As many people know, before embarking on his career as prophet, seer, and revelator, Joseph Smith made a living by locating objects and treasures through his “seer stone.” Joseph would place the stone in a hat, and then put the hat over his face; apparently, the location of the lost object would be shown in the stone (see, for example, the record of Joseph’s 1826 “glass-looking” trial). This is the same method Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon plates, as described by David Whitmer, who was one of Joseph’s scribes:
“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man” (Address to All Believers in Christ).
Obviously, the two endeavors–treasure hunting and translating–are connected by the seer stone, which was the means for both. Thus, Mormon apologists must account for the transition from treasure-seeker to prophet. It’s a little tricky because the validity of the first occupation affects that of the second. Richard Bushman, perhaps the premier living biographer of Joseph Smith, puts it this way:
Although treasure-seeking was left behind, the magical culture of the stones played an important part in the development of Joseph’s identity as seer and translator. The Christianity of Methodism or Presbyterianism could not have readied him for translation. In conventional Protestant Christianity, learned men translated the Bible, and pious young people became preachers like [Charles] Finney or Lorenzo Dow, not translators.
The treasure-seeking stones from magic culture, by contrast, helped Joseph move step by step into his calling. The scryer of stones looked for the unseen, whether lost objects or buried treasure. Joseph’s first reaction when he brought home the Urim and Thummim was delight with the powers of the instrument. It was “ten times Better than I expected,” he told Joseph Knight. “I can see any thing: they are Marvelus.” Though amazed at the Urim and Thummim’s power, he knew from working with his own stones what to expect; he would “see.”
Although he had obtained one of his early stones from a hole dug for a well and not by a gift from heaven, practice with stones, looking for lost objects and probably for treasure, was an initiation into “seeing” that could be transferred to translation of the gold plates in the stones of the Urim and Thummim. In fact, as work on the Book of Mormon went on, a seerstone took the place of the Urim and Thummim, blending the culture of magic with the divine culture of translation (“Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth, 242).
But the reason the money-digging episode is a potential red flag is that using the seer stone to find treasure works as preparation for the work of translation only if Joseph could actually see and find treasure using the stone. Hence a FAIR article gives us cases where Joseph found objects with his stone. The three examples are Martin Harris’s account of Joseph finding a pin dropped on the ground in “shavings and straw,” the location of the Book of Mormon plates, and an account of Joseph locating a stolen horse. Apparently, the author of the article recognizes that, if Joseph Smith couldn’t really find treasure with his stone, you have a problem. Admittedly, it takes quite a suspension of disbelief to accept that people can find lost objects by looking at a stone, but the situation appears to require it here. But for the author, the 1826 “trial results … give support to the fact that Joseph did indeed possess supernatural talents.”
But even if Joseph couldn’t see things in the stone, maybe he really believed he could. The evidence is mixed here. In the 1826 trial, Joseph is said to have testified that he “had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were.” But Isaac Hale and Peter Ingersoll say that, when confronted, “Joseph wept, and acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.” Joseph is then said to have promised to abandon glass-looking and instead “work hard” for his living. (Peter Ingersoll affidavit, 9 Dec. 1833; Isaac Hale affidavit, 20 Mar. 1834.)
It’s also interesting that Joseph downplays the moneydigging episode in his official history (JS-H):
In the year 1823 my father’s family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother, Alvin. 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, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to my hiring to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with 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.
This statement leaves the reader with the impression that Joseph was just one of Stowell’s “hands,” a common laborer engaged in digging a hole. There is no mention of his seer stone, no mention of why it was that Stowell hired him, no mention of his treasure-finding powers. If Joseph had believed it was a divine gift that had been a preparation for his prophetic duties, why obscure it the way he did?
And finally, these money-digging practices are rarely mentioned, if at all, in lesson manuals and church magazines. And often they are downplayed, as in this 2001 Ensignarticle:
An enterprising farmer by the name of Josiah Stowell came 30 miles from his farm in Bainbridge Township, Chenango County, New York, carrying a purported treasure map and accompanied by a digging crew. The company took their room and board with the Hale family. On the crew were Joseph Smith Jr. and his father. Lucy Mack Smith records that Josiah ‘came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.’ The Smiths had initially refused Josiah’s invitation in October 1825. However, the reality of the family’s difficulty in meeting the $100 annual mortgage payment on their farm and Stowell’s promise of “high wages to those who would dig for him” finally persuaded them both to join in the venture.
The implication here seems to be that Stowell had mistaken Joseph’s prophetic calling for an ability to find treasure. Similarly, President Hinckley referred to the Stowell episode as a “mining operation” (“Keep the Faith,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 3). Probably the most direct statement about the episode comes in a 1994 Ensign article about highlights of Joseph Smith’s life:
20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.
The current Priesthood/Relief Society manual says only this:
While he waited to receive the gold plates, Joseph Smith helped provide for his family’s temporal needs. In 1825 he went to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to work for Josiah Stowell.
To me, these are important issues. I understand that they don’t trouble some people, but they do raise significant questions about the character and calling of a prophet.