This article, by Oliver Mullins, originally appeared on the FairMormon Blog.
A common accusation levied against the Prophet Joseph Smith is that he was heavily involved with “magic.” Not in an abstract believe-in-something-greater-then-yourself kind of “magic,” but in more of a literal “Harry Potter” sense. This myth is propagated both by anti-Mormons and at times concerned believers. It is unfortunate that this troubling falsehood keeps being brought up from time to time, but as I hope to show to those who may be concerned by the allegation, it is misleading.
These claims, which are as old as the church itself, range from Joseph Smith owning a Jupiter Talisman, magic parchments, and a mars dagger (which was used in ritualistic magic). Some claim that Joseph Smith and his family were involved in drawing “magic circles,” and many other ridiculous accusations. Some of these allegations can be dismissed as having absolutely no evidence to support them, or coming from sources that need to be viewed with extreme skepticism. The one accusation, however, that I do want to discuss in more detail is that Joseph Smith, through magical means, used a stone to search for buried treasure, and that this was the basis for him claiming to have found a “golden bible.” This proves, the anti-Mormons say, that the Book of Mormon (and by extension The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was founded on occultism, and not by God.
Before addressing this topic, I first want to paint a picture of the world of Joseph Smith in the early to mid 1800s. It was in many ways completely different then the modern world in which we now live. Practices like dowsing (also known as divining–––the practice of using a rod to find water or ore) was commonplace in that century, and was believed to be scientifically valid, the rod pointing towards the water like a compass points towards magnetic north. (An interesting side note, while certainly not as common now, dowsers are still employed by many farmers today). Seers who used stones to find lost objects were also not uncommon; in fact around the vicinity of the small town of Palmyra at least four people were operating as such. These practices certainly seem extremely strange to us in our day, and it is easy to dismiss them as the superstitions of simple, uneducated country folk. But it was not limited to them. It truly was part of the early modern worldview. For example, Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientific mind of all time–––who died 43 years before Joseph Smith was born–––believed in alchemy (that common metals could be transformed to gold or silver). As we can see, if we are to try and understand why Joseph Smith may have done some of the things he did, we need to look at it under a 19th century lens, not our 21st century one.
Another important point to consider is the American frontier at the time was steeped in a religious and biblical culture–––much more so then we are today–––and many (though not all) would have certainly viewed these practices as falling under biblical approval. The Bible certainly lends credit to God use of physical objects in miraculous ways. Consider Jacob’s use of peeled poplar and hazel sticks to produced striped and spotted stock, Moses’ and Aaron’s rods, the Urim and Thummim, and consecrated oil to heal the sick as examples. It is critical to note, however, that the Bible absolutely condemns magic and sorcery. This is important: all who believe in the Bible (or virtually any other book of scripture for that matter) most certainly believe in supernatural, unexplainable miracles, but point to God as the source, not magic. Most of these practitioners–––be it “dowsers” or “seers”–––were practicing Christians, and as such they would have believed that they were given their gifts from God, not that they had some inherent magical power.
This brings us to the question of what Joseph Smiths involvement in all of this was. Early historical documents do show that prior to the Restoration Joseph Smith was involved in the practice of using a seer stone to find lost or hidden objects. As was discussed earlier in this post, this does not show that he believed in, or practiced, magic or sorcery in any form. Rather he, as a young man, believed either that he had been blessed with a gift from God, or that he had a talent for finding lost objects which was not incompatible with the scientific worldview at the time (much like dowsing). Unfortunately, there are no first hand accounts of this, and so we are without Joseph’s own thoughts and feelings on the matter and are left to draw conclusions based on the testimony of witnesses and other evidences. Also, many of the second hand accounts were given many years later, which adds a layer of complexity when trying to determine exactly how and to what extend Joseph Smith was involved. Hopefully throughout the remainder of this post I might be able shed some light and perhaps bring some context to this subject.
To the best of our ability it appears that he first used a seer stone to help locate lost objects in 1819-1820. In one of the early accounts it appears that Joseph Smith used the stone to help locate some lost cows. In another second hand account he was asked to tell the future, but he refused–––which is an important point. In his 2009 FAIR conference presentation, Brant Gardner stated, “I suspect that the refusal tells us about the spheres in which Joseph believed that particular talent operated. That refusal suggests Joseph made a distinction between that which was holy (which I believe he classified as religion) and his other functions (which I believe he classified as a talent).” In other words, this shows that Joseph Smith was concerned with not trying to extend his “talents” to do something that God would not sanction (i.e. prophesying the future without divine approval). But as this example demonstrates, it appears that he viewed the searching for lost objects to help others in an entirely different category, one which God did not disapprove.
