Today we’re taking a look at Joseph Smith’s behavior between 1820 – 1827 to determine whether his activities reflected that of someone who had been called of God. This was a critical time in Smith’s life and his track record stands as a solid witness of what he was doing from the time of his first vision in the woods to the day he was able to retrieve the golden plates of Mormonism.
Common sense tells us his story needs to line up with four important sources; Joe Smith, the LDS Church, empirical outsider testimonies and most importantly, God.
We’re dividing our investigation in two parts; 1820-1823 and 1824-1827 and throughout the article you’ll find a list of questions to use when witnessing to your Mormon friends and relatives. We pray they’ll be of benefit, but mainly that they’ll spark questions in the mind of any Mormon reading this. Let’s get started!
1820 – 1823
The spirit of rebellion against the crown bled into the fabric of America’s spiritual life in the post Revolutionary War era so at the dawn of the Second Great Awakening America was looking for its next big spiritual fix.
American Folk Religion was a hodgepodge gospel made of visions, spiritualism, angels, no organized religion and favored passages from the Bible. Each family held fast to their own version of who they believed God should be and passed that ideal on down to their kids.
Included in the menagerie was the ever popular hobby of looking for buried treasure via means of scrying (glass-looking, use of seer-stones), with the upper Atlantic seaboard being the hub for all things witchcraft.
Joseph’s family had been involved in witchcraft for generations and well known for consulting the dead, using divining rods and scrying throughout the area so it only stood to reason they‘d pass their trade on down to their son.
Joseph Sr., known for having visions, never hesitated to share his experiences with others whenever given the chance. His wife Lucyrecorded no less than seven dreams he had from the time their first son was born. One of his dreams was remarkably similar to a dream a main character (Lehi) had from the Book of Mormon.
The problem with the Smith’s family vocation? Some of it was illegal and more importantly, God condemned witchcraft.
Leviticus 19:31; “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.”
In addition to the dreams of her husband, Lucy also wrote of the many times they relied on ‘Abrac’ while looking for direction in life. (Abrac is short for abracadabra.) While calling upon spirits for guidance in many of the rituals they would have performed, circles were drawn in the ground using detailed instructions from two well known books, ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft’ and ‘The Magus’.
Even though the Discoverie of Witchcraft was more than two hundred years old by the 1820’s it was a staple in the lives of those practicing witchcraft. The circles included upside down pentagrams and markings of the Jupiter Talisman. The book also gave specific times when a person should pray for a personal manifestation and it should be noted that the perfect time to do this is at midnight on September 21st. This just so happens to be when Smith was praying in 1823 for his own personal manifestation – more on that later.
To make matters worse, the Jupiter Talisman that Joe Smith had in his pocket when he died contained the drawings mentioned in Francis Barrett’s work ‘The Magus’. This book is nothing more than a resource and how-to-guide for ceremonial magic, alchemy, astrology and the Kabbalah. You can read more about this in Quinn’s work ‘Early Mormonism and the Magic World View’.
Sometime between Joseph’s first vision in 1820 and his vision in 1823 Joseph admits that he participated in questionable activities. This he said, is what led him to repent on September 21, 1823 and when he met Moroni.
Joseph Smith History 1:28; “…I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations…
29 …on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me…”
1.What foolish errors is he speaking of and why isn’t the Church more forthcoming about his activities?
Unbeknownst to the majority of Mormons today, Smith’s world revolved around the spiritual lifestyle that many in America embraced at the time. His practice of praying for manifestations to appear is a sure-tell sign he had opened himself up to the world of demonic spiritualism.
2.Why did he pray for forgiveness and then ask God to send a spirit to visit him?
The meaning of the word manifestation is ‘the materialization of a disembodied spirit’. Now why would Smith pray for something like this when it’s not biblically sound? If he had been called of God wouldn’t the Lord keep him from doing this?
3.Why did he choose to do this on the Autumnal Equinox at midnight? According to Cowdery this is exactly when Smith ‘just so happened’ to be in fervent prayer.
