Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith and Treasure Digging
(The Smith family parchments, ceremonial dagger and Joseph's Jupiter talisman)
Prophet Ezra Taft Benson famously said that “the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion. This was the Prophet Joseph Smith’s statement. He testified that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion” (Introduction to the Book of Mormon). A keystone is the central stone in an arch. It holds all the other stones in place, and if removed, the arch crumbles.” (October 1986 General Conference)
This statement is absolutely true. If the Book of Mormon is a true historical record, then it is not only the keystone of Mormonism, but the more important book to ever be written. On the other hand, if the Book of Mormon is not a true, historical record as it proclaims to be, then the entire church falls along with the credibility of the founding prophet of the church, Joseph Smith.
We are going to focus on a series of overviews about the Book of Mormon, but it is crucial to start at the beginning to understand the full context of how the Book of Mormon plates came to be, how the plates were translated, and what the Book of Mormon itself tells us about its claim as a literal, historical record.
In this first overview we are going to outline Joseph Smith’s time as a money digger/treasure seeker. This is incredibly important to understanding the Book of Mormon, and it begins with Joseph Smith’s time as a ‘treasure or money digger’ in the years leading up to the recovery of the gold plates and translation of the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith and the Magical World View
Joseph Smith lived in a time where some people believed and participated in what is sometimes called a magical worldview or 'folk magic.' Visions were common, revivals were sweeping the area in the mid 1820s, and some people even believed they could see buried treasure by divine means. This was especially common in the New England area, where Joseph Smith and the foundational families of Mormonism lived.
As Eric A. Eliason explains:
“In frontier America, seer stones or “peep stones” were commonly used by lost object finders, people engaged in the widespread practice of lost treasure digging, and sometimes by people seeking to uncover the kind of truths we might call a private or police detective for today. It is unclear how much of this kind of activity Joseph Smith was involved in, except for water divining and treasure digging, which are widely attested.” (BYU Studies Quarterly, Vol.55, No.1, 2016)
Treasure seekers would claim to see lost objects or buried treasure by using various means, including putting a ‘peep stone’ in a hat, blocking out all light around their faces, and using magic rituals to keep the treasure from ‘slipping’ deeper into the earth. Other treasure seekers, such as Joseph Smith’s key scribe in the Book of Mormon translation Oliver Cowdery, used objects such as “divining rods” to locate objects below the ground such as water, buried metals, or gems in what was sometimes described as “water witching” or “dowsing.”
These kinds of magical objects and ideas are embedded in literature whether it's the magic mirror in Snow White or the palantír in the Lord of the Rings . In fact, this description of the palantír is pretty striking to what we will see with Joseph Smith and his worldview: "A major theme of palantír usage is that while the stones show real objects or events, those using the stones had to "possess great strength of will and of mind" to direct the stone's gaze to its full capability." (Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion, p. 302)
Ronald W. Walker, the Director of Center for Western Studies at BYU and president of the Mormon History Association, explains treasure digging in more detail:
“From Colonial times to at least the age of Jackson [1776-1837] Americans dug for magical treasure. There were hundreds and probably thousands of these money-diggers all seeking troves of fabled coins, mines, jewels and other valued prizes... The money-diggers placed faith in conjuring elemental spirits, thrice spoken dreams, seeric gifts, and enchanted treasure.
“A second treasure-finding device used by adepts was the “peep” or “seer” stone, whose acclaimed gifts excelled even those of the divining rod. Such stones seemed to be everywhere and were of every possible description. Such stones seemed to be everywhere and were of every possible description. A Rochester, New York practitioner found his stone lying in a road. The "dazzling splendor" of this three or four inch piece of quartz caused him to fall down insensible. Joseph Smith’s various stones reportedly included a smooth grey egg-shaped rock found in a neighbor’s well, a second which he reportedly dug up near Lake Erie after espying it in his neighbor’s stone and still others collected from the Mississippi River sands near Nauvoo, Illinois.”
