The Book of Mormon's foggy origins

Did Joseph Smith believe himself?

Published August 12, 2012 4:01PM (EDT)

This article is an excerpt from the book "Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet," available August 16 from Tarcher/Penguin.

God’s authority was not absolute in [Joseph] Smith’s time. Much is made of the revivals in the early 1800s, public displays of religiosity, and the proliferation of new cults, sects, and prophets. But these might also have expressed anxiety about religion. Not only were many of the revival conversions rescinded, but those that stuck were not necessarily the beginning of a generous new life. Joseph was deeply bothered by the petty partisanship he often noticed between converts and their preachers. As he wrote in The History of the Church, “Yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”

As the nineteenth century progressed, God’s shifting place was reflected in the arts. Painters who’d been trained in Christian iconography like Goya said, “There are no rules,” and didactic traditions about how the Christian story should be told began to be challenged. Joseph seems sensitive to this, or if not sensitive in an educated way to the Enlightenment and its consequences, he seems to intuit how being Christian was fraught in new ways. Religion was losing its dignity. Science was coming on.

Joseph’s first great trauma at eight was a showdown between the two. His whole family had fallen ill with typhoid during the early months of 1812. His older sister, Sophronia, almost died. Joseph seemed to recover, but after several weeks, he developed painful infections, first in his armpit and then in his shinbone. Doctors wanted to amputate, but Lucy fought it. The surgeons explained the only alternative was risky surgery, which might result in Joseph’s death. Lucy’s determination held steady.

When the surgeon arrived on the morning of the operation, Joseph climbed into his father’s lap on the bed. His swollen leg was propped up by folded sheets. The doctor was going to cut out the infected bone in three sections. He would do this first by boring through Joseph’s shin from one side and then the other. Everyone understood the operation would be excruciatingly painful: there was no anesthetic. But there wasn’t any prayer, either. Joseph was offered brandy first, wine second, and restraining ropes third. Yet he was part of a household that prayed regularly and where the parents had just tearfully petitioned God on their knees to save Sophronia, their young daughter, in the darkest hour of her typhoid fever. Sophronia lived. Before Joseph’s operation, God did not come into the conversation until after the boy had rejected alcohol and restraints and urged his mother to leave the room because his suffering would be too much for her. Finally the boy said as the last thing he could think of, “The Lord will help me, and I shall get through with it.” That brandy should be offered under the circumstances before God was only realistic. But that realism spoke volumes. The Smiths knew they lived in a world where medications could reach physical pain that God could not.

Joseph was born after the Enlightenment. He was born after the American Revolution, which guaranteed religious freedom. It was the first time the state and the Christian religion had been set apart since Constantine the Great had made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire. Joseph was familiar with family members who’d turned their backs on evangelic religion. Once, when Lucy started attending Methodist services, her father-in-law threw Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason through the doorway of the Smiths’ home. Jesse Smith, an uncle on Joseph’s father’s side, was an outspoken critic of conversion. He dismissed his young relative’s prophetic revelations from the start. When Joseph confided his vision of God and Jesus in the grove to a Methodist minister — who had taken part in the wildly expressive revivals around Palmyra — the man said such visions had “ended with the Apostles.”

Joseph’s “fertile imagination” inspired worldly doubt in his friends. They weren’t critical of his treasure digging, but when Joseph began to blur gold in caves with gold plates and God in heaven, several felt he was stretching the truth. Joseph himself wasn’t totally convinced of his visions. Some claimed that on several emotional occasions, Joseph admitted he had never seen anything with his peep stone. In Fawn Brodie’s telling phrase, there is a “savagely cynical account” by one of Joseph’s early confidants, Peter Ingersoll, about the origins of the Book of Mormon. According to Ingersoll, Joseph told him he’d brought home some fine white sand wrapped in his shirt, and his family wanted to know what it was. Joseph said, “I happened to think of what I had heard about a history found in Canada, called the golden Bible; so I very gravely told them I had received a commandment to let no one see it, for says I, no man can see it with the naked eye and live. However, I offered to take out the book and show it to them, but they refused to see it, and left the room. Now, I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun.”

