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Treasure Digging in the 1800s

One of the problems that some people might have with Joseph Smith is that Joseph was involved in treasure digging and using seer stones.  Richard Bushman and John Dehlin discuss these issues in Part 2 of John’s interview with Richard Bushman.  This transcript continues immediately after their discussion of the Multiple First Vision accounts.

JD, “Ok.  So now let’s turn to one of the hottest topics today at least on the internet with regarding Mormonism, and that is treasure digging and folk magic.  If we can begin, let me just start, and that’s that you grow up in the Church thinking that Joseph Smith was this all-American boy, that yes he talks about some mistakes that he made, but just like when President Hinckley stands up today and sort of does some self-deprecating humor, you really dismiss it as saying no this guy is about as close to Jesus as anyone we’ll ever meet, is close to perfection.  That’s how Joseph Smith was, he was that way as a boy, he was that way as a man so we dismiss the mistakes that he clearly admits when he writes his own history, but then to extend that, we are taught that Ouija boards are bad and evil, that even face cards are bad. So we have this real disposition against anything that might be considered dark or black, etc.  And then on top of that, you may grow up hearing a little bit about seer stones, but you don’t hear a lot about it.  You’re certainly never taught, here’s what they meant by seer stones.

Then you know the idea of treasure digging, or water divining or however.  That seems to be about as far as your perceptions of Joseph Smith that you could ever have. And then to sort of cap this off, we’re taught about Joseph Smith being brought into court at various times in his life, but we’re never really told why he was brought into court, and we’re taught about people who talked bad about Joseph Smith and his family, but we’re never really taught, you know what were some of the things that they were doing that caused a bad reputation.  And then to just sort of round it all out, when it comes to the Book of Mormon, and we’ll actually cover the Book of Mormon later, but you know we’re taught that what he used to translate was this formal Urim and Thummum type thing that scholars—prophets of Old Testament would have worn with a breastplate and some glasses, and he’s doing this translation, but you find out that this peep stone that he used that we’ll talk about arches and makes its way all the way into his revealing of the Book of Mormon.

So this is the perception that one grows up with, and one just becomes completely shocked to learn about when he said he had weaknesses, what he meant and what was the cause of a lot of this persecution and bad reputation, etc.  So lay out for us what we should know about this issue.”

Bushman, “Well, contrary to some of the things I was saying earlier, I think this is a case where the facts are the facts.  He was put on trial for glass looking. He did have a seer stone.  He did put it in his hat to translate the Book of Mormon.  He put great value on that seer stone, and that is just the way it was.”

JD, “How did it begin?  Like what, do you have a sense for when these expeditions started happening? Who was involved? What did they do?”

Bushman, “It’s a little hard.  There is this debate about when Joseph Senior who was sort of the chief figure on all the treasure seeking, when he began this practice.  Some people have said he did it in Vermont, which is altogether possible, but the evidence is weak.  I think the chief starting point is 1822 with Joseph Smith digging a well with Willard Chase came across this stone that he believed had seer stone properties, and persuades Willard Chase to give it to him, and then he uses that all his life.”

JD, “How would it have occurred to him that a stone could have special properties?  Was that just because you know people were having seer stones at the time, or folk magic and treasure digging was going on just generally within New England at that time period?”

Bushman, “I think you’ve got it right there. It was part of the culture.  Willard wanted the stone back so he could use it as a seer stone.  Sister Sally Chase used the seer stone to try to find the Book of Mormon plates.  It was not a totally respectable culture, but it was a strong undercurrent in Yankee culture all through that period.”

JD, “What would be a typical expedition in Yankee culture for the time period?  What would people do?”

Bushman, “Well, I don’t know.  The Hurlbut affidavits give various descriptions of magic rites trying to find the treasures and then trying to get the treasure because it keeps receding out of sight.  The trouble is those accounts you never know how much to trust them on the—just jazzing the up to make them more dramatic or how it really worked. But there was a sense that there might be guardians over these treasures who try to prevent people from finding them or taking them away.  So the angel Moroni fits into that pattern pretty well.”

JD, “So totally disconnected from Joseph Smith, in New England in the early 1800s, people believed that there were buried treasures throughout the forests or mountains of America, they would go on expeditions to try and find them.  Sometimes they would use a stone, some type of device to help with visionary things.  They would see things, they would get together and maybe even feel like they were experiencing something unified, and seeing some type of treasure in the ground, maybe there was a guardian there, and they would usually never find the treasure?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “Now how could that be fun to go on an expedition to never find something?”

Bushman laughs, “That’s a good question!  I don’t know but they just perpetually went.  I don’t know of a single account of anyone actually turning up something of any value.”

JD, “So were they just bored or really superstitious?”