“While finding the right moment to dig was important, the need to circumvent the treasure’s guardian was crucial. Like its Old World antecedents, the American treasure keeper might be demonic or divine. Or it could be a cat, dog, snake or some other protecting animal. But generally, the American treasure guardian was a murdered youth or man whose body had been left with the buried valuables to ensure their protection. Guardian Indians were a frequent motif while a murdered pirate protected Captain Kidd’s troves.” (Ronald W. Walker – The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting)
What is important to note here is that treasure diggers would sell their service to others, and would be paid to dig into large hills to find the treasure that the “seer” could watch from his peep/seer stone in a hat. We’re not talking about small holes in a hill here, but caves that are carved out on the sides of hills. Here are photos from the hole in Miner’s Hill that was dug during one of Joseph Smith’s treasure digs:
Furthermore, and this is really important, treasure diggers never actually found the treasure they claimed to see. If they could find treasure, they would not need to find someone else to pay them to dig – they would just dig it out themselves. This is like a psychic on television telling you they can predict the winner of a football game or the best stocks to pick – if they could actually do any of it, they’d just become rich on their own, but throughout history people have found ways to defraud others of their money using claims of divine abilities.
Magic Rituals and Animal Sacrifice in Treasure Digging
During these digs, the treasure digger would often conduct rituals to appease the spirit guardians, and when the dig would ultimately fail, they would then say something was done wrong with the ritual which caused the slippery treasure to sink deeper into the ground. It is similar to how in church if the sacramental prayer is not read perfectly it must be started over or how a person must be completely submerged in water for a baptism. This concept comes out of treasure digging, where the belief is that if not done perfectly, the divine power of the ritual is lost.
Many times animal sacrifice was made to appease these guardian spirits in these digs, and with Joseph Smith these rituals apparently at some point included sacrificing dogs, which is really upsetting for me as someone who has always loved dogs, but must be noted here to illustrate just how treasure diggers operated using magic and superstition that would be for nothing every single time. (Emphasis below added)
Hiel Lewis, a cousin of Joseph Smith’s first wife Emma Smith, spoke in 1879 of Joseph Smith sacrificing dogs during treasure digs:
"The facts are that the sacrifice of white dogs, black sluts, black cats, and such like was an indispensable part or appendage of the art which Smith, the embryo prophet, was then practicing. He claimed to possess the supernatural power of second sight, or to see things at a distance, and deep under ground, and his frequent references to "the enchantment," proves that he was a conjurer, a sorcerer, which Webster defines an "an enchanter," and sorcery as witchcraft, or intercourse with the devil....So we have no reason to doubt the truth of the statement about the white dog, and the black slut, and that something of the kind took place each time the enchantment removed the treasure. It is hard to believe that men of common intelligence could believe that Smith could thus see, and believe in his conjuration; be so foolish as to spend thousands of dollars in such a way; but Smith translated his book of Mormon, mostly with this same peep stone and hat....and it is just as hard to believe in this inspired translation as to believe in the fact and efficacy of his dog sacrifices....Smith translated the book of Mormon by means of the same peep stone, and under the same inspiration that directed his enchantments and dog sacrifices; it was all by the same spirit." (Early Mormon Documents, Dan Vogel, 4:308-309)
.Emily M. Austin, a convert to Mormonism in 1830, recalled Joseph Smith sacrificing a dog during a treasure dig on Joseph Knight’s farm:
“For in the time of their digging for money and not finding it attainable, Joe Smith told them there was a charm on the pots of money, and if some animal was killed and the blood sprinkled around the place, then they could get it. So they killed a dog and tried this method of obtaining the precious metal; but again money was scarce in those diggings. Still, they dug and dug, but never came to the precious treasure. Alas! how vivid was the expectation when the blood of poor Tray was used to take off the charm, and after all to find their mistake, that it did not speak better things than that of Abel. And now they were obliged to give up in despair, and Joseph went home again to his father’s, in Palmyra.” (Life Among the Mormons, Emily M Austin, 1882).
Justice Joel King Noble, who tried Smith in an 1830 trial in Colesville, N.Y., wrote the following in 1842:
“An [anecdote]: Jo. (Joseph Smith) and others were digging for a chest of money in night could not obtain it. They procured one thing and another together with [a] black bitch (dog). The bitch was offered a Sac[rifise], [blo]od Sprinkled, prayer made at the time (no money obtained). The above sworn to on trial." (Letter of Justice Noble, dated March 8, 1842)."