These all make me feel that Joseph swung in and out of belief and nothingness as he zigzagged between the moment Moroni appeared to him in 1823, when he was seventeen, and the time when he dug up the plates in 1827 at the age of twenty-one. From the time Moroni told Joseph he had been chosen to deliver a book containing “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel,” he must have constantly meditated on what was being asked of him. His family had every confidence he was wonderful, but Joseph was terribly alone in conceiving and pursuing his religious destiny. There were no AP courses for a religiously gifted teenager. He had no experience of “translating” and no idea he was getting on a career track as a prophet until 1830, when he received a revelation to that effect. No grown person around him had a whisker of the kind of originality that he would display as God’s vehicle for the Book of Mormon. His learning curve was going to be incredibly steep and challenging.

In many ways, he was like a devotional painter trying to work after God had been declared to be dying. His story was filled with angelic visits, a familiar part of the folk worship around him, but his strong, untutored intelligence also “got” the contemporary anxiety about God’s authority. Joseph had that anxiety himself. He understood the implications. Joseph was always extremely alone as he chose the next rung in the climb to prophethood and was probably frightened by his despair when it came on. Yet he was inspired by Moroni to the most daring self-invention. The angel helped Joseph sense his own powers in relation to the Force who scared Tom and Huck out of their skulls. It may have even been the angel who helped Joseph understand how undermined Jesus was, and how it might take some sort of hyperrealism to restore him. Fortunately, Joseph was a quick study in the uses of magic. I believe that under the twin pressures of his faith and his despair, he created a model of the gold plates as a finishing touch to the authority he wanted.

Moroni had clearly laid out the standard of behavior he expected from Joseph: “He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal.” Somehow, Joseph had to make it all up as he went along and also become worthy of being the guardian of the gold plates. He was supposed to visit the plates every September until he was ready. Describing himself in retrospect, he wrote, “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, offensive in the sight of God.” He once again criticized his “levity,” love of “jovial company,” and the shallow tendencies of his “cheery temperament.” He might lack seriousness and integrity, yet now realized he was called to have an eye “single to the glory of God.” He understood the overlap between make-believe and religious belief. When the moment was right, if it became necessary, he could make a model.

According to his friend Oliver Cowdery, the first time Joseph went and looked at the gold plates in 1824, “he could not stop thinking about how to add to his store of wealth … without once thinking of the solemn instruction of the heavenly messenger, that all must be done with the express view of glorifying God.” On another visit, Joseph could not resist temptation and tried to dig up the plates. That was when he got knocked over by the towering toad that whacked him with a rusty sword. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman says there were “three other attempts” whose failure made Joseph cry out to the Lord “in the agony of his soul.” Every time, he was chastened by Moroni, saying the temptation for gold was from the Devil.

Apart from his own desire for success and money, Joseph’s family had other serious needs for cash. In this same period, the Smiths were desperate because they had built a house on rented land, property carrying a debt of long standing. But just then, “the angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. There were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them.” Joseph had no other means of making an income except for treasure digging. He had never made much from it, but his professional reputation had spread so that he was getting better offers. In Harmony, Pennsylvania, Josiah Stowel, a prosperous, respectable landowner, had heard of Joseph and believed the reports about the boy with a gift for seeing what others could not see with the natural eye. Stowel offered good wages in return for Joseph’s help searching for a lost silver mine. Joseph couldn’t turn the work away because of the family’s pressing debts, but his sense of conflict grew.

