Treasure Digging: A Drama in Three Acts

Deaths and supernatural visions are said to come in threes; perhaps it is, therefore, fitting that I tell the story of my encounters with treasure digging in three vignettes.

***

When I was younger, my father served in the military, so our family lived in base housing. Our home had a sandbox that was remarkably important to me and my neighborhood friends. You see, we had concluded — using reasoning that now strikes me as somewhat opaque — that below the sandbox was a significant cache of “rich oil.” This belief was reinforced by an “old map” that one of the children drew, showing an X marking the spot of the sandbox. As we dug, we could almost feel the oil churning beneath our feet.

These ideas were, of course, fed by cultural images that we consumed on television. From Saturday morning cartoons, we acquired the idea of the Western American treasure map (“X marks the spot!”); television also supplied us with the 20th-century extensions of those ideas into the world of petroleum discovery. None of us imagined, however, that our activities and beliefs regarding the “rich oil” were the fruit of a long, and surprisingly rich, intellectual tradition that traces back from us, through the prospectors and explorers of the 19th-century American West, connecting through New England’s settler culture from the early 19th centuries back into the 17th century, and extending back to the high intellectual world of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe.

Our childish ideas about digging for wealth — our reliance on the fraudulent “old map” and our supernatural certainty in the reality of submerged but recoverable prosperity — were products of mid- to late-19th-century Western American folklore. As Gerald T. Hurley has documented, that folkloric culture was replete with tales of buried wealth, most often abandoned treasure whose location is shown in a rare but recently recovered map. A near-universal motif of these Western treasure tales is that the treasure is never recovered, due to natural obstacles such as earthquakes, shifting landmarks, or the opposition of wild beasts.[1] (Our treasure-digging escapades likewise faced insurmountable natural obstacles: surprisingly rocky soil below the sand in our sandbox, and my mother’s strict refusal to allow us to dig in ways that might undermine our house.)

Western American treasure-digging folklore appears to be an evolutionary development from New England treasure-digging folklore from the 17th, the 18th, and the first part of the 19th centuries. New England and Western tales about buried treasure shared important features: the treasure’s owner is typically from a long-lost moment in regional history, the treasure is not located through every-day events but rather through a shocking and unusual intrusion into mundane reality, and in the end the treasure is never recovered. New England treasure lore, however, differs from the later Western stories in that the New England variants were decidedly supernatural. Treasure was discovered through folk-magical practices such as dowsing, scrying, or visions from treasure guardians. Furthermore, treasures were lost for supernatural reasons. New England buried treasures were often guarded by devils, ghosts, enchantments, and other terrifying exotica. A word out of place, or a small failure of ritual etiquette, were sufficient to lose the treasure completely. The enchantment or guardian would then slip the treasure through the earth, leaving the digging party disappointed and — to put it bluntly — as poor as ever.[2]

New England treasure-digging folklore, in turn, derives several of its central preoccupations from European alchemy and hermetic philosophy. The conceptions of metals and their movements through the earth, as well as some of the supernatural conceptions underlying New England’s folk-magical rituals, are directly influenced by these seemingly remote and esoteric aspects of early modern European high culture.[3] In that time and place, alchemy was in part a coded transmission of heretical religious ideas and in part a quest for the personal spiritual and physical perfection of the alchemist. Alchemical theory (theology?) assigned a kind of vital essence to metals and all other matter; in principle, that vital essence could be physically extracted by careful manipulation, and its existence would be a kind of material proof of divinity. These ideas may seem strange, even somewhat incomprehensible, today. Yet in their time they held the allegiance of many of Europe’s greatest minds; a particularly notable example is Isaac Newton, an almost maniacally devoted alchemist.[4]

So, surprisingly enough, a thin and twisting line connected my early diggings for “rich oil” back to one of the grand philosophies of European history. I’m sure that, as a child, I would have greeted with complete indifference the news that my digging project drew its deepest cultural inspirations from ideas that fascinated Newton, Locke, and many other European philosophers and kings. Today, that linkage seems rather more interesting.

***

During the 1980s, many Latter-day Saints learned of the long-standing rumors that Joseph Smith, our founding prophet, was involved in some way in New England treasure-digging magic. These rumors acquired particular prominence due to the rash and destructive forgeries of Mark Hofmann — especially the infamous “Salamander Letter.” These forgeries elaborated on reports in other (non-forged!) Mormon historical documents that Joseph had used his powers as a seer to dig for buried treasure before he uncovered the Book of Mormon.

Like so many others, I heard these rumors during the 1980s, although I quickly dismissed them as meaningless. I was aware of Joseph Smith’s 1838 statement about his treasure-digging past:

Question 10. Was not Jo Smith a money digger. Answer. Yes, but it was never a very proffitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.[5]

I had also read Joseph’s somewhat more detailed description of his treasure digging in his 1839 history:

In the month of October Eighteen hundred and twenty five I hired with an old Gentleman, by name of Josiah Stoal who lived in Chenango County, State of New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanah County, State of Pennsylvania, and had previous to my hiring with him been digging in order if possible to discover the mine. After I went to live with him he took me among the rest of his hands to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money digger.[6]

This all seemed harmless enough to me. What could possibly be wrong with being hired as manual labor in a digging project? Spanish silver mines in Pennsylvania struck me as a bit unlikely, but it can hardly be Joseph Smith’s fault if his employer is fixated on a kind of silly business venture, right?

