In Part 3 of the Mormon Stories interview, John Dehlin gets more details from Richard Bushman about the Angel Moroni’s visit and the environment of Joseph’s Smith’s day between about 1823-1827. This part of the interview continues after Part 2 of the interview. John is a bit ambitious in this, and doesn’t cover the Kinderhook plates in this part of the interview, and very little of the Book of Abraham. But I want to keep the serialized part of the transcript going.
JD, “Doctor Richard Bushman, thank you for coming on Mormon Stories again!”
Bushman, “Ok, it’s a pleasure.”
JD, “I guess this episode I’m hoping that we can cover maybe two main topics. The first is Joseph Smith as translator, which would cover the Book of Mormon, maybe the Book of Abraham, and a bit about the Kinderhook plates, and then a second section just about the Three and the Eight Witnesses, so that’s kind of the overview. Let’s start talking about the Book of Mormon. When did Joseph Smith first learn that he was going to be helping out with the Book of Mormon?”
Bushman, “Well, I have no insight other than the traditional day in September 1823.”
JD, “And for those who may not know the story, what did he say?”
Bushman, “Oh, I see what you’re getting at. Well, this is probably the most fabulous of all of Joseph Smith’s stories. An angel appears in his room when he’s seeking, when he, that is Joseph was seeking forgiveness once more, and granting the forgiveness but then rushes on the main topic of the night which was the presence of gold plates kept by an ancient people over a thousand year period or more with the fullness of the gospel and Joseph is told he is to recover those plates and translate them, which he did in time, published them in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.”
JD,”Ok, and who did he tell? Did he tell anyone when he had this experience?”
Bushman, “Well yes, I think myself that he was very reluctant to talk about the First Vision, may not have told his family, but here the angel explicitly tells him to inform his father, so we have a good account, Joseph’s own account of telling his father, and instead of being scorned, is believed and so from then on it seems to become part of family lore, everyone in the family knew about it. I think there’s evidence that the word seeped out into the neighborhood as well, little by little.”
JD, “So Joseph’s family knew that he had seen an angel, an angel Moroni according to the account, and they believed him, thought it credible and the neighborhood started wondering about that as well.”
JD, “What was the neighborhood’s reaction? Did they persecute him for that? Do we know?”
Bushman, “I don’t think there’s much evidence of outright persecution. You know we can imagine a lot of scoffing and derision, and the best evidence that we have of sort of the general attitude towards the Smiths comes from the Hurlbut affidavits in 1833, and there is a general sense of the Smiths being given to fantasy, involved in magical money digging, and perhaps prone to lying.
As I recall, I can’t remember any direct description of Moroni and the plates in their accounts, but you can imagine that those same attitudes would probably greet Joseph Smith if he were to talk about the angel.”
JD, “So the understanding both from his father and from the neighbors was that Joseph was going— that he not only spoke with an angel but he was going to produce a book, or was the production of the book not as well known?”
Bushman, “Well, I don’t want to overdo the neighbors knowing all about this. I’m just surmising that they knew about it. The family we do know they knew about it. When the book comes into the picture, it’s hard to know, except that in those early months after the vision of Moroni, Lucy talks about him sitting with the family, talking and expatiating on the ancient inhabitants of America, so that implies that the family knew there was a history involved, that it isn’t just a pure treasure seeking operation.”
JD, “That was a question I was going to ask. I read some accounts where Joseph would with his family by the fire at nights and go on and on about what ancient America was like, and what the Indians were like and what the ruins were like, and this was all before he actually ever saw the plates. Do I have it wrong there?”
Bushman, “Well, it’s easy to exaggerate that. We depend upon Lucy saying/recording that experience, but it was only a matter of a couple of weeks then Alvin died, and she says it closed down the whole operation. So you can’t think of Joseph Smith as perpetually spinning tales of ancient America to his family, and so far as we know, judging from the Hurlbut affidavits anyway, he didn’t tell those tales to the neighbors either. The neighbors did talk about Joseph Sr.’s intricate magic rituals, so they were sort of looking for fantastic stories coming out of the Smiths, but none of them mentioned ancient America or Indians or anything of that kind. My guess is there might have been some of it, but it wasn’t a big time, constant avocation of Joseph’s to tell those stories.”
JD, “When you read Simon Southerton’s book he makes it sound like the entire county or state was just completely enwrapped and fascinated with the idea of Indian mounds, and buried treasure, and speculation as to the origin of the Native Americans, and that there was this gripping era of fascination with all things Indian.”
JD, “Do you get that sense too?”
