Joseph Smith as Prophet and Treasure-seeker

One of the most controversial aspects of Joseph Smith’s early life—and one not especially well known among most Mormons—is his adventures as a treasure-seeker. Joseph’s father was likely a treasure-seeker before the family moved to New York from Vermont, where divining rods were the common medium in the search. Sometime in the early 1820s, Joseph was introduced to seer-stones, a common scrying device in western New York, and he quickly developed a reputation as a talented seer and was known to peer into his stone to direct fellow treasure-seekers in their hunts. When Joseph was gaining notoriety as the Book of Mormon was being prepared for publication, local antagonists in Palmyra were quick to ridicule his treasure-seeking activity. A local newspaper editor, Abner Cole, referred to treasure-seers as clear “impostures” in an article on Mormonism and wrote a piece of satire that mocked the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s treasure-seeking. The first major anti-Mormon book, Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed [sic] (1834), produced numerous affidavits—known as the Hurlbut affidavits—from neighbors in Palmyra who attested to and ridiculed the Smith family’s search for treasure. Joseph later acknowledged the popular criticism of himself as a “money-digger”—and carefully refrained from denying it.

In the earliest years of Joseph’s prophethood, from Abner Cole to Eber D. Howe, critics of the Mormon prophet have pointed to his being a treasure-seer as direct evidence that Joseph was a fraud. For modern readers, it can be difficult to imagine how anyone could honestly look into a stone and claim to see buried gold and silver. In the twentieth century, ex-Mormon Fawn Brodie repeated that credulousness in her landmark biography No Man Knows My History—which considerably shaped the understanding of Joseph Smith for several decades—where she stated conclusively that Joseph Smith was a clear impostor as a treasure-seer and that his prophetic identity evolved as the natural next step.

For most the nineteenth and twentieth century, Latter-day Saint historians have been reluctant to admit that the Smith family was ever deeply involved in treasure-seeking. That seemed to change in the decades surrounding the production and publication of the Hoffman forgeries in the early 1980s which caused many LDS historians to seriously rethink the story of Joseph’s teenage years. Originally considered legitimate, two of the forgeries were letters—one from Joseph Smith and another from Martin Harris—which implicated the young prophet as a treasure-seer in Palmyra.

Although the letters were later exposed as forgeries, the damage had been done. Latter-day Saint historians, it seemed, were more willing to admit that Joseph Smith utilized his seer-stone in the search for buried treasure. The consensus shifted, but scholars still argued over the implications. Were Abner Cole, Eber Howe, and Fawn Brodie right that Joseph deceived people using the stone? Or is it possible that Joseph and other early nineteenth-century treasure-seers were sincere in their belief that they could find treasure through occult means?

Brodie in her biography accused Joseph of being a fraud based at least partly on the statements of neighbors in the Hurlbutt affidavits, most of which portrayed his treasure-seeking in a negative light. However several of the men who signed these affidavits were treasure-seekers themselves—one, Willard Chase, was a respected Methodist class leader. Richard L. Anderson has demonstrated that the affidavits show much influence from their collector, Mormon apostate Philastus Hurlbut. Brodie (and other scholars and critics of Joseph Smith over the last two centuries) has given these clearly prejudiced—and possibly doctored—affidavits too much credence when using them to show that Joseph Smith was a fraud as a seer.

Although of course there were exceptions, many treasure-seekers—including the seers—were honest people who sincerely believed they could find buried Indian or Spanish treasure in the earth. Treasure-seeking was enormously popular in the Northeast during the Second Great Awakening, and many treasure-seekers were deeply religious. As mentioned, Palmyra’s Willard Chase led Methodist class meetings. The New Israelite community led by Nathaniel Wood in Vermont made treasure-seeking through divining rods a key part of their worship and believed the ability was a spiritual gift. In 1826, Joseph Smith was brought to court as “a disorderly person” and “impostor” by one of the relatives of Josiah Stowell, who had hired him to aid in a search for a Spanish silver mine. At the trial, Joseph Smith, Sr. testified and was reported to have said that he and his son “were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre.” Many people in the region saw this ability as a gift from God. Treasure-seeking did not—in their minds—conflict with orthodox religion. An honest, hard-working, pious Christian could go on a treasure-hunt—led by either a seer using a stone or a divining rod—without ever considering that the the activity might somehow be antithetical to his religion.

As a spiritual gift, treasure-seeking was actually intricately connected with religion. Non-Mormon historian Alan Taylor writes of early America as “a context where treasure-seekers were neither fools nor deceivers, where treasure-seeking was part of an attempt to recapture the simplicity and magical power associated with apostolic Christianity.” Despite the materialistic nature of treasure-seeking, it was also a spiritual search. The Second Great Awakening that spurred the same revivals that enticed young Joseph Smith to search for the correct church also enticed him to embrace the supernatural in his ability as a treasure-seer.

Is it possible for Latter-day Saints to retain their view of the Prophet of the Restoration as God’s anointed servant and simultaneously understand his treasure-seeking activities as a young man? Can we see him the same when we realize that during the years after he had his First Vision and in the middle of his yearly interviews with Moroni, he was peering into a seer-stone at night to direct a band of men in the search for buried gold? Of course we can. Perhaps part of the struggle comes from our thinking that he immediately understood his prophetic future in 1820, when in reality he was still trying to grasp it as late as 1829. Joseph later understood that his future was not in searching for earthly treasures; according to Martin Harris, the angel Moroni commanded Joseph to “quit the company of the money-diggers.” But what Latter-day Saints should realize and be thankful for is that, in many ways, treasure-seeking helped prepare the minds of the Smiths for the visions of young Joseph and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. LDS Historian Richard L. Bushman has actually called this aspect of their lives “a preparatory gospel.”

Latter-day Saints should remember that Joseph of Palmyra was not Jesus of Nazareth. He was not immune to social, cultural, or religious pressures which inevitably shaped his person, nor should we arrogantly expect him to be. Because we are so far separated from the culture in which he grew up, we should refrain from passing presentist judgments. Joseph Smith was a prophet—and both he and God worked with what they had in western New York in bringing about the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This was originally posted on MormonMatters on October 10.