Other rumors I heard at the time — about treasure ghosts, visions of buried silver, and losing chests of money for breaking supernatural rules — I simply dismissed as garbled retellings, by half-interested neighbors, of the Angel Moroni/Book of Mormon story.

Some years later, history happened to me. My intellectual ire raised by a vicious and seemingly undeserved book review, I read D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Imagine my surprise! Evidently Joseph’s involvement in folk magic was much more profound and long-lasting than I had believed. For a period of three years or more, Joseph had acted as a treasure seer — using a collection of mystical seer stones that, when placed inside a hat which was then pressed to the face, enabled him to experience a kind of second sight. That second sight, and not manual labor, was apparently Joseph’s primary contribution to Stowell’s Spanish-mine operation; Joseph had visions of the mine’s shifting underground location, and relayed the information in those visions to the digging team.

My first response to this information was simple denial. Surely there is some mistake! Perhaps Joseph’s treasure-digging was an anti-Mormon fabrication, or perhaps Quinn was simply misinterpreting the historical data. But then I found out about Joseph’s appearance, on March 20, 1826, before a Bainbridge court on criminal charges related to treasure digging. Two independent 19th-century printings of the record of Joseph’s trial exist, although the original was evidently lost during the early 20th century. For years, the authenticity of the record was debated; however, more recent documentary discoveries have provided surprising confirmation of the court record. In 1971, Wesley P. Walters discovered the bill of costs for the judge who heard Joseph’s case. Cross-validation results from the fact that the bill of costs lists a charge for the Smith trial that corresponds with the charge in the court record. Further validation derives from an intricate set of interconnections between that judge’s bill of costs and those of other judges in the circuit.[7] As a result, it has become difficult to reject the authenticity of the document.

That court record confirms, across the board, the extent and supernatural interpretation of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging. During the trial, Joseph testified that:

…[Joseph] had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were, that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them — that at Palmyra [Joseph] had pretended to tell by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he has occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for 3 years…[8]

Clearly, my earlier belief that Joseph Smith had never been involved in folk-magical treasure digging was substantially incorrect. My alarm on this front grew even deeper when I discovered that Joseph had in fact used the same technique, and even the same stones, to produce the Book of Mormon translation that he had used in chasing down Spanish treasure![9]

A series of troubling questions arose, which I cannot yet adequately answer, although I will attempt to point toward options for faith. At least some New England treasure diggers were con artists; was Joseph Smith also a con artist before he was a prophet? The linkage between treasure digging and the Book of Mormon raises thorny issues: if the treasure digging tales are untrue, must we also believe that the Book of Mormon — produced in the same way, using the same tools — is untrue? In order to believe that the Book of Mormon is divine in origin, must we also believe in enchanted treasures, lost Spanish silver mines in Pennsylvania, chests of gold that slink away through the earth?

One important, and relatively recent, faithful response to Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging experience is to treat it as genuine, a kind of preparatory phase in his prophetic career.[10] In my view, this interpretation faces serious difficulties; in the end, it requires us to accept early 19th century beliefs about magical buried treasures wholesale. After all, Joseph’s treasure-digging groups never in fact recovered the large caches of lost riches that Joseph reported seeing underground. This awkward fact needs accomodation: perhaps the treasure actually existed but Joseph’s vision of it was imprecise, perhaps it existed and genuinely did move through the earth whenever a member of the digging party spoke out of turn, or perhaps no treasure existed at all. The third option seems incompatible with the hypothesis that Joseph was exercising a divine gift of seership in his treasure-digging activities; would we trust a seer whose visions are utterly false? The first option is scarcely more rewarding. If Joseph’s seership was imprecise enough that he couldn’t accurately locate a gold or silver mine, our confidence in the same gift’s ability to accurately translate the Book of Mormon must be somewhat shaken. So we’re left with the second option — which compels us to believe in shifting, buried Spanish treasure and the rest of the worldview that entails. I would suppose that relatively few 21st-century Mormons are comfortable with that belief.

However, there may be other solutions. In particular, we are free to believe that Joseph’s seer stones produced visions of differing truth value, depending on the context. We believe in a God who speaks to us in our weakness, and after our own understanding.[11] Why would such a God be forbidden to speak to Joseph Smith (who, we may postulate, genuinely believed in his gift as a treasure seer, even though we reject that claim) through his seer stones, the mode of attempted supernatural communication with which Joseph was most familiar? Rejecting the treasure visions as false need not imply that other visions through the same stones are not genuine. (Nevertheless, I can certainly understand and empathize with — and, in fact, grieve a bit over — the reactions of those who conclude that the intimate connection between folk-magical treasure quests and the Book of Mormon is enough to undermine their faith in the text.)

***

This spring, Taryn and I attended a ward activity in which ward members were randomly assigned into small dinner groups that met and ate together at volunteers’ houses. Our dinner group met at the house of a woman who was a fairly recent convert to the church. Toward the close of the dinner, she told us that she had recently decided to learn a bit more about the church. So she’d googled the word “Mormon.” The thing that stuck with her most vividly was a site that attacked the church on the basis of Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging past.

“Is this all a bunch of lies? Maybe I should just forget about it, but I’d love to know the answer. Joseph Smith didn’t really do all that stuff with visions and a rock in his hat, did he?”