These recollections are all given after the events so of course they aren’t as reliable as contemporary sources, but the fact that three separate accounts, who do not appear to have any connection to each other, all speak of a dog being sacrificed gives a lot of weight to Joseph Smith performing the kinds of sacrifices made to appease the treasure guardians during these digs. These kinds of rituals were not uncommon for treasure diggers, so it should not be surprising that Joseph Smith employed the use of sacrificing animals (including dogs) and sprinkling their blood on the ground to appease these ‘guardian spirits.’
All of these elements are crucial to understanding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, because they play a role in not just the account of obtaining the plates, but the translation of them as well. For centuries the church has downplayed the reality of Joseph Smith’s involvement in magic and occult practices, but has begun to accept them as the internet has made this information easily accessible by those who want to know the history of Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
D. Michael Quinn, who was excommunicated as part of the “September Six” for writing about Joseph Smith’s magical world view, wrote the following in his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View:
“The official version of early Mormon history is often incomplete in its presentation of material facts and evaluation of evidence; therefore it is inaccurate in many respects. The Smith family’s folk beliefs, treasure digging ventures and their effect on Mormon revelation are perhaps the most troubling topics for Mormon apologists and polemics, who often deny legitimate sources while selectively embracing items which conveniently fit the official Mormon narrative meticulously polished over a span of two centuries.”
I don't want this overview to get too long, but it is so important to understanding how the Book of Mormon came to be and so I want to make clear how involved Joseph Smith was in treasure digging so you can understand in the next few overviews how embedded this practice was in the Book of Mormon plates and translation.
There’s no better quote to sum up the process of treasure digging than Benjamin Franklin, who explained the defrauding of innocent people through money digging with this quote almost 100 years prior to Joseph Smith’s time as a money digger:
“There are among us great numbers of honest artificers and labouring people, who fed with a vain hope of growing suddenly rich, neglect their business, almost to the ruining of themselves and families, and voluntarily endure abundance of fatigue in a fruitless search after imaginary hidden treasure… At length a mighty hole is dug, and perhaps several cartloads of earth thrown out, but alas, no cag or iron pot is found! no seaman’s chest cram’d with Spanish pistoles, or weighty pieces of eight! Then they conclude, that thro’ some mistake in the procedure, some rash word spoke, or some rule of art neglected, the guardian spirit had power to sink it deeper into the earth and convey it out of their reach.” (Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin 1: 134–39)
Even as the church works today to normalize treasure digging in their recent “Now You Know” video on seer stones and in their gospel topics essay on the Book of Mormon translation, people at the time knew exactly how treasure diggers were using claims of divine power to defraud innocent people. This was not an “accepted” practice in Joseph Smith’s time because most people knew better, but unfortunately there have been and willl always people who can be deceived by charismatic leaders who make grand promises of a divine nature.
Joseph Smith's Timeline as a Treasure Digger:
Dan Vogel, one of the most prominent scholars of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, believes that Joseph Smith acquired his first peep/seer stone “probably in 1822 when he was sixteen years old.” (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1: 457.) Eventually Joseph Smith would obtain three peep/seer stones, and this would lead him to become “an aggressive, ambitious leader among Manchester’s treasure seekers.” (Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, 35)
Even church historian Steven E. Snow notes that “By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.” (Steven E. Snow, “Joseph Smith in Harmony,” Ensign Magazine, September 2015)
There are many sources that make clear Joseph Smith used these peep/seer stones in the exact same method that he would later claim to locate the Book of Mormon plates and translate the text of the Book of Mormon with, and here are a few accounts to give some examples:
Martin Harris, 1859: “There was a company there in that neighborhood, who were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients… They dug for money in Palmyra, Manchester, also in Pennsylvania, and other places. When Joseph found this stone, there was a company digging in Harmony, PA., and they took Joseph to look in the stone for them, and he did so for a while, and then he told them the enchantment was so strong that he could not see, and they gave it up.” (Joel Tiffany, “Interview with Martin Harris,” Tiffany’s Monthly, August 1859)