Bushman, “No I didn’t. It’s a trick of the historians. You collect, you scrape and scrape and hunt and find every little account of Indians, every book ever written about Indians. You go back in time and find books about Indians. You pile these all together in 10 or 15 pages, and you get the impression that the world thought about nothing else but Indians and their origins. But you know that isn’t true. You could do that for 50 subjects by collecting that stuff. I think you’ve got to find things that are closer to home to Joseph Smith, and you search through the newspapers around him, and something comes up once in a while, but it’s a little tiny item buried in the back of the paper somewhere, and you don’t find anything in Lucy’s account or anybody who was close to Joseph Smith that they were up to their neck Indian lore, so I personally think that there’s a kind of a fallacy, a magnification in just where historians do their job. Until you can get something that’s really closer to Joseph Smith, to his family or his immediate friends, I think you have to reserve judgment on how much they were interested in Indians.”
JD, “Ok. So that may be overstated the way they paint that fascination. It seems like the treasure digging we talked about last time was happening kind of in parallel to the Moroni vision and Joseph visiting the plates. Real quickly, you know there’s been people who have written about that when they did their excursions, they actually go to hills and see caverns underground with an angel guarding a sword and buried treasure. Is that happening in parallel to this then?”
Bushman, “Yes, if you look through the folklore of that period, there’s a lot of treasure seeking folklore, and frequently there was a guardian angel. I think that’s probably found in lots of lore in all countries in many times. So yeah, that’s in the era. I think it’s definitely there for people that did that sort of thing. That would be kind of a common expectation.”
JD, “Are there accounts that describe Joseph on an excursion with people where there was an angel guarding something and stuff in the room that they couldn’t get to or whatever? Is there, are there specific accounts where they talk about what happened on an excursion?”
Bushman, “There are accounts of describing what happens. I’m thinking primarily at the moment of the Hurlbut affidavits, going out and killing what was it, a sheep, drawing a circle in blood, and that kind of thing, but are you talking about— are you referring specifically to the Smith family or people in the neighborhood and what they saw?”
JD, “Yes, yes. Was Joseph, I mean it’s weird to hear about a sheep being sacrificed and somebody not saying the right word and so they weren’t able to get to the treasure, and there being a guardian and you think about, well was Moroni being the guardian? It’s hard not to blur these things together, so I’m just wondering to what extent these things are happening simultaneously and how one might sift through the real vision from the folk magic stuff or if they’re not really overlapping?”
Bushman, “Yeah. Well, I think that’s a hard thing to do, and it is an inquiry worth making because I think there may be something to Dan Vogel’s point that Joseph Sr. who probably by this time was involved in treasure seeking would have put more credibility into Joseph’s stories simply because there were parallels that this is what he’d been led to expect. That’s conjecture, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched conjecture entirely. But I’m not aware of stories involving Joseph and his father where there was an angel with a sword. There are stories of retreating chests and various thing that are similar to it, the elusive treasure, but not— someone can probably correct me on this, up to this more than I, but I cannot off hand think of anything myself.”
What always impresses me about this is the stories we do have involving the Smith family, Joseph is kind of on the edge of it. He’s in the house supposedly looking in his stone, and Joseph Sr. is sending in for information from him. So I think it’s undetermined just exactly how much Joseph Jr. himself was involved in these expeditions.”
JD, “Hmmm, ok. So tell us about the visit to the plates prior to him actually getting them. How many times did he go? When did he go? Did he ever bring anybody? What happened when he would actually go? Do we know what actually happened when he would go and try to obtain the plates?”
Bushman, “Well, we don’t know what happened because the three best accounts which are Joseph himself, his mother, and Oliver Cowdery all differ in significant detail. Oliver Cowdery for example has this huge long, many page speech from Moroni warning Joseph Smith about money digging, thinking the plates were his personal gain. Joseph sums that up in a sentence or two, so we have no idea where Oliver Cowdery could have got this information or whether he’s exercising what was thought to be the right of a historian to put speeches in the mouths of historical characters or what was going on, but basically there’s the trip to the hill, the opening of the box, trying to get the plates out, and being frustrated in some fashion, and that’s where there’s debate. Did he get them out and then he’s whacked and then they were no longer there or exactly what happens. I don’t know if we’re ever going to straighten that out, but the point is he was frustrated in the early first attempt, and told he must come back again. The warning was to stay away from the money diggers that there was something polluting about the money digging operation, so he sort of had to extricate himself from that culture.”
JD, “Was he told he would go four times or was he told to go once a year until he was worthy enough to receive them and each time it was like a test? Oh you’re not worthy yet so come back next year.”
Bushman, “I think it was the latter. He’s always feeling like he may be failing the test and Lucy obviously is anxious; do something else, or do something exactly right. Here you do get a little flavor of the money digging, because it’s as if the guardian is giving these instructions which must be met in exactitude, then you’ll get the plates, and that goes along with sort of the magic formula notion, and then there are all these stories; well you’ve got to bring Alvin, no you’ve got to bring Emma, no you’ve got to bring someone else, which are told, a lot of them by his critical neighbors, and actually money digging neighbors, so you don’t know exactly what to make of them, but I could picture the family itself sort of being involved in that money digging mentality, sort of carrying over their attitudes there into this gold plates thing. They don’t know what’s involved. It takes them quite a while to get straight in their mind what this is all about anyway.”