I dread these moments. I think I’m just about capable of getting my shoes on in the morning. When it comes to the intricacies of Mormon history, I have a lot of information but also a lot of uncertainty. I get by because my uncertainty is a shape that fits well enough alongside my faith to be getting on with things. But I surely don’t know that I can tell other people how to solve these problems. Nonetheless, I know what people are going through when they stumble into these traces of a very different past; I’ve stumbled alongside them and managed to survive. So, on the principle of not hiding my talent, etc., I always try to help people think through the issues and discover whether their faith is also capable of coexisting with Joseph’s folk magic.

As I opened my mouth to try, as gently as I know how, an exploration of possibilities for faith, another member of our dinner group shouted me down. He loudly explained that Joseph had worked, as hired labor, on a single treasure dig — and that he’d never been involved in any supernatural stuff relating to buried treasure. Anyone who said otherwise was an anti-Mormon and a liar! This fellow knew, because, during his recent mission, he’d “read all the anti-Mormon stuff.”[12]

I didn’t fight back; I don’t have a black-and-white answer, and simple almost always beats nuance in the short run. The new member was satisfied enough with her answer that night; she even came to church the next day. The week after and subsequently, she was nowhere to be found. She stopped attending and didn’t return phone messages.

Did she leave because of an inadequate interpretation of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging? Perhaps. I can’t say. Regardless, I find it strange and depressing that, well into the current revolution in Mormon historiography, a convert of a few months was substantially better informed about Joseph’s early experiences as a seer than a life-long member of the church.

***

[1] See Hurley, Gerald T. 1951. “Buried treasure tales in America.” Western Folklore 10 (July): 197-216.

[2] For connections between Western and New England treasure-digging tales, see Hurley (1961) and Taylor, Alan. 1986. “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830.” American Quarterly 38 (Spring): 6-34, esp. 26. With respect to the Taylor piece, let me issue a warning that applies to studies of Joseph Smith and treasure digging in general. Many analyses from the 1980s quote from documents forged by Mark Hofmann; some studies even into the 1990s are influenced by those forgeries. In reading on this topic, it is wise to keep a list of Hofmann’s most relevant forgeries at hand so that quotations and conclusions drawn from those forgeries may be disregarded. For more on the theory and practice of New England treasure-digging, see Quinn, D. Michael. 1998. Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Salt Lake: Signature. See also Ashurst-McGee, Mark. 2000. A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet. Masters Thesis. Utah State University.

[3] A standard text on the connections between New England treasure digging and European alchemy and hermetic philosophy is Brooke, John L. 1996. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brooke’s conclusions, in the same book, about the origins of Mormon theology and practice are more controversial.

[4] The great book on Netwon’s alchemy is Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. 1992. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Much of the same material is covered, in a fictionalized setting, in Neal Stephenson’s three Baroque Cycle novels.

[5] Smith, Joseph. 1838. “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal 1 (July): 42-43. Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 1996. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 1. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 52-53.

[6] Smith, Joseph. Manuscript History of the Church. Book A-1, pgs. 7-8. Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 1996. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 1. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 67-68.

[7] For a readable and seemingly fair overview of the debate and the evidence regarding the validity of the court record, see Vogel, Dan, ed. 2002. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 4. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 239-48.

[8] Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 2002. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 4. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 249-50.

[9] See Van Wagoner, Richard, and Steven Walker. 1982. “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer): 48-68. See also Lancaster, James E. 1990. “The Translation of the Book of Mormon.” In Vogel, Dan, ed. The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 97-112.

[10] This interpretation is perhaps most prominently advanced in Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Knopf.

[11] Doctrine and Covenants 1:24

[12] Perhaps this fellow would have been well-served to read a few pro-Mormon texts, as well. See, in particular, Van Wagoner and Walker (1982) and Bushman (2005).

Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, JNS. That dude at the dinner…I wanted to kick him in the head.

    First, I really like Mark Ashurst-Mcgee’s thesis and view it as a valuable corection to both Quinn and Brooke (not that they are not extremely valuable works). I have only one criticism. You state:

    In my view, this interpretation faces serious difficulties; in the end, it requires us to accept early 19th century beliefs about magical buried treasures wholesale.

    I think this is an overstatement. Personally, I believe that Joseph was a seer. It is also demonstrable that he was raised with the belief that he had seeric gifts and was encouraged to pursue them. One thing this statement doesn’t allow for is the growth of that gift. The young Joseph may have had the potential for seership, but his first lessons were in a directed in a way as to not yield fruits. I know Mormons currently who dabble in one sort of divination or another…I think the Lord recognizes their faith, even if he does or doesn’t speak through the media of interest.

    It is very clear from the narrative that Joseph grew in his gift and that the Lord coached him. Why else would Moroni instruct Joseph to look in his stone to find the golden plates/spectacles? Why else would he then ween Joseph of his most powerful aids?

    As a boy, Joseph dug for treasure, following his families belief system. The Lord used that faith and made him a prophet. I don’t see why the modern believer has to accept a belief in Spanish Gold just because Joseph did.

  2. …I also think that this is a great lesson in how the Church should approach history. What if Nibley, instead of calling the potential veracity of Joseph’s treasure digging a death knell to Mormonism did what Quinn and McGee did? How many more would have remained among us?

