I'll stop. What I really wanted to say is that I wonder if other religious figures would fare so well in the light of modernity. Would Jesus really have escaped the scrutiny of Fox and MSNBC? I'm not saying Jesus had something to hide. I'm saying we have the luxury of time to shroud a lot of initial questions about Jesus. And being "ancient" also does something else for contemporary people - it ROMANTICIZES it. Ancient=True/Wise/Archetypal, etc...

    Have I romanticized Jesus? Yes, and will likely continue to do so. Do I tend to scoff a little at Joseph Smith? A little, and especially after that South Park episode. But I think we need to be self-aware enough to realize our own religious traditions get to sounding pretty wacky if we put them into 19th Century American History (or wherever). We like our religion old and their contexts middle eastern!

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  3. Is the title of the series, "Mormon Mondays", a reference to FHE?


  4. Not intentionally, but it could be. Also, FHE is probably the best thing about the LDS, and something that I plan on incorporating into my own family when I start having kids. Even though I'm not a Mormon, there's no reason not to add the good stuff into my life.

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  6. This is a welcome post because Joseph’s work as a “money digger” is certainly an inherently interesting topic. This is despite the fact that 99% of the members of the Church have no interest in it. However, for the reasons explained in the post, it is a topic as to which one must look carefully at one’s sources of facts and analysis before drawing conclusions.

    It appears that the post relies primarily, or even exclusively, upon Dan Vogel’s “Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet”, published by Signature Books. It would be impossible to pick a more controversial book, author and publisher with respect to the topic of the post. Before relying upon this book, I suggest reading the Wikipedia articles on Dan Vogel, Signature Books, and the book itself. Some of the criticisms, mostly from FARMS Review, are collected in footnotes in the Wikipedia articles. Also, you can go to the website of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, click on the link to the Review, and run your own searches.

    The best work on the life of Joseph is Richard Lyman Bushman’s “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”. Bushman does not sugarcoat or whitewash anything, including money digging, but nonetheless leaves room for faith. In deciding whether to read Bushman’s book, take a look at the Wikipedia article on him.

    This brings us to room for faith as the source of the problem with Vogel and his book. Not only did Vogel leave the Church, but he is an atheist and a critic of religion in general. Not surprisingly, his object was to discredit Joseph.

    Even leaving aside the author’s object, the book is crackpot. Vogel pretends to play amateur psychoanalyst when, in fact, he is playing mind reader of a dead man he never knew.

    One point in the post requires either clarification or correction. The post states that Joseph, in connection with treasure seeking, was brought to trial on some misdemeanor charge. The post then continues that Joseph admitted “it” later but said that he made only $14 a month. What misdemeanor charge? “Admitted” what?

    Joseph was charged with disorderly conduct (by money digging, which was illegal) in Bainbridge, New York in 1826.

    Twelve years later, on May 8, 1838,
    Joseph published what we would today call FAQs. The tenth of twenty questions was: “Was not Joseph Smith a money-digger?” The answer was: “Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.”

    Thus, Joseph was never charged with conning anyone or any sort of fraud. Much later he wrote (not “admitted”) that he had been a money-digger with the wry observation that it did not work out too well. He did not admit to conning anyone or to any fraud.


  7. The "it" that he admitted to was the money-digging, which I thought was pretty clear. I don't really see a difference between "admitting" that he was a money-digger and writing that he was a money-digger. Anyhow, that wasn't really the point of this post, nor was it a recommendation for Vogel's book. I cited that book because of the three possible explanations he gives for Smith's money-digging venture, which I quoted verbatim. Regardless of his approach to the rest of Smith's life (I tend to doubt that characters and events in the Book of Mormon were based on things in Smith's life), I still like what he had to say in this small section of his book. I really want to know how a Mormon deals with this aspect of his life. Do most think that he actually saw treasure, that he was mistaken, or that he made it up? If he was mistaken, then that's not really so bad, but it still begs the question of why he would be doing this illegal act in the first place. If he made it all up and profited from it, then he was a conman. If he actually saw treasure, then this entails a whole other series of beliefs. That is the point of this post, not the specifics of his trial, semantics, or how reliable a historian Vogel is.

  8. Joseph was never convicted of anything. The 1826 "trial" wasn't actually a trial. Joseph was arraigned to answer questions about his gold-digging activities with Josiah Stowell, but the issue never went to trial. The end.

    As for what I think about his money-digging activities....

    Local seers were common place in that period of rural American history. Some were frauds, intentionally cheating people. Others were honest members of the community who genuinely felt they had the "gift" and tried to use it as honestly and ethically as they could. Joseph Smith seems to fall into the latter camp. He never made much money from what he did, and seems to have acted responsibly with what he honestly believed to be a bona fide spiritual gift.

    It is also noteworthy that as he matured in his religious identity, Joseph Smith gradually dropped much of his earlier mysticism. As he became acquainted with true divine experience, the earlier attempts held less and less appeal for him.

    I view the whole thing as pretty-much benign and harmless. And Joseph's earlier mysticism had the additional benefit of preparing him to accept the true religious experiences he had later. The whole thing is essentially much ado about nothing.

    And this all misses a crucial point anyway:

    Who cares about Joseph the man?

    Shouldn't we be rather scrutinizing the MESSAGE he presented? Why waste time on the messenger? The proof of Mormonism is NOT to be found in the character quirks of Joseph Smith. The obsession of Mormonism's critics with Joseph's character merely demonstrates how ultimately weak and inadequate their overall critiques of Mormonism are.

  9. Mormonism makes some pretty bold claims, and therefore it makes perfect sense to "waste time" the messenger. Let's say that the gold plates existed. If they did, and Smith was the only person able to translate them, and he was specifically chosen by god to do so, right? If that's the case, and we only have his word to go by (that he saw god, the angel Moroni, and was able to translate the plates), then the only responsible thing for a non-Mormon to do would be to find out about Smith's character. It seems pretty odd to ignore something like that while at the same time trusting that he was telling the truth.

    I understand the whole "it's the message not the messenger" thing, but to pretend that the messenger plays only an incidental role in this, especially when the entire religion came from that one messenger's words, is kind of ridiculous.

  10. Which is basically to say that you don't feel you have much of an argument against the message itself.

    This is why I'm a Mormon.

    Because our theology is plain better than yours.

  11. Wow. I honestly don't know if that last part was a joke or not, but if it wasn't, then it's at this point where the discussion ends.

  12. Right then. Guess we are done.

    I wasn't joking at all. The theology we have through the writings of Joseph Smith basically solves a lot of problems that plagued theologians like Aquinas and such. And he demolishes Calvinism. If the world has nothing else to thank Joseph Smith for, it can thank him for refuting the sick joke of a universe posited by Five Point Calvinism - one of the ugliest theologies ever to blight our troubled planet.

    Good night to you.

  13. @Seth, If I was a mormon, I would be embarrassed right now. My theology teaches that if you truly believe your God is great, then you should prove it by your actions--that you should go out in the world and preach the word of Jesus Christ...and use words only when necessary.

  14. Plenty of Mormons do just that.

    But since this is a blog, and, by-definition, blogs are composed of... well... words...

    It seems just a tad silly for you to be griping that I am using words here now doesn't it? Almost sounds like you're saying "please stop writing stuff here, and go be good somewhere else, so that we can bad-mouth your religion in peace without resistance."

  15. It's the words that you use that I found a bit strange I guess. Every time a mormon comes up to me to try and witness, I'll now think back to what you said, and it will be hard to take them seriously. But, I'm glad you feel so strongly in your belief. Don't think your going to be winning over converts here though--especially when you say things like that.