Hey guys, so before the Church was organized and before the Book of Mormon was translated, a young Joseph Smith engaged in a folk practice known as treasure-digging. Now, as the saying goes, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And that’s especially true in this case. Many critics portray Joseph’s treasure digging and this “magical worldview” as either witchcraft or outright fraudulence. Either way you go, it doesn’t look good for Joseph Smith. But in this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at this tradition and see if it’s just as sinister as some have claimed it to be. Let’s do it.
In 2020 the non-Latter-day Saint anthropologist and independent researcher Manuel Padro published a 40-page article in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. The article illustrates that “Treasure hunting was explicitly a form of Christian folk-religiosity as practiced in upstate New York and New England. For many rural Yankees, ‘treasure-seeking was a materialistic extension of their Christian faith. …’”
To summarize Padro’s research, the idea among many spiritually-motivated treasure hunters was that when someone buried their money and died without using that money righteously, then the treasure owner’s ghost would not be able to move on until someone dug up the treasure, and put it to good use. Treasure hunters felt that they were actively taking part in freeing a soul from purgatory, so to speak. “If this were among the Smith family’s motivations,” Padro wrote, “then we have misread the morality of their involvement in this practice.”
Naturally, Satan would not want those souls to be saved, so it was believed that evil spirits or demons would often oppose the hunters’ attempts to find the treasure. “This would be done by moving the treasure beneath the earth or shape-shifting it into another object if the proper rites, prayers, ceremonies, and preparations had not been observed. Without God’s approval and support, the treasure hunters, like the relic hunters of early Christianity, could be thwarted by the devil and his minions.”
Treasure-seekers would thus prepare themselves spiritually before setting out on a quest, and quest leaders were often regarded by practitioners as holy men. We see that kind of spiritual preparation in William Purple’s description of a treasure quest that Joseph Smith participated in. He said that “after arming themselves with fasting and prayer, they sallied forth to the spot designated by Smith.” If hunters failed to acquire the treasure, non-believers chalked it up to fraudulence, while sincere practitioners attributed it to interfering evil spirits or their own lack of preparation or faith.
Practitioners of this folk Christianity also employed various physical objects to help them on their quest. Those unfamiliar with them often wrote them off as objects of witchcraft or sorcery. But the truth is that these objects often held Christian significance. This wasn’t simply “magic” for practitioners — it was folk religion.
For example, this is a parchment apparently owned by Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum. At face value, it looks pretty mystical and witchcrafty. But when you look closely, you might notice that around the outside is written: “Holiness to the Lord.” On this symbol is written “Tetragrammaton,” representing the Hebrew name of God. In the center of this symbol is written the name of the archangel Raphael. This is not diabolical witchcraft with all of the negative cultural baggage that comes along with that term. A better term for it is simply folk Christianity.
“Some treasure hunters saw themselves and were seen by others, first and foremost, as good Christians who delivered ghosts. We cannot understand early modern treasure hunting if we ignore its double purpose: it was a means to make money, but it was also an act of Christian devotion that helped a poor soul to finally enter the hereafter. The spiritual motivation was essentially genuine.”
But if the treasure quest really had roots in Christianity, why was there so much opposition to it? Padro wrote, “Many aspects of the treasure quest grew out of Catholic beliefs and practices. After the Reformation, Protestants in the New World attempting to distance themselves from Catholicism condemned these folk-Christian practices as demonic and witchcraftery.”
In other words, this was largely an attempt by the dominant ideology to stamp out views they deemed heretical. But the truth is that actual practitioners saw themselves in a much different light than the one cast upon them by outsiders. “On the one hand, to New Englanders, it was a diabolical, nefarious, and fraudulent practice. On the other, to the folk-Christian, it was the saintly redemption of the dead.”
Were there people who pretended to believe in this stuff just to trick people out of money? I’m sure there were. I believe the Smiths were sincere in their belief, but I’m biased, and you can come to your own conclusions on that. What I wanted to do in this video was demonstrate that this wider tradition was not the dark and wicked practice it’s often been portrayed to be. “By evaluating sources critically within a larger cultural environment, the specter of Joseph Smith as the quintessential necromancer might be put to rest.”
Eventually, it seems that Joseph put the treasure-digging behind him. Indeed, according to Martin Harris, the angel Moroni specifically instructed Joseph to “quit the company of the money-diggers.” It seems that Joseph recognized that his gift of being able to use a seer stone was intended to be used in another way — translating the Book of Mormon.
Now, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this stuff. I recognize that there are plenty of questions we didn’t get to in this video, but hopefully, this gives you some context within which you can place some of Joseph’s early practices. Check out the links and notes in the YouTube description if you want to learn more, and have a great day.
- “Redemption: The Treasure Quest and the Wandering Soul,” by Manuel Padro in the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal (Fall/Winter 2020, Vol. 40, No. 2): https://bit.ly/3T3uLTx
- “Cunning and Disorderly: Early Nineteenth-Century Witch Trials of Joseph Smith,” by Manuel Padro in Dialogue Journal (Winter 2021, Vol. 54, No. 4): https://bit.ly/3Mjz8Ie
- “Cunning Distortions: Folk Christianity and Witchcraft Allegations in Early Mormon History,” by Manuel Padro in Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 49, No. 1, 2023: http://bit.ly/3EsEzBD
- “Seer stone,” via The Joseph Smith Papers: https://bit.ly/3SPcsBx
- “Treasure Seeking,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3RvtYtE
- “Joseph Smith and Money Digging,” a short read by Richard Bushman (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3RK0iZL
- “That Old Black Magic,” by William J. Hamblin (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3VbyPTT
- “Treasures, Witches, and Ancient Inhabitants (D&C 111),” by Craig Ostler (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3Eo0Ql9
- “Martin Harris’ 1859 Interview with Joel Tiffany on Early Events in Mormonism,” via Doctrine and Covenants Central: https://bit.ly/3RLC1lZ
- “Joseph Smith’s money digging activities and how it relates to his character,” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3CjmEM4
- Appendix 1: Agreement of Josiah Stowell and Others, 1 November 1825,” via The Joseph Smith Papers: https://bit.ly/3ypImNn
- “Joseph Smith’s family and ‘magic parchments,’” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3VcrCD2