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    Interesting post. To me, the big issue here is the Internet; there’s virtually no chance that this issue would have come up at a ward function otherwise.

  4. J., thanks for your comments — I agree about Ashurst McGee’s thesis; in fact, it’s cited in my note #2 (although it wasn’t in the version that you kindly proofed for me last night). The thesis isn’t merely a correction, but also an elaboration, covering ground that the other two don’t consider. Definitely a necessary addition to the “Joseph Smith and Magic” library. (Too bad it hasn’t been published in book form, though.)

    With respect to the second point, I think your position isn’t terribly divergent from the faithful option I sketched in the post of believing that Joseph’s visions through his seer stones had different truth values in different circumstances — at least, not very different on the red-letter issues.

    The cultural work that I see the Bushman approach trying to do — possibly not in Bushman’s intentions, but certainly in discussions with readers — is to insulate us from the frightening possibility of Joseph Smith having had false visions, and even having been unable to distinguish between true and false visions. This is done by making the treasure visions true, which has the difficult consequences I sketch above.

    However, versions of that interpretation which don’t require the treasure visions to be true seem to be viable interpretive frames from my point of view. There are subtleties to keep track of, certainly, and any interpretation of these material should usefully keep in mind Dan Vogel’s helpful reminder that — if the treasure visions were sincere but not factual — the documentary record does suggest that Joseph engaged in a kind of pious fraud in support of his visions. But, once again, a range of relatively faithful interpretive frameworks are also compatible with that suggestion.

    On your last point, I strongly agree. Drawing firm lines in the sand on empirical rather than spiritual matters, as Nibley did, is certainly risky and often seems to be destructive in the long run.

    Julie, you’re probably right. On the other hand, we’re stuck with the new information environment, aren’t we?

  5. Agreed in regards to that thesis…I should have read the notes better (grin).

    if the treasure visions were sincere but not factual — the documentary record does suggest that Joseph engaged in a kind of pious fraud in support of his visions.

    Hm. I accept that if he knew that he wasn’t seeing anyting but lead others believe he was, then this would be true. However, I think that people all over the world sincerely believe in things and gifts that aren’t particularly real. I think people see sometimes what they want to see or are trying to see. Joseph was in the crucible of folk magical and he was taught that he was a seer. I think that it is quite rational to accept his sincere attempts at scrying as not fraud, pious or not, but naive or even misguided, but with the potential to prophethood.

    …and I think the internet is the greatest challange and blessing to the Church in its history.

  6. I guess I would frame it as I have with someone close to my family that is a water-witch (upstanding High-priest and all). Do I consider him a pious fraud? Nope, neither the Stake leader I once had who used a pendelum. Water or Spanish Gold, not to big a difference to Joseph’s family.

  7. J., I don’t see the attempts at scrying as necessarily fradulent — the evidence seems to fit best with interpretations that regard them as sincere. But other incidents in the historical record seem to require either (a) 19th-century New England folk magic or (b) pious fraud in support of Joseph’s visions.

    The introduction to Vogel’s part-life biography of Joseph provides a pertinent example. In the 1826 court record, Josiah Stowell testifies that Joseph “told by means of this stone where, a Mr. Bacon had buried money, that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner said that it was on a certain Root of a stump 5 feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather; that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a tail feather, but money was gone, that he supposed that money moved down…” (available in Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 4, pg. 252) If we assume Stowell was telling the truth (and as a friend and supporter of Joseph, he would seem to lack motives to lie), then either the treasure vision and the subsequent escape of the treasure must be treated as genuine or we have to worry a bit about where the tail feather buried five feet underground came from.

    One approach here would seem to be that Joseph was convinced that his visions were sincere, needed the help of others to realize them, and was willing to engage in a bit of trickery in a higher cause. I suppose another would be that he had a genuine vision of the feather but not of treasure. There are other possibilities, as well, but I think the central point is that the full implications of this early evidence haven’t yet been integrated into most interpretations of Joseph’s early career.

  8. I agree with that analysis, JNS, and Joseph did use trickery in the finding of his white stone, so perhaps he used it at other times. However, I think that the Stowell testimony is a wonderful example of Joseph’s seeric gift. Here, Joseph is after buried treasure and has what seems to be a vision of a stump and feather and the money. We don’t know for sure what exactly his vision entailed, but he saught a vision of money, recieved a vision, and was subsequently frustrated. Now, aspects of the vision did come to fruition but not the riches. If you accept a version of a child growing towards prophethood, this is a wonderful stepping stone.

  9. Thanks for the post.

    Practitioners of paranormal activities can be quite convinced that they have certain abilities. This is usually attributed–at least partially–to confirmation bias. People remember when it works, but forget about or discount the times it doesn’t. In five feet of digging by a tree it doesn’t seem that unlikely to me that a feather would turn up at some point. Assuming that it was not planted, such occasional successes would have helped convince Joseph (not to mention Stowell) that he had real ability (even if he did not).

  10. Incidentally, there are some incidents in early Mormon history that seem to point to an acceptance, on the part of the Smiths and other believers, of seeric powers of enemies of the church. In particular, Lucy Mack Smith’s 1845 history tells of an incident in which Joseph had hidden the Book of Mormon plates in a bundle of flax inside a cooper’s shop but had placed the wooden box in which he usually stored them beneath the floor of the shop.