Joseph Capron, 1833 (Joseph Smith would conduct a dig on Joseph Capron’s farm in 1827): “I, Joseph Capron, became acquainted with Joseph Smith Sen. in the year of our Lord, 1827... The family of Smiths held Joseph Jr. in high estimation on account of some supernatural power, which he was supposed to possess. This power he pretended to have received through the medium of a stone of peculiar quality. The stone was placed in a hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light, except that which emanated from the stone itself. This light of the stone, he pretended, enabled him to see any thing he wished.... I will mention one circumstance, by which the uninitiated may know how the company dug for treasures. The sapient Joseph discovered, north west of my house, a chest of gold watches; but, as they were in the possession of the evil spirit, it required skill and stratagem to obtain them. Accordingly, orders were given to stick a parcel of large stakes in the ground, several rods around, in a circular form. This was to be done directly over the spot where the treasures were deposited. A messenger was then sent to Palmyra to procure a polished sword: after which, Samuel F. Lawrence, with a drawn sword in his hand, marched around to guard any assault which his Satanic majesty might be disposed to make. Meantime, the rest of the company were busily employed in digging for the watches. They worked as usual till quite exhausted. But, in spite of their brave defender, Lawrence, and their bulwark of stakes, the devil came off victorious, and carried away the watches.” (Mormonism Unveiled, E.D. Howe, pgs 258-260)
William Stafford, 1833 (Joseph Smith conducted digs on Joshua Stafford’s farm between 1822-1835): “I first became acquainted with Joseph, Sen., and his family in the year 1820. They lived, at that time, in Palmyra, about one mile and a half from my residence. A great part of their time was devoted to digging for money; especially in the night time, when they said the money could be most easily obtained. I have heard them tell marvellous tales, respecting the discoveries they had made in their peculiar occupation of money digging. They would say, for instance, that in such a place, in such a hill, on a certain man's farm, there were deposited keys, barrels and hogsheads of coined silver and gold - bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled with gold and silver - gold candlesticks, swords, &c. &.c They would say, also, that nearly all the hills in this part of New York, were thrown up by human hands, and in them were large caves, which Joseph, Jr., could see, by placing a stone of singular appearance in his hat, in such a manner as to exclude all light; at which time they pretended he could see all things within and under the earth, - that he could see within the above mentioned caves, large gold bars and silver plates - that he could also discover the spirits in whose charge these treasures were, clothed in ancient dress.” (Mormonism Unveiled, E.D. Howe, pgs 237-239)
The point of these accounts is to illustrate that Joseph Smith’s treasure digging was known contemporaneously to be done by Joseph taking his peep/seer stone, putting it inside of a hat, and putting his head in the hat to block out all light. Even as Joseph Smith charged people to do this, he never once unearthed the promised buried treasure, and would claim it slipped away as the guardian spirit took it deeper in the ground. This is important, because as we will see in the translation overview, this is exactly how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
The 1826 Trial
Joseph Smith conducted at least 18 treasure digs between 1822-1827, and in 1826 was put on trial for his treasure digs funded by Josiah Stowell. This case was brought by Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgeman, after watching Joseph Smith’s methods in being the “seer” of the money digging party. Bridgeman had the following to say about why he brought the complaint against Joseph Smith:
“Mr. Stowell is represented as being not a very bright man, but he had saved considerable money for those times, and Joe Smith managed to get and spend most of it.” (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4: 153)
This trial record is important for many reasons, but illustrates that not only was Joseph Smith charging these men to look for treasures that he would never find, but that he was able to get these people to believe he had a divine power, just as we would see with the Book of Mormon and the creation of the church as a whole.
What is especially helpful is that the trial included witnesses that truly believed Joseph Smith’s claims, and gives some insight into how Joseph Smith conducted his treasure digs. One witness at the trial, Jonathan Thompson, testified on Joseph Smith’s behalf. “He reported digging with the seer (Joseph Smith) in pursuit of a “chest of money.” Thompson “struck his spade upon . . . probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment, the trunk kept settling away from under them while digging.”” (Docket Entry, 1826) In other words, Thompson believed that Joseph Smith not only could see the treasure chest of money, but that they had struck it during the dig before it slipped out of their reach.