Another problem comes in what outside resources said about his activities earlier in the evening. According to Clay Chandler’s report Martin Harris stated that Smith had been looking for treasures before he began praying in his room around midnight.
Also see Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration, p 211;
“According to Martin Harris, it was after one of these night excursions, that Jo, while he lay upon his bed, had a remarkable dream.”
Not a One Time Thing
From 1820 – 1823 we find numerous statements and affidavits about Smith’s involvement in searching for buried treasure through the means of seer stones. This was apparently a fulltime vocation for Smith, not just simple indiscretion on his part.
According to Dan Vogel’s report, ‘The Locations of Joseph Smith’s Early Treasure Quests’, there were no less than fifty-one local citizens who
‘affirmed that large excavations may be seen in the earth not far from their [the Smiths’] residence’.
In other references we find dozens more who testified to Smith digging for buried treasure and using his peep stones to tell the future. Their testimonies are found in Mormonism Unvailed, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, Lucy’s Book by Lavina Fielding Anderson and Inventing Mormonism. We also have the amazing work of D. Michael Quinn’s book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. We could write a book on all the books written about his nefarious deeds.
With that boatload of info we’re getting closer to making a sound assessment of what was really going on in the young man’s life.
4.What exactly was he doing between 1820 and 1823? What was he looking for when he and others in his family dug up the family farm?
5.Does Smith’s behavior during this time do anything to solidify his calling or harm it?
6.Why did he choose to pray for a manifestation on the Autumnal Equinox?
7.When and how did Joseph receive the golden plates?
8.If Smith had received a vision in the woods in 1820 (JS Hist. 1:18-19), then why was he digging in the earth for buried treasures after this time?
It seems that his own words give us part of the reason why this was.
Joseph Smith History 1:23; “It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day…”
It looks as if Smith felt marginalized not only by the society at large, but God as well. He obviously believed God had doomed him to a life of poverty and he obviously liked the limelight; good or bad.
9.God had expressly told him to stay away from all Christians because they weren’t in obedience, so why would the behavior of non-Christians be acceptable? Why was he hanging out with other ner’er-do-wells?
Mormons have undoubtedly accepted Joseph’s explanation of ‘youthful indiscretions’ as if he had done this once or twice, but truth has emerged from the dark shadows of history revealing just the opposite.
1824 – 1827
From 1824 to 1827 Smith seems to have been a busy guy.
Moroni’s message of 1823 told Smith that he couldn’t have the treasure quite yet, but if he returned to the very spot each year at the exact same time for four years then he could retrieve the plates.
Joseph Smith History 1:53; “I made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden by the messenger, and was again informed that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would it, until four years from that time; but he told me that I should come to that place precisely in one year from that time, and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates.”
10.Why would God take Smith on a four year scavenger hunt so people would know the truth and gain salvation? Jesus told us that nothing is hidden in Luke 8:16;
“No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light.”
In 1825 Smith found himself explaining why he was digging for treasure again –
Joseph Smith History 1:57; “…In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the 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…Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.”
11.The silver mine episode isn’t the sole reason Smith was known as a money-digger. Stowell contacted Smith because of his reputation of finding buried treasure. Why did he lie about this?
Furthermore, he’s already established that he had been known for this behavior as he revealed it in 1823. After that time we have his own accounts listed above of the other times he went to the hill at Cumorah to dig for treasure yet again.
Joseph Smith, the Stowell’s ‘Incubus’
Despite many years of the very public denials that Smith was arrested and went to trial for his treasure seeking ways, the truth came forth. In 1971 the Rev. Wesley Walters discovered court records in the basement of a NY sheriff’s office for services rendered by a judge in 1826.
Becoming tired of watching their father wasting money and being swindled, the sons of Josiah Stowell pressed charges against Joseph Smith for vagrancy, referring to him as an incubus (nightmare). In early 1826 the case went before Judge Neely.