Joseph and his father found lodging with Isaac Hale, a settler and legendary hunter. At the start, Hale invested in Stowel’s project. Gradually, though, he came to feel the whole enterprise of money digging was a delusion when Joseph turned up neither silver nor gold after weeks of effort. Hale’s opinion of Joseph followed the same trajectory. To begin, he had some interest in Joseph, but by the end Hale saw him as nothing but trouble. In between, the tall, fair, blue-eyed youth had fallen in love with Hale’s daughter Emma, a remarkable young woman who returned his feelings. She was a brunette with deep, brown eyes; a spirited and witty person with some education. She was seen as a good judge of character by her family and friends, also as “fine looking, smart, (and) a good singer” who “often got the power.” When she was a child, her prayers for her father’s return to orthodox Christianity persuaded him to do so. While Joseph and Emma were living under the same roof, their relationship developed quickly and soon reached a point where they wanted to marry. Isaac Hale was furious. He wouldn’t hear of his daughter marrying “a stranger” whose only means of support was to dig for treasure.

Soon after, in March 1826, Joseph was arrested and taken for trial in South Bainbridge, some miles away in New York. Though Josiah Stowel still believed in Joseph’s gifts, his nephew had charged him with being a “disorderly person and an imposter,” a legal term of art really aimed at curbing magic practices. Whether the nephew felt some part of his own property was threatened isn’t clear, but Joseph, who was already on trial within, now had to go on the stand publicly to answer charges of seeking to defraud his employer. Just when he was most conflicted about money digging, most intent on becoming worthy to marry the woman he needed, most striving to be worthy to receive the plates, Joseph stood accused of pretending. What, if anything, was real in him?

According to the 1813 New York statute by which he’d been charged, “All jugglers, and all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found … shall be deemed and adjudged disorderly persons.” Once the statute had been passed, it might as well have stood as an unofficial boundary between the Age of Magic and the Age of Science. It was certainly a moment that raised the question of what would be left of religion when magic was gone. Religion and magic were still floating around in the culture in a pool with “superstition,” “witchcraft,” and “lying.” Visions were part of daily life and language, although losing respectability, and many people who believed in them didn’t like to admit they did. Joseph had them and wasn’t afraid to say so. His boon companions admired his boldness, but didn’t stand by him when it counted.

Again and again in the court record witnesses say Joseph “pretended” to be able to find treasure in the earth; that he “pretended” that he could see precious things at a distance by holding a white stone to the sun; that he looked into a hat “pretending” to find a chest of dollars. Some of these witnesses had been in a position to see Joseph “pretend” to do these things because they were with him, hoping that the pretense would pan out. Two of the witnesses called to testify about Joseph’s activities, Peter Ingersoll and Willard Chase, were annoyed with his inflated claims about an angel, gold plates, a new Bible. Only two men, including Josiah Stowel, vouched for Joseph’s “professed skill” and gave examples of his finding gold with a white stone.

Joseph was found guilty and fined, which seemed to focus his energy. He was “mortified” that people would think he had dedicated his God-given power to the pursuit of “filthy lucre.” Even before the trial ended, he began to distance himself from peep stones, saying he had used them only “on a few occasions.” The gold plates, however, were different from the stones. After the trial, he went back to Harmony and again asked Isaac Hale for Emma’s hand. Her father was even less interested in having Joseph as a son-in-law. When Joseph returned home and told his parents he was determined to marry Emma, they gave him their blessing.

On his annual trip to the plates on Hill Cumorah, the angel told him he must come back with the right person. Joseph was sure that person was Emma. Not only did she believe in his First Vision, Moroni’s visit, and the gold plates, he confessed to his parents that she filled his terrible loneliness. This connection between Emma and his prophetic mission had become so crucial that Joseph went back to Harmony once more and persuaded Emma to elope. They were married on January 18, 1827. Emma was the first significant intimate from outside his family in a long list who helped Joseph complete his unfinished self. He had an instinct for these collaborators, and Emma, with her sure, steady intelligence, was an irreplaceable long-term fit for his work in progress.

After their marriage, they stayed with the Smiths for eight months before her father would let Emma and Joseph pick up her belongings. Isaac wept when he saw the couple. He accused Joseph of “stealing” Emma, and then extracted a promise from Joseph never to engage in money digging again. Now, according to Peter Ingersoll’s recollection, Joseph cried in his turn as he promised and “acknowledged he could not see in a stone, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false.” His tears were real and pathetic as he gave up this important part of himself. The stones had had their place in the story, but now there would only be the plates. The plates could stay. They were what the stones had never quite fully been: symbols.