Josiah Stowell, who was paying for the dig, “similarly described a dig in which the “money moved down” beyond their reach. Joseph testified on his own behalf, insisting in his defense that he used a seer stone to help others look for “hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth,” despite never once having found any.”” (Mormon Stories)
For many years church apologists downplayed the credibility of this trial, with noted LDS scholar and apologist Hugh Nibley declaring in his book The Myth Makers that "if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith” and that it would be “the most devastating blow to Smith ever delivered.”
This was written before the court records were unearthed, which showed that Joseph Smith was indeed brought to trial in 1826 in a case where Joseph Smith was called “The Glass Looker.” (Photo above)
Apologists have since claimed that Nibley’s statement wasn’t about the trial itself as Nibley seems to make clear in his quite, but that a guilty verdict would be the “most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.” This, however, is still a problem for Hugh Nibley as a docket entry in 1826 outlines the case against Joseph Smith and ends with the following statement: “And therefore the court find the defendant guilty.” You can read this on the Joseph Smith Papers, and can see that not only did the trial happen, but that a guilty verdict handed down.
We also can see that Constable Philip M De Zeng’s bill/invoice for the trial includes “10 [could also be read as 16] miles travel with Mittimus to take him.” (Joseph Smith Papers) Dan Vogel has pointed out that there is a lot of confusion about De Zeng charging for this travel with Joseph Smith, but that those “ten miles, I believe, is where they escorted him out of the county into Joseph Knight Sr.’s farm, which is ten miles south of there.” (Mormon Stories Interview with Dan Vogel)
After this trial it appears that Joseph Smith stopped the treasure digs almost entirely, with just a few possible digs occurring afterwards. This makes sense given that Joseph Smith now understood the trouble this illegal practice could get him in, and his own father told him at the 1826 trial that “both 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… he said his constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the Son of Righteousness would someday illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him.” (Joseph Smith Papers)
The very next year Joseph Smith would reengage the gold plates story that he had not revisited since 1824 and claim to retrieve the plates on the autumnal equinox, which is an important date in magic and treasure digging, which our next overview will cover in much more detail.
Apologetic Responses to Joseph Smith and Treasure Digging:
Since the church excommunicated Quinn for his work, they have cited him extensively in their ‘Gospel Topics Essays’ and other works as it became impossible to suppress and deny Joseph Smith’s history as a treasure digger. They have more recently added a smaller section on their website called “Treasure Seeking” that we wanted to highlight here as it is the common apologetic response to these problems.
From the church’s website:
“Joseph Smith’s critics often tried to disparage him by calling him a money digger or a treasure seeker. Rather than deny the charge, Joseph acknowledged in his official history that Josiah Stowell had hired him in 1825 to assist in a treasure-seeking venture in northern Pennsylvania. Stowell wanted his help because Joseph was reputed by some of his neighbors to be a “seer”—someone who could look into a special stone and find lost or hidden objects.”
This is pretty simple: Joseph Smith never found treasure, and yet he took money from gullible people who were hoping to strike it rich. The reason that Joseph Smith’s critics often label him as a money digger or treasure seeker is because he was one, and he used that reputation to defraud people of their money. I want to repeat this again: Joseph Smith never found any money, any treasure, or anything that he claimed to see using the very same stone he would later translate the Book of Mormon with.
Back to the church’s article:
““Seeing” and “seers” were part of the culture in which Joseph Smith grew up. Some people in the early 19th century believed it was possible for gifted individuals to see lost objects by means of material objects such as stones. Joseph Smith and his family, like many around them, accepted these familiar folk practices.”
Again, this is like saying that Mrs. Cleo is an authentic psychic who was justified to charge people because it was a fad for people to claim psychic abilities during her time. Folk magic was a part of Joseph Smith’s culture, but they never found any of the treasure they claimed to see using this magic, and Joseph Smith and his family profited from those who believed that Joseph possessed these divine abilities. I’m not sure why the church feels like this is a positive when they’re also admitting that Joseph Smith was using the same method to search for treasure as he did to both locate the gold plates and translate the Book of Mormon, using the very same rock in a hat.