Extensive notes taken by Dr. William Purple were found amongst the documents giving us a descriptive portrayal of when and why he was arrested and everything else pertaining to the trial. You can find detailed info at theChenango Union, The Making of a Prophet, p 82, Inventing Mormonism, pp 68-75 and Richkelsey.org to name just a few. The internet is awash with endless resources showing Smith’s behavior during this time. If you’re LDS we strongly encourage you to do your research and find out.
Smith Family Reputation
In the exhaustive book ‘Inventing Mormonism’ authors Marquardt and Walters tells us that Smith’s activities were well known amongst not just the locals, but the entire region as well. At the end of the quote below they referenced Mormonism Unvailed which gave the testimonies of several people who knew the Smith family very well. A few of those references are noted here.
Inventing Mormonism, p 63; “In his official history, Joseph Smith downplayed his experience as a money-digger and sought to cast this activity in the context of manual labor. However, Smith was involved in such endeavors for years in two widely separated areas and enjoyed an established reputation as a gifted seer. He was thought to be able to locate lost goods with a special seer stone and magical religious ceremonies.” – H Michael Marquardt & Wesley P Walters
Suffice it to say, Smith was indeed charged with disorderly conduct and went to trial for his actions of trying to take advantage of people. Not surprisingly, the Church’s silence about the truth on Smith’s track record is deafening. Their continual denials and outright lies about this subject is a sad thing to witness.
In addition to all the testimonies above we also have the testimony of Mr. Isaac Hale, Emma Smith’s father, and this man didn’t pull any punches with his opinion about his son-in-law’s lifestyle. His statement appeared in the NY Baptist Register June 13, 1834 and The Susquehanna Register on May 1, 1834. Here in part is his opinion;
“…The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods!” – Isaac Hale
Another must read in this saga is Dan Vogel’s work ‘The Location of Joseph Smith’s Early Treasure Quests, p 219 where he gives yet another testimony from a Stowell family member telling of Smith’s shiftless ways.
The people who come out on the short end of the stick are Mormons like my mother. The average member has virtually no idea…
LDS Version of September 21-22, 1827
The cleaned up version of Moroni allowing Joe to take the plates home is much different than that of the other versions.
Joseph Smith History 1:59; “At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me with this charge: that I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, until he, the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected.”
Martin Harris’ Version of September 21-22, 1827
The following is an excerpt from our article on Smith’s First Vision. It’s inclusion here is based on what took place on September 22, 1827.
Joel Tiffany published an interview he had with Martin Harris in Tiffany’s Monthly, pp 163 – 170 in 1859 with details of Smith’s first vision, how he came into possession of the plates and why he founded Mormonism.
This interview was significant because of how contradictory this story was from all the others. It’s also significant because of Harris’ involvement with Smith at the very beginning of when Mormonism got off the ground.
In this rendition the Smith family corroborated the story and Harris approved all of it before it went to print.
p 169…‘An angel had appeared to him, and told him it was God’s work.’” Here Mr. Harris seemed to wander from the subject, when we requested him to continue and tell what Joseph then said. He replied, “Joseph had before this described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason chase. The family had likewise told me the same thing.’
12.Why are these two ‘testimonies’ so vastly different and what purpose does it serve you? What purpose does it serve the church?
These last two statements of what happened on September 21-22, 1827 are just a drop in the bucket of the stories you’ll find out there. From a horse with a black twitching tail, a spirit waiting at the entrance of a cave to a toad found in the box and the ever popular story of a Spanish ghost with blood pouring forth from his slit throat are some of the things Smith said he found while retrieving the golden plates.
No matter what story Smith gave to whom, they all go to prove one thing. His story was a hoax. It’s impossible to know which story of his to believe when there are so many of them and we need to treat them like the testimonies of those in court when they’ve perjured themselves. Toss it out.
We’re praying that Mormons will examine the whole truth and then make a decision based on all the information, not just the faith promoting kind.
With Love in Christ;
1 Cor 1:18