Bushman, “Well, superstitious is a pejorative word.  These are people, they’re good Christians who believe in the powers of the supernatural.  If you go back to Puritanism, there is a lot of this kind of magic running through New England Puritanism in the 17th century.  It runs through Christianity at all levels including educated people.  So it’s a very powerful and prevalent culture: magic.  Joseph Smith is sort of out on the edges of that and picks it up.

We of course are offended by it.  If he did things that were in the Bible or came out of Protestantism, then we would say well that’s ok. That is our definition of what are legitimate sources of revelation and guidance.   We would never say that something coming out of masonry or out of magic could be the starting point for revelation.

But I think that‘s a comment on our parochialism as much as it is on Joseph Smith’s situation.  There are a lot of church scholars who really love alchemy, because it was an effort to raise the soul to a higher level.  You’re not just trying to turn base metals into precious metals, you’re trying to turn yourself into a precious self.  So, I don’t—maybe it’s just because I’m accustomed to it, but I’m perfectly willing to say that that could be part of Joseph Smith’s preparation for what otherwise was a totally fantastical thing looking at a stone to translate a record.  There’s no precedence for that—it is in an environment, but looking in a stone to find lost objects was one way that he could have gotten ready for it.”

JD, “So in other words, God knew that through spiritual or inspired mechanical means he was going to need to produce the Book of Mormon and other revelations. But that people didn’t just do that out of their head, they did through some type of process that involved the physical body, and so by allowing Joseph Smith to be exposed to a type of magic based or spiritual based process or ritual, prepared him for being able to produce an inspired work later.”

Bushman, “Yeah, I think so.  I think the same thing happens with Masonry in the Nauvoo period.  We think that the translation of the Bible was the greatest source of his questions, and it was a very valuable source, but he got inspired from all sorts of things in his environment to think of, to ask questions and to get revelations.”

JD, “It’s a fair question how much of that is how revelation works period.  We like to think that revelation happens even with prophets by God saying, ‘pull out your pencil.  You know, here’s what you’re going to dictate, or here’s the revelation.’  And you know anyone who knows about Spencer W. Kimball or David O. McKay’s attempts to try and come up with the 1978 revelation will know that it was much more nuanced and complicated than that. It involved real experience and conversations and thoughts and experiences that led to what we would then call a revelation.  It was not ‘pull out your pen.  This is God.  It’s time to dictate you know the 1978 revelation.’

Bushman, “Well, I think that that is our view of revelation when comes into the mind of a prophet in his language, which means in his culture.  So you’ve got to have enough of that culture to make it conceivable to him.  I’m a patriarch, and I believe that I’m able to give blessings to people that come out of my temperament, my experience.  Another patriarch with a different set of experiences could probably give another kind of blessing.  There isn’t just one way of doing things.  It all is coming through the person who speaks for God, and has the imprint of that person’s background on what he said.”

JD, “So in other words, you can’t reveal with words you don’t have.  You can’t grapple with experiences you haven’t dealt with in your life.”

Bushman, “That’s it.  I’m not saying you know you can’t broaden your views a lot that you’re really restricted because revelations are remarkable things.  I think the Book of Mormon is a fabulous story, despite what all the critics say.  I still don’t get that whole book out of Joseph Smith’s immediate environment.  So you can get beyond to a certain extent, but you’re still tethered to your own culture.”

JD, “Right. So real quick, so Joseph started doing these expeditions regularly?”

Bushman, “Well, it’s hard to tell.  He gets the seer stone in 1822, and it sounds like the Hurlbut affidavits are talking about thereafter in the next few years.  Then in 1826 there was this trial where Joseph Senior says in a very dramatic and powerful statement that we have used this boy’s gifts for base purposes seeking wealth rather than the higher purposes of God, so I think that’s sort of the high point of the Smith family money digging, and then it’s going to run downhill.  Dan Vogel comes up with all sorts of examples of money digging after that time, and I would not deny that they might have happened because you don’t cut things off immediately, but it’s much thinner evidence, it’s not nearly as persuasive.  I think that there was a four year period and then it tapered off pretty quick.”

JD, “And I think I remember from your Beginnings of Early Mormonism book that it may be even been that at times Joseph wanted to stop, but his dad sometimes pressured him to keep going?”

Bushman, “Well, yeah, I do think that.  His father was the enthusiast, not Joseph.  He was pressing him into his service.  We have a piece of evidence to show that, not that Joseph thought that it was all wrong.  You know, the Lord never repudiated money digging as an art.  He repudiated doing these things for wealth, and it was the greed of the money diggers that he was to get away from. So you know when he goes off to Salem, what was that? [18]37? In fall of ‘37, or ‘36, he is thinking he is going to find treasure in the basement of a house, so it kept sort of reasserting itself for more years, but it’s on a minor key, minor theme after that.