    Lucy reports that Sally Chase “had found a green glass & by looking thrugh it she could see many wonderful things and among the rest of her discoveries she said she had found out the exact place where Joe smith kept his gold bible hid so in pursuance to her directions they gathered their forces and laid siege to the cooper shop…” (1848 Manuscript draft, page 69; see Early Mormon Documents Vol. 1, pg. 343) Specifically, the Chase party tore up the floor of the cooper shop and smashed the wooden box where the plates were usually stored.

    This narrative clearly attributes genuine seership to Sally Chase. In fact, if we assume that Joseph was at least reasonably careful when he hid the box under the floor, the Chase group’s precision in finding the box is somewhat perplexing without Lucy’s implicit assumption that Sally Chase could see genuine visions.

  11. J. Stapley,

    Can you elaborate or point me to a source on the white stone trickery?

    I would also add that the failed venture to Canada to raise money for the Book of Mormon printing shows that Joseph still had some fuzziness in his seeing.

    We all (LDS) wonder how often our thoughts are ours alone, or inspired by God. Sometimes God seems to be behind them. Other times we suppose that we goofed. I see a similar thing in Joseph.

  12. Jared, if we want to add other similar incidents to the list, the Kinderhook plates episode most likely fits the bill. (Some faithful scholars have argued that Joseph never offered an interpretation of the text on the Kinderhook plates. In fact, existing second-hand records of his interpretation do vary somewhat — but they also share significant commonalities. They much more closely resemble varying reports of a genuine episode than something like independent fabrications.)

    Also, thanks for your useful reminder of the problem of confirmation bias.

    The important point, in all of these discussions, is that we insist that there is no logical linkage between the evidence of Joseph’s sometimes having had false visions and the argument that all of Joseph’s visions are false. I can certainly understand people who feel compelled to accept the second argument on the basis of the first; it’s not an irrational or unreasoned conclusion. The point, in preserving options for faith, is that it isn’t the only rational, reasoned conclusion.

  13. A few weeks ago the topic of guessing first names came up with the missionaries. I looked at one of them, thought of what she looked like to me, and then guessed. I was exactly right. The name was Britany–a common girls name, but not as common as Jennifer or Lisa. I do not have any other Britanys in my life.

    What to make of it? If she had been from another culture I am confident that I would not have come up with the correct name because I don’t know many names from other cultures. I think I was limited to my name vocabulary. Yet the spot-on guess was kind of uncanny–it certainly surprised the missionary.

  14. J N-S: to insulate us from the frightening possibility of Joseph Smith having had false visions, and even having been unable to distinguish between true and false visions.

    There are clearly a lot of assumptions about Joseph’s early visions that are being silently included in this statement. What do you think these visions consisted of? Do you think Joseph saw some sort of movie that would be nearly impossible to misunderstand or something? What makes you think that the visions were any different than the impressions or revelatory dreams many of us get today? Those sorts of “visions” are extremely easy for us to misunderstand after all. Why should we assume it was any different for the teenaged prophet-in-training, Joseph? (He was of course at a great disadvantage in his spiritual ear training because he didn’t have the support structure and trainers that we in the church have today.)

    In short, I completely agree with the approach Stapley is taking here. We have a teenager living in a culture that believes in folk magic. He starts in his own environment and with God uses it as a stepping stone to becoming a full-fledged prophet. We need not assume “false visions” from God or fraud though. Why can’t we simply assume that the much of the early seership was a muddy combination of folk-magic superstition mixed with a little real revelation from God. Why not assume that over time the mix became more and more purified and purged of the incorrect folk magic crutches and became more and more pure revelation from God? The folk magic heritage then can be seen as a cultural crutch or Dumbo’s Feather that God utilized in training his boy prophet.

  15. Geoff, there are some relatively detailed accounts of some of the early visions that Joseph received through his folk-magical seership. Without going into detail — which would perhaps deserve a second post of its own — it seems that Joseph experienced the visions as relatively movie-like images. They were precise enough to enable things like locating lost pins in seams in cabin floors, or to allow specific descriptions of houses, people, point locations for treasure digging in landscapes he’d never visited, etc. In other words, Joseph didn’t experience the visions as the kind of interpretation-heavy impressions that many of us experience.

    That doesn’t falsify the interpretation of the folk magic as a developmental crutch toward true seership. But it does provide context for your first paragraph.

  16. Geoff, I do think that it is important that the crutch or feather as you call was never extricated completely from early Mormon thought. You have Wilford Woodruff consecrating Joseph’s white stone on the altar of the Manti Temple! And Joseph taught that we would all receive a stone as per the Apocalypse of John. I have yet to meet anyone as visionary as those early Saints, despite our “support structure and trainers that we in the church have today.”…a seer is greater than a prophet…

    Jared*, Joseph used Sally Chase’s green stone to receive a vision of his brown stone which he eventually dug up some 15″ in the ground in a metal pot. He then used the brown stone to have a vision of the white stone (the brown stone was said not to view things that were holy). It just so happened that the white stone was in the Chase’s garden. Ashurst-McGee does a great job explaining the chronology and meaning of all the events. He then went to dig a well for the Chase’s but found the white stone some 20″ down. Moroni then had Joseph look into the white stone to find the plates and spectacles.

    Incedentally, because the Chase’s believed the white stone was theirs, they also believed they had some right to the plates which Joseph found with it.

