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.