Another common accusation was that Joseph Smith used this seer stone to con others into paying him to find lost treasure. The only well documented “treasure hunt” that Joseph Smith participated in was the 1825 expedition with Josiah Stowell (or Stoal) Sr. Josiah Stowell hired Joseph to help him find what he believed to be a lost Spanish silver mine (see previously linked FAIR presentation for more information). It is noteworthy that Joseph Smith was taken to court over the incident by Josiah Stowell’s nephew who accused him of conning his uncle. Josiah Stowell testified on Joseph Smith’s behalf and it appears he was acquitted of the charge. In his written history, Joseph Smith testifies that he actually was the one who persuaded Josiah to give up searching for the mine. His own humorous response to the accusation “was not Joseph Smith a money digger?” was “Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” As we can see, it is very difficult to paint him in the light of a treasure seeking con artist.
The questions that most concerned Latter-day Saints probably have concerning this matter, however, are probably more along the lines of: did Joseph Smith actually have the gift to find lost objects using a stone? Are there any implications with the translation of the Gold Plates? Why would Heavenly Father choose as His prophet someone who practiced something that seems so foreign and strange to us? While we don’t have answers to all the questions on this subject, I hope to be able to offer up some ideas to anyone who may be struggling with this issue.
First, we have no idea if Joseph Smith felt like his early use of a seer stone was assisted by a spiritual gift–––he said nothing on the matter. It would not surprise me at all if Heavenly Father had blessed the young boy with a gift that he used to assist others in finding things that were lost. That being said, my faith also allows 100% for a young Joseph Smith who was interested in an old tradition common to his time, and not believing it to be under biblical condemnation, sought to learn about and practice it. Remember, he was a teenager at the time, and one who sought truth from God wherever he could (even in a grove of trees). Would it not be unreasonable for such a young man to see if there was any truth among the local “seers” in his area? And could that not have sparked in interest in his teenage mind to see if he also possessed a “talent” for such things?
Whether his use of a seer stone was inspired by God, or a practice he became interested in and picked up on his own, we can only speculate. What is clear, however, is that Heavenly Father used this to further his purposes and prepare the young Joseph Smith for the great work that lay ahead of him. Because Joseph Smith was familiar using a stone to find lost objects, it would absolutely make sense to him that he could use stones to translate a “lost” language from an ancient record. It was a physical object that he could put his faith in while God used him to work mighty miracles. Did Heavenly Father need to use a stone or Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon? No, of course not. In fact, later Joseph Smith stopped using the stone to receive revelation because he no longer needed it. God didn’t need Moses’ rod to part the Red Sea either. But the rod, like the stone, was familiar to His prophets and it served as a catalyst to build their budding faith while they grew into the great men God intended them to be. God took Joseph Smith as he was, a “rough rolling stone,” and molded him into the great prophet of the restoration.
I would like to finish by quoting Elder D. Todd Christofferson:
We should be careful not to claim for Joseph Smith perfections he did not claim for himself. He need not have been superhuman to be the instrument in God’s hands that we know him to be. In May, 1844, Joseph declared: “I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” He had commented earlier: “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I am charged with doing: the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if He were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against Him—they all watched for iniquity in Him.” Joseph Smith was a mortal man striving to fulfill an overwhelming, divinely- appointed mission against all odds. The wonder is not that he ever displayed human failings, but that he succeeded in his mission. His fruits are undeniable and undeniably good.
To me the greatest way to defend accusations against the Prophet, and to calm any nagging doubts, is to look at the fruits of Joseph Smith, namely the Book of Mormon and the work of the Restoration. Could such a work be brought forth by an uneducated farm boy who dabbled in magic and had no assistance from the Divine? I would testify absolutely not–––that this could only be brought forth by the gift and power of God. Ultimately, however, we each need to determine this for ourselves. The beauty of the Book of Mormon is that for us, it is something physical that we can read, study, and ask God ourselves to determine the truth of what it contains. The exact mechanics of how the plates were translated, or how Joseph Smith became prepared to translate them is a secondary issue. And if we can determine the truthfulness of the end product, we can be assured that while we may not have all the answers, God’s hand was involved from the beginning to the end.