  17. “The important point, in all of these discussions, is that we insist that there is no logical linkage between the evidence of Joseph’s sometimes having had false visions and the argument that all of Joseph’s visions are false. I can certainly understand people who feel compelled to accept the second argument on the basis of the first; it’s not an irrational or unreasoned conclusion.”

    Except this rule doesn’t generally apply in life. We don’t assume a failed hypothesis or experiment makes a bad scientist. We don’t judge athletes on a couple of bad performances, or that one bad record makes a bad musician. This is especially true when we look at the early work/failures of scientists/politicians/artists. I’m not sure it is a rational conclusion to assume early failures in Joseph’s career as a seer mean all attempts were failures, especially when we consider the fruits of later efforts.

  18. That is interesting JNS. I need to read up more on this subject at some point — the level of detail of some of the very early visions is an intriguing subject.

    My theory based on how I understand revelation for myself and others I know is that the visions Joseph had are comparable to revelatory dreams — that is I suspect they are essentially waking dreams that he (and apparently many others in his time and culture) experienced. If this is the case then it is easy for me to understand how detailed scenes can still be figurative or a mix of imagination and revelation and it can be difficult to discern the difference between the two. (Joseph was obviously a novice at it in these early stages just as most of us still are.)

  19. BTW, in discussions like this I always have the image of this scene from Oh Bother, Where Art Thou?:

    Pete: Do not…seek…the treasure.

    Delmar: We…thought…you…was…a…toad.

  20. Stapley: Geoff, I do think that it is important that the crutch or feather as you call was never extricated completely from early Mormon thought.

    Hey, just because Dumbo learned he could fly without the feather doesn’t mean he got rid of it! ;-)

    Good point though. In our increasingly skeptical culture it does seem that we have supressed our own chances for visions and revelations as a people.

  21. Nice post, RT, and I intend to comment on the substance. I’m a little puzzled about your child’s play genealogy, though. I’m familiar with the alchemical tradition, and I know this is the direction Brooks takes things with Joseph, but it seems to me that the adventure-romance literary genre is probably the more direct route for your rich-oil map: from the romanticized Victorian revival of the adventure travel narrative, in Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines and so forth, back through to Raleigh and Drake and the early modern geopolitical reformation in the age of exploration. (There’s cross-pollenation with alchemy, certainly, given the shared obsession with gold.)

  22. Rosalynde, thanks for the comment. I don’t really know anything about the travel literature you’re talking about, so I’ve relied on Hurley’s and Taylor’s connection between Western treasure digging and New England treasure digging. The connection between Western treasure digging and our game seems pretty unproblematic to me; we were exposed to tons of that stuff in visits to California gold-mining ghost towns and through cartoons of “Miner 49ers.” For your alternative information vector to hold, we’d need a connection between the travel literature and Western folklore. I clearly can’t rule such a connection out, nor can I confirm it.

  23. Re #3,

    As has been noted, I think the impact the Internet is having on the mission of the Church can hardly be underestimated.

    Members, new converts, prospective members are all “Googling” Church history and are discovering aspects, side stories, and Church history that is often presented very different than the simplified, correlated version.

    To the extent we can factually lay a foundation that is more accurate and a closer depiction of “the truth” regarding early Church history – are we better off for it?

    For example, if researchers, LDS writers, historians etc can ascertain and prove facts that are “faith destroying”, what is the role of Church government? Does it suppress these facts, acknowledge these facts or ignore these facts?
    (This is the DaVinci Code premise in effect).

    Is there an advantage to having some level of hypothetical intellectual dishonesty regarding how we present Church history, so that missionary work isn’t impeded? Or is that “advantage” compromised on the back-end when a prospective member starts “Googling” for answers.

    Most probably would acknowledge, we simply want “the Truth.” But, how deep are we willing to chase down the rabbit hole to find it?

  24. “In order to believe that the Book of Mormon is divine in origin, must we also believe in enchanted treasures, lost Spanish silver mines in Pennsylvania, chests of gold that slink away through the earth?”

    Maybe just the enchanted treasures and chests of gold that slink away through the earth. After all, they are spoken of in Helaman 13:34-36 and Mormon 1:18.

  25. Beijing, nice point. Quinn and others refer to those passages in discussing the intimate interconnections between the Book of Mormon and New England folk magic. Once again, I see three major interpretive possibilities: 1) there are magic treasure chests in New England, although few people have encountered them in the last 100 years or more; 2) there are no magic treasure chests in New England, and the Book of Mormon is a fictional composition of Joseph Smith because it includes the idea; 3) the slippery treasure chests in the Book of Mormon are an instance of the “expansion theory” of Book of Mormon translation — they’re a 19th-century addition by Joseph Smith to an ancient document, and we don’t have to worry too much about them.

  26. Razorfish,
    I think we need the red pill. It is the path to knowledge and One-heit. But you have to first eat gruel and wear rags. It’s the red pill all the way.

  27. Threadjack warning: Hmm, well now I’m intrigued, RT. My library privileges (via my husband—THE NUMBER ONE biggest headache about independent scholarship is the maddening difficulty I’ve had with library access) are not current, so I can’t take a look at the Hurley piece. But he doesn’t see any connection between late 19th-C American wild west treasure hunting romances and early 19th-C English colonial treasure hunting romances? To me the transatlantic literary connection would seem to be a natural, especially given what we know about other popular literary transatlantic swaps during the period—but I certainly haven’t looked closely!

