Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
[p.1]On 1 April 1842 the Times and Seasons, official organ of the Nauvoo, Illinois, based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published another chapter in the serialized history of its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. In this latest installment, the thirty-six-year-old Smith publicly recounted his adolescence during the 1820s in western New York, including the admission that as a youth, “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 corruption of human nature, which I am sorry to say led me into divers temptations, to the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.”1
The spiritual leader of some 20,000 Mormons worldwide, Smith did not cite specific offenses in his confession, an oversight his more vocal critics were only too eager to correct. According to them, at the same time Smith was receiving his first revelations during the 1820s, which would eventually lead to his founding the Mormon church [p.2] on 6 April 1830, he was also deceiving credulous neighbors by pretending to see buried treasure in the earth and was notorious throughout the frontier New York community as a drunkard, blasphemer, and cheat. Not content with branding him a moral incompetent, these critics attempted to prove him a willful fraud, a confidence man who was perpetrating one of the great hoaxes of modern times. Discovering that he could dupe the unwary by claiming magical powers, they alleged, Smith turned his questionable talents to religion, where he could exploit the superstitious on a truly grand scale. Through one fabrication after another, according to detractors, he finally succeeded in organizing a church, whose primary purpose was to bring wealth to its founder.
Those who continue to view Joseph Smith in this decidedly negative light have traditionally depended upon the efforts of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, a one-time Mormon who was excommunicated in 1833 for, among other offenses, saying “that he deceived Joseph Smith’s God, or the spirit by which he was actuated.”2 Convinced that Mormonism was a deception, Hurlbut offered his services to an anti-Mormon group based in the Kirtland, Ohio, area interested in investigating rumors about Smith’s early life and the possibly fraudulent origin of Smith’s new scripture, the Book of Mormon. To accomplish this end, they sent Hurlbut to Palmyra, New York, where Smith had spent most of his youth and early manhood. There Hurlbut collected the signatures of over eighty people testifying to the allegedly bad character of the Smith family and of Joseph Smith in particular.
In affidavit after affidavit the young Smith was depicted as a liar and self-confessed fraud, a cunning and callous knave who delighted in nothing so much as preying upon the credulity of his neighbors. A money digger by profession, Smith spent his nights digging for treasure [p.3] and his days lounging about the local grocery store entertaining his fellow tipplers with tales of midnight enchantments and bleeding ghosts, the affidavits maintained.3
Once published in 1834 Hurlbut’s affidavits became especially dangerous to the newly founded church and its leader. To defuse the potentially explosive documents, Smith read them aloud at public meetings, denouncing them as the work of Satan. More importantly, Hurlbut’s affidavits stimulated Smith to publish the first official history of the new church, “Early Scenes and Incidents in the Church,” authored by Smith’s closest associate at the time, Oliver Cowdery. Just as Hurlbut had revealed the “real” Joseph Smith, so Cowdery’s “History” revealed another “real” Joseph Smith—though without supporting affidavits. Rather than a moral leper, Cowdery’s Joseph Smith was simply a man like other men “and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk.”4
Hurlbut’s witnesses remembered Smith as “entirely destitute of moral character, and addicted to vicious habits.”5 The only sins of Cowdery’s Smith “were a light, and too often, vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation.”6 Hurlbut’s Smith was animated by no loftier purpose than the love of money, but Cowdery’s Smith was in contrast motivated by a sincere desire “to know for himself of the certainty and reality of pure and holy religion.”7 Hurlbut’s Smith was a money digger who told marvelous tales of enchanted treasure and infernal spirits, but Cowdery’s Smith had only “heard of the power of enchantement, and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth.”8
Oliver Cowdery’s “History” was the first, but by no means the last, attempt by Mormon writers to discredit Hurlbut’s scandalous allegations. In 1881 two leading elders of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter [p.4] Day Saints (founded in 1860), brothers William and E. L. Kelley, interviewed a number of old Palmyra-Manchester, New York, residents in order to, in the Kelleys’ words, “‘beard the lion in his den,’ and hear the worst, let it hurt whom it would.”9 According to the published report of their efforts, the Kelleys could find virtually no one who knew anything firsthand against the Smiths and a number who remembered the family as being quite respectable. The worst the Kelleys could report was one account of money digging and an occasional reference to Joseph Smith’s drinking.