Everything was now in place for Joseph to act. It didn’t take long to make his model. He had wooden frames, tin. He’d heard the preachers talk about the symbols of the church. Now there was going to be another one. Still, I am sure it took a last visit from the angel before he created his model. As Joseph passed the brushy place where the plates were on Hill Cumorah, Moroni stopped him and delivered “the severest chastisement” of his life. The angel told the faltering prophet apprentice, “I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing and set myself about the things God commanded me to do … I know the course that I am to pursue, so all will be well.” When Joseph finished making the model of the plates, he had a crucial clue in the modern scavenger hunt for God. Then he took his model and buried it in its appointed place on Hill Cumorah.

I am not the first follower of Joseph to say he made the plates. In Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, Dan Vogel, a former Mormon, imagines the scene when Joseph cuts out the plates from tin and crafts them into a loosely fashioned book. He does not say when in his prophetic journey Joseph made the plates; he never speculates on how making the Book of Mormon plates might have played in and out of Joseph’s conscience over time. Vogel believes Joseph is a “pious fraud,” a prophet who created a prop for the sake of giving his religion reality for the many who needed an outward sign.

In a phone interview, Richard Bushman, another Joseph biographer and a faithful Mormon, told me, “The gold plates are the hinge between different views of Joseph. If he just had visions of God, it would be one thing. But once Joseph dug the plates up, there are no categories except fraud — or miracle. Our doubts about his sincerity hinge on that claim. In an effort to prove their authenticity, he shows the plates to other people and publishes a kind of deposition over their names. The plates and the witnesses then force people to a stark decision: Is he a fraud or did he actually find plates?” Richard Bushman believes completely that Joseph found gold plates. So do many other faithful Mormons.

I believe Joseph created a model of the gold plates shortly after his encounter with the angry angel Moroni. I don’t think it makes him a fraud — unless you think the Book of Mormon is a fraud. To me, the Book of Mormon is a strange work of God’s genius. There were four years between Moroni’s first visit and the night Joseph finally took the plates. All that time, at some level of his imagination, he’d been preparing to fulfill the truly unbelievable task of translating a work of new scripture. Daring to think he could do this took incredible belief on his part. I would describe him in some sort of collaboration with God as he moves toward the hour when he has to deliver. God is doing His part in calling Joseph to a dramatic role so far beyond himself. Joseph does his part by setting the stage: by making the plates and burying them. The angel’s impatience and fury is his cue to finally act.

A few days later, Joseph and Emma, dressed all in black, went to Hill Cumorah in a carriage. His wife waited for him while Joseph dug up the plates, then brought them back wrapped in cloth. Within hours of their coming home, the neighborhood was buzzing with rumors that Joseph had the “Gold Bible” at home. Men who had hunted treasure with Joseph felt he owed them a share of his good fortune. Willard Chase hired a conjurer to help a posse of disgruntled locals discover where Joseph had hidden the plates. A crowd pounded on the Smiths’ door, and the Smiths rushed out roaring to scare them away. The plates (which had been put into a chest and stored under the hearthstone) were now moved to the cooper’s shop in the yard. After the plates were taken out of the box in their wrapping, the empty box was put under a floorboard; the plates themselves were hidden anew in a huge heap of flax. Willard Chase and his sister, Sally, returned that night to find the plates with her peep stone. They tore up the floorboards and when they didn’t find the plates, smashed the empty box in their fury. These kind of skirmishes went on until December. By then Joseph was so frustrated by interruptions, he took his wife to her parents’ house in a horse-drawn carriage, with the gold plates submerged in a barrel of beans.

Reprinted from Falling in Love with Joseph Smith: My Search for the Real Prophet by Jane Barnes with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group USA. Copyright 2012 by Jane Barnes.


By Jane Barnes

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