    Now I have another question, on topic I promise: why didn’t your #25 include the fourth possibility that there is no historical connection between New England magic treasure chest lore and the Nephite (or Jaredite?) slippery treasure motif, that they were developed independently and narrative similarities are coincidental? It’s not the most likely possibility, but it’s no more unlikely than your first option, and as we’ve been discussing re: treasure hunting, there may be more than one way to skin a narrative cat!

  28. And now, finally, for my substantive comment. I appreciate the way you’ve contextualized the historical information on Joseph Smith within your personal life-narrative; your dramatic framing device captures very nicely the way we internalize and process information—that is, we turn it into a story about ourselves. Your story, very clearly, is a trauma narrative, one that seems to have had a formative effect on your relationship to the church. Others encountering the same information have written it into narratives of liberation or conspiracy or crusade narratives or bildungsroman or initiation/coming-of-age or whatever. I don’t know to what degree our authorship of these life-stories is volitional, but I think it can be useful to examine the stories we tell ourselves as critically as the stories we’re told.

  29. Rosalynde, Europe had its own treasure-digging folk culture, inspired by the alchemical ideas and folk religious themes that also fed into New England treasure-digging conceptions. A nice article that gives a bit of an overview of findings about treasure digging throughout the world, with an emphasis on Sweden, is Lindow, John. 1982. “Swedish Legends of Buried Treasure.” The Journal of American Folklore 95 (July – Sept.), pgs. 257-79. So similarities between the Western American treasure-digging culture and 19th-century English literature may arise because of a common source, rather than direct influence.

    For present purposes, of course, it wouldn’t be terribly devastating to my interpretation if the Western treasure culture I ran into as a child was influenced by European literature; it seems hard to imagine that it wasn’t also influenced by the New England culture, which is my main point. In particular, according to various sources in the treasure-digging literature, the New England and Western treasure cultures share a distinctive emphasis on narratives in which the treasure is not, in the end, recoverable.

    On your comment #28, thanks for that — incredibly interesting ideas. I’d love to read a careful analysis, of the kind you suggest, of the ways people tell stories about their encounters with difficult information from the Mormon past. And I certainly agree that any story I tell about myself should be critically examined!

  30. Jonathan Green says:

    Shouldn’t a discussion of treasure-digging narratives take into account the fact that, you know, sometimes there really is treasure at the bottom of the hole? Hoards get buried, and tomb robbers had to earn a living somehow. The gold that actually got dug up from time to time was probably at least as influential as the theories of the alchemists.

  31. Jonathan,

    An interesting point. I agree that buried treasure does in fact exist on occasion. There are even laws about how to deal with it when it is found (and, for the most part, the laws seem to assign the treasure to the government).

    On the other hand, with respect to early New England treasure digging, it’s not the mere act of looking for treasure that I find most interesting. Instead, it’s the mode of looking, and the circumstances surrounding the failure to locate treasure. I’m unaware of a single documented (non-fraudulent) instance in which buried treasure was actually discovered using a dowsing rod, seer stones, or visions from treasure spirits. In accounting for these practices, as well as the beliefs about how treasures moving through the earth, how they develop or are preserved underground, etc., connections with alchemical and hermetic philosophy would seem a rather more promising explanation than actual, occasional windfalls.

  32. RT, I don’t think a transmission through transatlantic adventure romance disturbs your analysis at all. It’s mostly a bookish quibble about the precise genealogy of your childhood game. The more I think about it, though, the more I think I’m right: take a look at Tom Sawyer ,around chapter 25 (I googled this, I don’t know it off the top of my head), for a highly entertaining revue of the genre. Tom choreographs his treasure-digging strictly by the book—meaning the dozens of popular pirate adventure novels inspired by Treasure Island. The allusions are really quite explicit.

    This is not, however, to say that New England treasure hunting is irrelevant to your experience in the sandbox. Just that cultural transmissions are often polymorphous and diffuse, with many routes winding through the narrative, historical and technological wildernesses.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    I personally approach this the same way J. Stapley and J. Nelson-Seawright do. We are all conditioned by our cultures, and Joseph no less than the rest of us. It took me a while to come to this conclusion. One of the few revelations about church history that ever bothered me was the Salamander letter. I rolled up my sleeves and read some of the historiographical literature on the culture of money digging (even before Quinn came out with Magic World View), and being able to put this all in a cultural context made all the difference for me.

    On the BoM passages, I am open to JNS’s third “expansion” option, but another possibility is that the idea of slippery treasures that sink into the earth is authentically ancient. See a little piece I wrote on this subject, here.

  34. Thanks for an intriguing post. There is another view, the practical implications of which I have not yet worked out because I see them as secondary.

    I argue in my MHA 2006 presentation (and in book chapters of which the presentation was a brief summary) that in fact the treasure dig, particularly as JSJ participated in it, reflects a spirituo-cultural phenomenon I have opted to label geonecromancy, a belief in spiritual communications that are mediated by the dead, their relics, and the ground that contains them. In this view, JSJ’s primary interest all along was in recovering the voices of the dead (the BoM is fantastically explicit about this), and seerstones (which he never actually repudiated–just think about the earth purged of the dead being transformed/translated/resurrected into a giant seerstone), the treasure quest (what greater treasure/relic than the gold plates, rivalled only by the Chandler-Lebolo funeral papyri?), and the quest for the civilizations that stood behind the Indian burial mounds are all part of his passionate desire to understand and then conquer death.