Non-Mormons were no less zealous in collecting additional information about the young Mormon prophet. In 1880 Frederic G. Mather published an article in Lippincott’s Magazine entitled “The Early Days of Mormonism.” Mather had visited not only Palmyra but also central Pennsylvania, where Joseph Smith lived and worked for some time before the Book of Mormon appeared in late March 1830. Like Hurlbut, Mather found many people willing to talk about the young man who, in the words of one, “did not look as if he knew enough to fool people so.”10 And like Hurlbut, Mather heard stories of gold digging and drinking, although many of these same witnesses also considered Smith “a good and kind neighbor.”11 Later in the 1880s Arthur Buel Deming also acted the sleuth, publishing the results of his investigations in a short-lived, two-issue newspaper bearing the lurid title Naked Truths About Mormonism. Deming’s results were also unlike those of the Kelleys, for he encountered no difficulty in finding people who claimed firsthand knowledge of the Smiths. Deming’s informants willingly repeated all that Hurlbut’s witnesses had charged over half a century before, even adding a number of new accusations to the growing list.
Together with other, widely scattered recollections and statements, these four sources—Hurlbut, the [p.5] Kelleys, Mather, and Deming—contain almost everything that is known about the young Joseph Smith from non-Mormon sources. Despite the obvious importance of these testimonials, few contemporary scholars have investigated their reliability as primary documents. Non-Mormons generally have been content to reject reports favorable to Smith on the grounds of obvious prejudice, and those sympathetic to the Saints and their church have similarly rejected testimony portraying Smith in an unfavorable light.
Occasionally, some have attempted to evaluate the reports themselves. When it first became known that Isaac Hale, Joseph Smith’s father-in-law, had written a letter condemning his son-in-law as an imposter, one of Smith’s early supporters, Martin Harris, responded by calling Hale’s letter a forgery because “Hale was old and blind and not capable of writing it.”12 William R. Hine, who knew Hale, challenged Harris, saying that “Hale was called the greatest hunter on the Susquehanna, and two years before had killed a black deer and a white bear, which many hunters had tried to kill, also that he was intelligent and knew the Scriptures.”13 Faced with such conflicting testimony, Eber D. Howe wrote to Hale directly, reporting the charge and requesting that Hale attest his letter before a magistrate. “I hope no one has attempted to deceive us,” Howe wrote, “deception and falsehood in the business will do no good in the end, but will help build up the monstrous delusion.”14 Hale responded by affirming his affidavit before a justice of the peace. He included testimonials to his veracity and an affidavit from his minister attesting that though old and occasionally requiring the use of an amanuensis, Hale yet “retains his sight and is still capable of writing.”15
As the most ambitious attempt to disprove Hurlbut’s affidavits, the Kelley interviews proved to be just as disappointing. At least three of those interviewed were [p.6] so incensed with the published report that they produced affidavits of their own charging the Kelleys with misrepresentation. Among them was John H. Gilbert, who on 12 July 1881 appeared before Justice M. C. Finley and made the following deposition: “John H. Gilbert of Palmyra, Wayne county, N.Y., being duly sworn deposes and says, that in the article published in ‘The Saints’ Herald,’ at Plano, Ill., June 1, 1881, purporting to give an interview with him on the subject of Mormonism &c., signed by Wm. H. Kelley, he is grossly misrepresented in almost every particular, words being put into his mouth that he never uttered, and the answers to questions he did give, totally at variance from the answers given by him, and as he believes, designedly.”16
Faced with the questionable reliability of the Kelley report and the lack of credible testimony discounting the affidavits collected by Hurlbut and others, most scholars outside of Mormonism have tended to accept the non-Mormon side of the issue. The number of witnesses, the unanimity of their testimony, the failure to impeach even a single witness, and the occasional candid reminiscence by Martin Harris, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, William Smith, Joseph Knight, or other early Mormons have contributed to the conclusion that Hurlbut and his followers were probably reliable reporters. Even those who suspected that the witnesses against Smith may have been motivated by more than a simple desire to inform have not questioned the depictions of Smith as a basically self-seeking charlatan.17
In 1961 and 1970 two notable Mormon efforts were launched to discredit the Smith family neighbors. The first, Hugh Nibley’s The Myth Makers, was a book-length attempt to prove that the witnesses against Joseph Smith “told the best stories they could think of, without particularly caring whether they were true or not.”18 The second and more [p.7] substantial effort was a lengthy article by Richard L. Anderson entitled, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised.”19 In it Anderson argued that Hurlbut and Deming infected their reports with their own animosity and that their witnesses really knew very little about Joseph Smith. Anderson found the Kelley report more reliable, both because of the Kelleys’ superior objectivity and because the witnesses they contacted who actually claimed to know the Smiths praised rather than condemned the family. Since the witnesses who knew Joseph Smith best were most positive in their opinions of him, Anderson argued, it follows that the most reliable authorities on the early life of Joseph Smith are members of Smith’s own family.