JD, “Is it safe to say that they were financially destitute, and that that was a strong motivator for the gold digging? They were hoping to get rich to ease their woes?”
Bushman, “Uh, destitute is a strenuous word. They’re not starving. They have a farm, they’ve got work, so they’re not flattened. But they are poor and worst of all, they face the pressure of these mortgages on their house and on their land, and that is the scariest thing of all, that you’ll lose your means of making a living. So yes, they are a move— but to equate money digging with poverty, you know that’s a little raw, but we do know that people all over the world, the poor, always have that dream of money. I mean they go gambling nowadays in Atlantic City, so you know roughly, there must have been some equivalent.
My guess is though that it was more entrancing. They don’t really think they’re going to make a pile of dough. I mean they’re always hopeful, but to say well we’re poor, we can’t pay the mortgage, let’s go out and dig up treasure, that’s a little bit crude I would say.”
JD, “Hmmm. It’s almost like what you do when you don’t have tv.” [John chuckles]
Bushman, “Yeah, a little bit of that. Entertaining. Exciting.”
JD, “So, the fourth visit— he never brought anyone on the visits, no one ever came with him on the visits? Is that right?”
Bushman, “To the hill?”
Bushman, “So far as I know, no one. Emma goes with him to the hill on that last night in 1827, but we don’t know whether she walked up to the site or sat in the carriage down below. I think Dan Vogel does say that she sat in the carriage. We may have a source for that, but so far as we know, he’s alone, yeah.”
JD, “One last thing. When he was unable to obtain the plates, did they do the— did he like try and get them and go into the earth, was there this whole disappearing or going away from him as he tried to touch them kind of thing going on? Do we know?”
Bushman, “Well, as I say there are lots of tales and it’s very hard to straighten them out. I think the bottom line is we don’t know for sure what happened.”
JD, “But there’s some that did claim that that was what happened maybe?”
Bushman, “Something like that, I mean this is what you’d expect. These are money digging people, people who were talking about it.”
JD, “Yeah, ok. In 1827 then is that when he does finally receive the plates?”
Comments? Does any of the treasure digging bother you?
I don’t think treasure digging is a very important part of Joseph’s story. It doesn’t concern me any more than had Joseph been a doctor practicing bloodletting homeopathy or using leeches.
Yes, the treasure digging has bothered me a lot. Think about it. He used a seer stone to “translate” a book, a stone that he used to make people think he could see buried treasure underground. He profited from that activity and participated in it for over 3 years (according to his own testimony in the 1826 trial) and I have a hard time believing he did not practice any deception. He was paid $14/wk by Josiah Stowell for his services which was more than an Erie canal worker was paid for the same duration. You have to look at the treasure digging accounts to understand what is going on there — he’s telling them that there are enchantments and spirit guardians, and treasure is never found because (he claims) the treasure slips away underground due to some spell. He had reason to make people believe he could still see treasure even though he never found any — he profited from the activity. That’s why I don’t buy the idea that he was entirely sincere in the activity. So this compromises my confidence that the process of the BoM translation had any grounding in any reality (metaphysical or otherwise).
This is a case in which I am really torn. Howard, I am glad you feel this issue “doesn’t concern” you. I haven’t done much research on shamanism, so I can’t speak to that, but the argument makes sense to me.
I can also identify with NearlyNOM. I can understand his point of view very well.
The other evidence I cite for deception in treasure-digging is Josiah Stowell’s account of the tail feather and the treasure in the 1826 trial. Joseph apparently correctly identified a feather in a specific location for Stowell to unearth, and treasure was to be found with it. Stowell found the feather but not the treasure. So do we really believe that Joseph saw treasure and tailfeather in his stone and that the latter was found, or is it more likely that Joseph planted the feather there to play into the superstition about sinking treasure?
I understand NearlyNOM’s point of view as well.
Shamanism is not easy to study, it doesn’t fit into a simple well organized outline. Shamans represent a very tiny fraction of the population which is widely dispersed across the globe going back to the beginning of recorded history. So when you look at the cultural differences and the era differences and realize that they are each being tutored using their own frame of reference and experiences as a teaching tool you see very wide variations in what shamanism appears to be. I have been studying shamanism since 2004 and Joseph’s story included all the loose ends and oddities fits right in.
[…] Joseph and Emma’s hurriedÂ elopement. Â This transcript follows the previousÂ discussionÂ of Moroni’s visit. JD, â€œAnd thatâ€™s when he and Emmaâ€”he and Emma had eloped and moved to New York, and it was […]
[…] Once again, I’ve continuedÂ Part 3 of the Mormon Stories interview betweenÂ John Dehlin and Richard Bushman. Â They discuss the actual translation process, as well as Martin Harris and Emma Smith’s role in translating the Book of Mormon. Â There are some interesting dynamics as Bushman discusses Joseph’s strained relationship with Emma’s parents due to Joseph and Emma’s hurriedÂ elopement. Â This transcript follows the previousÂ discussionÂ of Moroni’s visit. […]