Back to the article:
“In the 1820s, a fascination with purported Spanish treasure deposits led prospectors like Josiah Stowell to enlist the aid of seers like Joseph in their search for treasure. Stowell trusted Joseph, sought his assistance in seeking treasure, and even took his advice to finally give up the hunt. Joseph Smith Sr. considered his son’s ability sacred and hoped he would cease using it to look for earthly treasures. As Joseph prepared to translate the Book of Mormon, he was commanded to have nothing further to do with those who sought treasure and instead use his gift to translate and seek revelation.”
The first part is effectively restating the previous paragraph, which is to try to both normalize treasure digging and make Joseph Smith’s use of it above reproach. This is intentionally missing the point, which is that Joseph Smith took money from these people and could never find lost items, and that Joseph Smith would use this very process to both claim the plates for the Book of Mormon and dictate the text of it.
This article is specifically citing Josiah Stowell here because we have the documentation from the trial, but they are also opening up other problems from the source they are using, which is an 1877 article that details the reminiscences of the trial, and the full quote from Joseph Smith Sr. is the following:
“He swore that both 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, or its equivalent in earthly treasures, and with a long-faced, “sanctimonious seeming,” he said his constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the Son of Righteousness would someday illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him.” (Joseph Smith Papers)
I’m not sure this article is one that the church wants to use in totality, because it makes clear that Joseph Smith Sr. was trying to tell his son at this trial to stop using the peep/seer stone to defraud others for money, but to find a religious purpose for it. Just one year later, Joseph Smith would do just that, which is problematic once you understand that Joseph Smith could never find anything with the peep/seer stone in the first place.
Furthermore, that Joseph Smith finally gave up the hunt for treasure ignores that he took good money from Josiah Stowell under the pretense that he could see buried treasure that just happened to slip away as they got closer to the location he saw from the stone in a hat. This also ignores that there were outside pressures that were forcing Joseph to stop digging including Stowell’s nephew becoming angry with Joseph Smith defrauding his uncle.
I suppose it’s good that he finally decided to stop taking Stowell’s money regardless of the reason, but would you give that same apologetic space to anyone else who defrauded people of their money but only to a point?
The last part is interesting in the sense that Joseph Smith claims he was told to do nothing further with those who sought treasure, but again neglects to tell the readers that Joseph Smith used these same practices to both claim the plates as well as translate the Book of Mormon. The only difference is that Joseph Smith used the same magical superstitions to claim the golden plates, but no digging company was with him to see the plates. In other words, Joseph Smith conducted his first successful treasure dig, but did it alone so that it could not be verified, and claimed that this time he actually retrieved what he saw in the hat.
Finally, there’s a key reason that Joseph Smith set aside treasure digging, and that was because it was illegal and he was already arrested multiple times, putting him at a much higher risk if he continued the practice. Furthermore, this article is also ignoring that the church cites a source earlier that reports that Joseph’s own father told him at the trial to stop treasure digging and use his “powers” for a religious purpose. By switching to a religion, he was able to use the same tactics of treasure digging, but instead of promising a physical reward that he could never actually locate, he switched to a spiritual reward he would never have to deliver.
And now the last part of the church’s page on treasure seeking:
“Though it was not uncommon in Joseph Smith’s time and place to encounter people who claimed to use stones to search for lost or hidden objects, using a seer stone to translate an ancient record was unheard of. God gave Joseph Smith power to translate the Book of Mormon, redirecting Joseph’s use of the seer stone toward work of a spiritual nature.”
The first part is true: There has never been a stone that was used to translate ancient records, which is why the Book of Mormon story included the creation of Nephite interpreters, that were claimed to be preserved by God to translate the plates. Yet as we will see when we look at the Book of Mormon translation, Joseph Smith drops the idea of the Nephite interpreters (or spectacles) to instead fall back to his treasure digging method of putting his peep/seer stone in a hat, which was later retrofitted and redefined as the “Urim and Thummim” or “seer stone.”
As we’ve covered in our write-up about the church’s video about seer stones, the Urim and Thummim are specific in the Bible in that they were not used to translate text or receive revelations, but for a simple “yes/no” answer to questions. The conflation of these terms was not made until 1832, years after the Book of Mormon was finished, in order to provide a provide a more biblical context for Joseph Smith’s treasure digging techniques.