Many Mormons have since accepted the arguments advanced by Nibley and Anderson, declaring the matter settled. Hurlbut’s testimonials, explained one Mormon historian, are significant only as evidence of how “suspicious, sensitive critics reacted to Joseph’s testimony by manufacturing a variety of preposterous myths.” Another noted that any of Hurlbut’s sources after the appearance of Anderson’s article “must now be seriously questioned.”20
Unfortunately, there has been little effort to reexamine the influential works of Nibley and Anderson to discover whether their arguments are equal to their conclusions. The following study attempts to fill this void. I believe that the testimonials collected by Hurlbut, Deming, and others are in fact largely immune to the attacks launched against them by Nibley, Anderson, and others. ‘Hurlbut’s witnesses may not have left history “of the purest ray serene,” but there can be no doubt that these reports, in early twentieth-century German historian Eduard Meyer’s words, “give us the general opinion of his [Smith’s] neighbors in their true, essential form.”21 Whether or not it follows that the conclusions of the Smiths’ neighbors about the events they witnessed are in fact justified is a task I [p.8] leave to other researchers. In the meantime, it is clear that a broader picture of Joseph Smith emerges from these early affidavits and interviews than is otherwise available from family and followers. [p.11]
1. Joseph Smith’s confession was originally recorded in the Times and Seasons 3 (April 1842): 749. An amended version, denying any inference of serious wrongdoing on the part of Smith, later appeared in Joseph Smith et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1902-12), 1:9-10.
9. William H. Kelley, “The Hill Cumorah … The Stories of Hurlbert, Howe, Tucker, &c. from Late Interviews,” Saints’ Herald 28 (1 June 1881): 162. The following year Mormon writer George Reynolds quoted at length from the Kelley interviews (though without acknowledging the Saints’ Herald) in an article for the Mormon church’s Juvenile Instructor (1 Oct. 1882), entitled “Joseph Smith’s Youthful Life.” “Joseph was undoubtedly not perfect,” Reynolds noted, “none of us are—but he was far superior in almost every respect to his neighbors and associates” (p.299).
16. Copied from the original on file in the Ontario County, New York, Clerk’s Office. Gilbert’s statement, among others, was first published in The Ontario County Times (Canandaigua, NY), 27 July 1881, and later in the Cadillac (MI) Weekly News. See the undated clipping from that paper in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.
19. Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 283-314. Anderson has dealt with later money-digging episodes in Smith’s life in an article entitled “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Seeking,” Brigham Young University Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 489-560. Because this recent article falls outside the scope of the present study, I will not treat it in what follows. Readers are nonetheless advised to approach Anderson’s analysis in light of what is said hereafter about the Smiths and money digging. Considering the degree of family involvement with the seeking of hidden treasure by occult means, later events would most naturally be interpreted as continuing expressions of the same interest.
20. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision … (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971), 116; Marvin S. Hill, “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Winter 1972): 77. Perhaps the most candid response from a Mormon scholar came from Richard L. Bushman, a sympathetic biographer of Joseph Smith, who wrote in 1984, “The affidavits have been challenged for their authenticity because of Hurlbut’s and Howe’s undisguised animosity, but while questionable in detail, there is little reason to believe the [Palmyra-Manchester] neighbors felt otherwise.” Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 190.