    This project, focused on the spiritual/human meaning underlying these activities, has for me at least been a wonderful experience of connection with JSJ and has helped me feel that I understand him better. In addition my tender affection for him has increased substantially.

    I’m no psychologist, but I have felt that polemics, apologia, and feuding casuistry (though they definitely fill a role) can distract us from understanding the psychic (not in the “paranormal” sense) meaning of these experiences for the people involved.

    By way of self-promotion, and with due apologies to the Blogdom, I hope to have the book manuscript done by Christmas, and I look forward to discussions about the merits of the geonecromantic perspective on early Mormonism.

  35. Well, Jesus was raised in a way that could be described as grooming Him, if you wanted to interpret it that way. As was Gordon B. Hinckley. We all bloom where we’re planted whether we want to or not. It makes sense to me that Joseph Smith had an interest in the very things that would become the whole point of his life.

  36. Thanks for that link, Kevin. Good stuff.

    I’ll have to look forward to your book, smb. I typically follow your connections and agree with them, but here, I don’t see the adolescent Joseph conquering death, but fullfilling expectation and later searching for a measure of apotheosis or at least his exaltatation into the angelic pantheon. I really look forward to Susan Stakers treatment (but who nows when that will be done?).

  37. Kevin, thanks for the fascinating comments. The Amenemope passages that you quote certainly do have the same idea, prevalent in New England treasure-digging culture and in the Book of Mormon text, of escaping treasure. These ideas are, of course, substantially widespread, and in that sense the passages about treasure flying into the heavens are not particularly on point. Treasure escapes a lot of ways in a lot of cultures; in the Book of Mormon and in Joseph Smith’s New England, we have a distinctive connection in that already-buried treasure escapes from people who search for it by moving through the earth. That’s a much closer parallel than the treasure-through-the-heavens themes you quote.

    However, the middle part of the Amenemope passage is, as you note, more important. There you have the ground swallowing up ill-gotten gains. (Note that, between the Book of Mormon text, the Amenemope passage, and New England treasure culture, we have a three-way parallel in the emphasis on ill-gotten wealth. The Lindow article on Swedish treasure hunting that I cited above shows that this motif is exceedingly common in many different treasure cultures.) That makes an undeniable parallel with the Book of Mormon; the ground acts to remove ill-gotten wealth.

    On the other hand, the Amenemope — Book of Mormon parallel is somewhat weaker than the Book of Mormon — New England parallel. In the Amenemope text, treasure is swallowed into the earth, and we don’t know if it subsequently moves around underground. In the Book of Mormon, treasure is deliberately buried and then starts to slip around underground to thwart someone trying to dig it up. The same is, of course, true in New England.

    This isn’t a case where a definitive answer is available; as Rosalynde noted above, such parallels can be coincidental. But it’s helpful to keep in mind both options when interpreting these Book of Mormon passages: the fascinating and plausible ancient parallels that Kevin proposes, and the relatively stronger but still not definitive New England parallels.

    smb, thanks for your comments. I look forward to reading your full treatment on this subject. In the meanwhile, however, let me respond to your brief summary here. I think your ideas about Joseph’s motivation to recover the voices of the dead is quite helpful, especially in thinking about the Book of Mormon project and the Kirtland period. However, it strikes me as a bit anachronistic if projected back to his pre-Book of Mormon activities as a seer. In searching for lost neighborhood property, Spanish silver mines, salt mines, and buried chests of coins, there’s little opportunity to recover lost words. Instead, the emphasis is squarely on wealth. Joseph’s self-reported initial approach to the Book of Mormon was also to emphasize the chance that it represented to get rich; the turn from the early, materialistic focus toward a focus on recovering words and ideas would seem to be a major discontinuity between Joseph’s treasure-seer period and his prophetic period proper. Your remarks suggest that you plan to deemphasize this discontinuity, which strikes me as a possible interpretive mistake.

    Annegb, I agree; we’re necessarily caught up in our own cultures.

  38. I see a strong connection between Joseph Smith and the recently returned missionary in JNS’s dinner appointment. Both firmly believed something that turned out not to be true. Both publicly professed that erroneous belief. Neither is necessarily a fraud or a bad person because of it.

    I’m afraid I’ve been like that elder before, probably on more occasions than I’d like to admit or would even be aware of at present. At least I’m in good company.

  39. js, i hadn’t heard about Susan’s project. what is it?

    jns, I think people underappreciate the extent to which antebellum culture was death obsessed, although there are several good scholarly treatments in the last 20yrs addressing this point. a common term for magic in general was “necromancy” in that period, the treasure hunters quiver was filled with charms to hide from ghosts, treasure guardians were the dead attached to a point in soil, treasure in an important sense was a relic of the dead, the adena-hopewell mounds were intimately tied into the treasure quest, the cave traditions smack of royal tombs. the list goes on. I think this emphasis on the continuity of the treasure hunt neglects the continuity of the death conquest, frankly. personally i’m happy with JSJ as village seer, i like/respect him all the same, but I feel like the evidence has been pushing me toward a much greater continuity within geonecromancy than in our current views of antebellum American folk magic.

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