JD,”After 1826?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “Now that’s interesting because one of the basic questions to ask in understanding the narrative is how did Joseph meet Emma, and tell me how much of the story I have right.  There’s a man named Josiah Stoal, who heard that Joseph had some special powers or gifts.  He had reason to believe that there was a treasure mine, a silver mine in Pennsylvania, and so he said Joseph come with me.  I need you to help me find this treasure mine, and while Joseph and Josiah Stoal were in Pennsylvania, somehow they connected with the Hale family, and I don’t even know if they took board with the Hales—“

Bushman, “Yeah, they did.”

JD, “But that’s how Joseph met Emma Hale, and as I recall reading Faun Brodie’s book, it sounds like Joseph even took Isaac Hale with them as they went to find the silver mine and Joseph leads them to the place of the silver mine and then says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, it’s too far down, we can’t get it.’  And that was what made Isaac Hale say ‘this guy’s a kook!  He’s a fraud, and that’s why he wouldn’t let Joseph marry Emma, and that’s why Joseph and Emma had to elope.  Am I fair?  Did I miss something there, or is that true?”

Bushman, “Well, it’s always a question of the reliability of the evidence.  It is true that he boarded with the Smiths—with the Hales, got to know Emma, and that Isaac was sort of involved in this.  His name appears on some of the documents those miners were working on, so he’s involved.  Then he does become disillusioned.  Whether or not it was from this experience at the treasure mine, you know that’s the part that isn’t really well worked out, or the evidence isn’t all that good.  It’s possible, but I’m not so sure of it, but it is a fact that Isaac Hale was very critical of Joseph Smith after that time.”

JD, “And this is post 1826 right?  So I mean this is the residue that you talk about.  He’s still doing it some right?”

Bushman, “Ummm, No, no.  This is not post-1826.  The trial occurs after this incident.”

JD, “Oh!”

Bushman, “They’re digging in what, November of 1825.”

JD, “In Pennsylvania?”

Bushman, “In Pennsylvania.”

JD, “Ok.”

Bushman, “The trial is I think the spring of 1826.  He goes back down to work for Josiah Stoal and Josiah Stoal’s nephew or something like that, and he brings this suit against Joseph, so it’s after that fact.”

JD, “Some have tried to claim that he brought him along to dig as in with a shovel, and you would say that’s not likely his main purpose in going, right?”

Bushman, “To bring Isaac Hale along?”

JD, “No, no, no.  That Josiah Hale brought Joseph—some have tried to discredit this trip to Pennsylvania as Josiah Stoal bringing Joseph along to dig with his shovel.  He needed hands to dig holes.”

Bushman, “Well, I think he did that but he doesn’t bring Joseph down from Palmyra for that reason, it’s because he’s got this gift.  That’s what he’s interested in.”

JD, “I bet you would say that if the critics are going to disparage Joseph Smith, they’re going to have to answer the question as to why his father and other members of the community continued to believe that he had a power.  Is that true?  Because even Josiah Stoal after the trial maintained that Joseph Smith had power even though he wasn’t able to find treasure.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Yeah, Josiah Stoal at the trial testified that he believed Joseph Smith had a real gift, so Josiah Stoal joins the Church and so on so his faith in Joseph never wavers.”

End of Part 2

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2 comments on “Treasure Digging in the 1800s

  1. God’s ways are not our ways. This story is consistent with Joseph learning to be a shaman. Part of shamanism includes being inspired to do things that unknowingly will cause the student shaman a personal loss of creditability. They are “stung” by their own actions because they naively and faithfully followed the inspiration or revelation they were given. It is both a test and a lesson. This is an important part of the process called “ego death”, it is preparation for something much greater. Once Joseph skin was thickened and he no longer feared his own loss of creditability he could be trusted to bring forth some truly incredible things like angels, golden plates and the BoM. Also controversy is good for God’s business, it causes a buzz as people began talking, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

    There is nothing magical about a seer stone it simply gives the beginning visionary a place to focus their eyes. The process is called scrying. Beginning shaman may use seer stones or other visual aid methods to help see visions. More experienced shaman can see visions without them. The story of Joseph’s seer stone and head in a hat with the plates out of sight makes perfect sense, God was visually dictating the BoM to Joseph.

    Many reject the idea of Joseph being a shaman finding the concept unbelievable and distasteful even disrespectful but that attitude is born of ignorance, if you study shamanism with an open mind you will soon conclude that Joseph was probably a shaman.

  2. Very interesting, Howard. I’m not super familiar with Shamanism, other than a documentary which came out in the 70s, “The Occult Experience”, it might have been called.

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