Another apologetic that is common to Joseph Smith’s treasure digging is that he did not make that much money out of it. In a question and answer session in 1838, Joseph Smith was asked about his money digging as it was a story that followed him as he gained followers and fame:
“Was not Joseph Smith a money digger? Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Joseph Smith, Elders' Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Kirtland, Ohio] 2 no. 3 (July 1838), 43)
Many apologists point to this statement to show that Joseph Smith didn’t make much from money digging, so it’s really not a problem. But when you look at the statistics, that idea falls apart quickly.
In 1827, farm laborers were paid just nine dollars a month in Vermont. (University of Vermont and State Agricultural College) So not only did Joseph Smith make over 50% more as a money digger, but he also avoided the hard labor of digging as he was the “seer” who would sit with the rock in a hat while directing the others on where to dig.
The specific amount of money that Joseph Smith made isn’t really a core part of the problem with Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, but I wanted to note the apologetic argument that it did not pay well because it absolutely paid Joseph Smith much better than being a farm laborer and with none of the physical toll of working on a farm all day.
Finally I wanted to note the apologetic argument that has been made by the church and apologists which is to say that the peep/seer stone was used to prepare Joseph Smith to later translate the Book of Mormon. This has been popularized by church historian Richard Bushman, who framed it this way:
“The money digging experience prepared him (Joseph Smith) for that (the visitation from Nephi/Moroni) because of the lore of the guardians of treasure; let us say that Joseph Sr. sees it as a guardian angel over a golden horde and interprets it that way, is that wrong? What I’m saying is that may have helped him to instantaneously react and say, ‘It’s good, follow it.’ Furthermore, what was to prepare Joseph better to look into a stone than to have looked into a stone to find lost objects and therefore prepared to look into a stone to find lost words?” (A Joseph Smith Miscellany)
One of the problems I’ve tried to note with apologetics is that they almost always come out of necessity rather than evidence. This argument would make sense if Joseph Smith was actually able to find lost the buried treasure he claimed to see, but Joseph Smith was never able to actually recover any of it.
This is just not an argument anyone would make unless you needed to make the church’s truth claims work. If God was truly preparing Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon by allowing him to see the buried treasure that so many others claimed to see in his milieu, why did God then let Joseph Smith fail at every dig? To make this argument work, you have to believe there is really actual, literal buried treasure that is protected by guardian spirits that becomes slippery and sinks into the ground. If you don’t believe in this (and there is absolutely no reason or evidence why anyone would), then you have to believe in a trickster God that makes Joseph Smith think he could see these treasures to prepare him, which also makes absolutely no sense and would indistinguishable from outright fraud.
It just does not work with the evidence, and it becomes silly when you take a step back and look at everything in totality. The real preparation that money digging accomplished for Joseph Smith was for him to discover that his power and charisma came from the peep/seer stone, and once he realized that people believed he had divine powers, he could transition from pitching the promise of physical objects to one of spiritual exaltation.
We have a lot of overview topics on the Book of Mormon to come, but understanding Joseph Smith’s role in money/treasure digging is important because it finds its way into every aspect of the Book of Mormon whether it’s obtaining the plates, translating the text, or the actual text itself. We will cover this more as we go, but just read this passage from Helaman knowing what you now know about Joseph Smith and treasure digging:
"And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them....Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land....Yea, in that day ye shall say: O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us." (Helaman 13)
There is no way around the fact that money/treasure digging with a part of Joseph Smith’s worldview, and it influenced every aspect of Mormonism from the moment Joseph Smith claimed to learn about the plates.
Just as we mentioned above, in order to believe the Book of Mormon is an ancient, historical record, you have to believe that there is buried treasure that can slip into the ground. Furthermore, you then have to believe that people in the ancient Americas were experiencing the same treasure digging as Joseph Smith in the 1820s with the same problem of treasure slipping away, because the only other option is that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon using the King James Bible, his personal experiences, and the questions that were important to people in the 1820s around Palmyra.
While there is so much more to Joseph Smith’s involvement in treasure digging and magical/occult practices, I hope this overview will help to illustrate the production of the Book of Mormon more thoroughly as we continue on through the different overview topics concerning the “keystone” of Mormonism.
In the next section we will detail Joseph Smith’s obtaining the plates and translation of the Book of Mormon.
Next section: The Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon