Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
The Myth Makers
[p.11]The fundamental argument of Hugh Nibley, one of contemporary Mormonism’s leading scholars, presented in his 1961 classic response to Mormon detractors, The Myth Makers, is a simple one. According to Nibley, “The whole structure of anti-Mormon scholarship rests on trumped-up evidence.”1 Everywhere in these unfriendly sources he found exaggeration, pretended knowledge, prevarication, and “intrinsically absurd and thoroughly conflicting [stories].”2 In fact, Nibley argues, these qualities infect the whole body of non-Mormon literature from Doctor Philastus Hurlbut to the present. Joseph Smith’s neighbors, he concludes, were simply “a pack of story-tellers who have been getting away with too much for too long.”3
Although praised by some as a long-needed expose of anti-Mormonism, Nibley’s work unfortunately suffers from serious failings. Its errors are many, but a number stand out because of their ubiquity. First is the unqualified scope of its generalization. Because he found some writers who were less than careful with the truth, [p.12] Nibley concluded that all such writers must have been similarly careless, a conclusion which is simply not justified.4 Nor does it follow that because a writer errs in one place, his or her whole account is for that reason erroneous.
For example, John C. Bennett’s seminal 1842 anti-Mormon book, The History of the Saints; or, An Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism,5 is most certainly unreliable in places, but it is equally certain that the book—written by a former counselor in Joseph Smith’s first presidency—is not the jumble of lies some have assumed. Subsequent research has confirmed much of what appeared at the time as apostate slander. Nibley, however, does not consider that a witness whose veracity is not always absolute could ever tell the truth. Ironically, Nibley’s position is logically identical to that of anti-Mormon writers who claim that Joseph Smith always prevaricated because his accounts of his first vision sometimes differ from one another or because he repeatedly denied that he ever practiced polygamy.
Also among The Myth Makers‘s failings is its author’s use of arguments which are non sequiturs. For example, Nibley argues at some length that the stories about Joseph Smith’s money digging could be attributed to earlier money-digging stories involving other people. Since “every weird detail of the stories later attached to Joseph Smith is found in full bloom before Smith,” Nibley contends that those who attribute similar stories to Smith are simply “trying to dress Joseph Smith in other men’s clothes.”6 Such a conclusion not only far outstrips the available evidence, ignoring numerous contemporary witnesses who either saw Smith digging or heard him talk about the subject, it simply confirms that the practice of money digging did not originate with Smith. All it answers is the question of where Smith learned how to dig for money.
Long before Joseph Smith’s neighbors alleged that he hunted for buried money by occult means, the art of [p.13] magical treasure hunting was widespread in America.7 Accounts of men pursuing enchanted treasures with divining rods are especially prevalent throughout the eighteenth century and suggest that the practice had become ritualized very early on. The buried treasure was located by a divining rod and immobilized by charms, magic circles, or special steel rods driven into the ground. Incantations were recited to protect the diggers from “certain malicious Demons who are said to hunt and guard such Places.” Any deviation from the prescribed rituals on the part of the treasure hunters spoiled their chances of recovering the trove; any “Mistake in the Procedure, some rash Word spoken, or some Rule of Art neglected, the Guardian Spirit had Power to sink it deeper into the Earth and convey it out of their reach.”8
The relevance of such practices to Nibley’s hypothesis needs little comment. If by the time Joseph Smith became interested in buried money there already existed an entire lore of magical treasure hunting, then parallels of the type adduced by Nibley prove only that Smith followed approved methods in seeking elusive treasures. Without evidence of “borrowing” from other accounts there is no reason to suppose that Smith was being confused with other money diggers simply because all drew from the same complex body of occult beliefs.
Other examples of The Myth Makers‘s lack of sound arguments include the claim that the witnesses against Smith are entirely too many and that the testimony of a more limited number would have borne more weight because a smaller group might have known Smith better.9 Of course Nibley could then have argued that the witnesses against Smith were entirely too few for a scamp of his alleged reputation. But in any case the premises themselves are patently false. To witness someone’s acts or hear a person relate his experiences does not require profound [p.14] friendship. Most people have scores of acquaintances who could testify to their character on the basis of conversations or observed acts. Certainly such acquaintances may not understand the motives behind behavior and may garble conversations when reporting, but the sum of enough persons testifying to similar acts or conversations can provide a reliable index to a person’s general behavior.
Nibley is also mistaken when he charges that those who testified to Smith’s character were themselves disreputable, otherwise “how could they have discovered the vices they know so much about?”10 Witnessing a deed is not the same as committing it, and hearing a man boast of some act does not necessitate participation in it.11 Even if it could be demonstrated that Smith’s accusers were in fact involved in the same practices they related, it would not mean their testimony was for that reason suspect. Defending the accused by pointing to the imperfections of their accusers is fallacious and only serves to deflect attention from the original issue. Such an argument exonerates neither side and certainly does not prove that the person originally accused is innocent simply because his accusers do not themselves have “clean hands.”
Another significant defect of Nibley’s analysis is its frequent high-handedness in dealing with testimony unfavorable to Smith. Rather than consider whether similar testimony from more than one person might indicate that what they report is true, Nibley often dismisses the topic with flippant and unsupported assertions. His handling of the following testimony demonstrates this characteristic response. Hezekiah McKune testified that “in conversation with Joseph Smith Jr., he (Smith) said he was nearly equal to Jesus Christ”; Levi Lewis testified “that he heard Smith say he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ;—that it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ”; and [p.15] Sophia Lewis testified that she “heard a conversation between Joseph Smith Jr., and the Rev. James B. Roach, in which Smith … said … that he (Smith) was as good as Jesus Christ.”12 To these statements Nibley responds, “Isn’t it fairly obvious that the three cooked the story up among themselves before they went to the magistrate?”13 Nibley’s only reason for claiming this is that these three witnesses went together to make their depositions and that McKune was a “close friend” of the Lewises. Even if true, this does not necessarily prove collusion. But, in fact, no evidence even exists that McKune was on intimate terms with the Lewises, that the three were in company when they made their depositions, or that they had met together and discussed the matter beforehand. All are details supplied by Nibley, not by the documents.
To cast further suspicion on the affidavits of the Lewises and McKune, Nibley charges exaggeration by quoting a later source alleging that Joseph Smith “was often heard during his lifetime to declare himself far superior to our Savior.”14 Nibley observes, “Well, you see how these things grow. First Mr. McKune in 1834 says that Smith claimed he was ‘nearly equal’ to Jesus; then the Lewises improved on that—each of them heard Smith say he was ‘as good as Jesus Christ;’ finally in 1851 it is remembered that he ‘was often heard … to declare himself far superior to our Savior.'”15 Again, Nibley’s charge is without foundation. The assertion that McKune preceded the Lewises in testifying is not corroborated by evidence. Further, if the three are testifying to separate experiences, as Nibley seems to believe, their variation in language is insignificant. Finally, the late source adduced by Nibley as proving “how these things grow” may simply prove that the author of the article was careless in his reporting or reflect the recollection of a different statement altogether. Despite this, [p.16] Nibley insists that if the latter article exaggerates, then McKune and the Lewises must surely have exaggerated too.
This charge of exaggerated hearsay occurs repeatedly throughout Nibley’s book. For example, he accuses John Hyde of embroidering Barton Stafford’s account of having seen Joseph Smith drunk in a hay field. According to Nibley, Hyde’s statement that Smith “when drunk … would talk about his religion”16 goes beyond what Stafford actually said, which was that Smith got into a drunken fight while working for his father. However, in his original statement Stafford concluded: “As an evidence of his [Smith’s] piety and devotion, when intoxicated, he frequently made his religion the topic of conversation!!”17 Thus Hyde and Stafford agree, with Nibley failing to quote Stafford in full.
Nibley further misrepresents the issue of Joseph Smith’s drinking when he introduces the recollection of a witness who supposedly saw Smith lying drunk in a field during the summer of 1844.18 Nibley quotes this recollection, attributing it to C. C. Weil,19 and then remarks about “how these things grow” and refers to Weil’s “improvement” on Hyde’s “improvement” of Stafford’s original statement.20 Nibley does not explain how Weil, whose account was printed in 1854, could “improve” on Hyde’s account, which was not published until 1857, nor does he explain how Weil’s experience, which supposedly occurred in 1844 at Montrose, Iowa, is an embellishment of Stafford’s experience, which occurred sometime during the late 1820s in Manchester, New York. The two stories share neither time, place, nor general circumstances. Yet Nibley assumes a genetic-like relationship between the accounts simply because both refer to Smith drunk in a field. If Smith, as so many contemporaries alleged, was given to occasional bouts with the bottle, he could have been seen intoxicated in [p.17] similar situations on more than one occasion. Smith’s enthusiasm for wine and beer up to the time of his death in 1844 certainly lends credibility to these earlier stories.21
The Myth Makers is also marred by numerous factual errors. Nibley claims, for example, that some of Philastus Hurlbut’s witnesses later “went back” on their 1833-34 testimony and that when interviewed years later “spoke very well of Smith, and had nothing bad whatever to say about him.”22 Of Hurlbut’s many witnesses, only one was interviewed years later by William and E. L. Kelley, and he reaffirmed his original testimony. Abel Chase, who in 1833 joined ten others in signing an affidavit charging the Smiths with indolence, intemperance, and untrustworthiness, told the Kelleys in 1881 that the Smith family was superstitious, shiftless, and untrustworthy. Chase did not mention intemperance, but the Kelleys apparently did not ask Chase about this charge. From other interviews, the Kelleys did find that the drinking habits of the Smiths were not different from those of their neighbors, although one neighbor recalled Joseph Smith and his father getting drunk on one occasion.
Nibley’s use of the Kelley interviews introduces another failing: a tendency to suppress information potentially harmful to traditional interpretations of the Mormon past. For example, Nibley was aware that the Kelleys’ report was challenged only days after its original publication, but he ignores the fact, presumably because this information would undermine his contention that some of Hurlbut’s witnesses reneged on their original testimonies.
Nibley’s suppression of vital information in this instance seems intentional. For on the same pages of the source he cites to prove his points, Charles A. Shook’s The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy,23 appear affidavits challenging the accuracy of the Kelley report. These Nibley transmutes into a vague statement that the purported denials of [p.18] the Hurlbut witnesses were not “unanimous.” Without a copy of Shook’s work at hand, the reader has no way of knowing that the retractions to which Nibley alludes were made in reference to the Kelley report, not the testimonials collected by Hurlbut.
Still another of The Myth Makers‘s many problems is a lack of scholarly standards in evaluating sources. Firsthand accounts are impeached because they are not consistent with anti-Mormon fulminations of a century later, and contemporary accounts of episodes in Joseph Smith’s life are discredited almost wholly on the basis of later secondary reports. For example, in discussing the “mighty band” of diggers employed by Smith in hunting treasure, Nibley cites fifteen sources, only three of which pretend to have known Smith during the time he was hunting for buried treasures. Smith’s digging techniques are treated similarly, for of the six disparate sources cited by Nibley, only one pretends to be an eyewitness account. The rest are imaginative reconstructions found in books published from 1851 to 1920, not one of which contains any personal recollections of Smith by firsthand witnesses.
By thus arbitrarily increasing the number of its “witnesses,” The Myth Makers not only impresses readers with its wide-ranging scholarship but augments the probability of finding contradictions. Nibley’s success depends in large measure upon impugning one witness by citing another, disparate witness. Since the earliest accounts are not sufficiently inconsistent, Nibley depends heavily on non-witnesses. Thus he quotes C. S. Jones as saying that a “full moon” was essential for Smith’s money digging performances and O. S. Belisle as saying that Smith and his friends dug for money “when there was neither moon, nor stars to spy upon them,”24 without mentioning that neither writer pretends to a personal knowledge of his subject. The one eyewitness to comment on this aspect of Smith’s [p.19] money-digging career Nibley passes by in silence, apparently unwilling to impeach a contemporary account with secondhand sources not written until decades later.
Nibley’s indiscriminate use of sources enables him not only to oppose witnesses with non-witnesses but also to introduce sources whose only merit is that they make others appear unreliable by comparison. Thus in discussing the year in which Joseph Smith allegedly became a money digger, Nibley cites a book published in 1902 which dates Smith’s digging to 1817. Since other sources, according to Nibley, give the year as 1819, 1820, and 1822, Nibley can now add 1817 to his list to highlight the disparity. (Nibley does not mention Joseph Smith’s own contradictions in trying to remember the date as well as other specifics of his first vision.)
J. E. Mahaffey, whom Nibley quotes as a source for the 1817 date, gives as his informant an “old man” who “testifies that Smith was about this time  employed to locate wells and look for gold with his ‘divining rods’ of witchhazel and his ‘seer-stone.'”25 Obviously a nameless “old man” remembering an incident which occurred eighty-five years before is not the most reliable witness imaginable, especially since there exists no other evidence to corroborate his story. The phrase “about this time” is hardly exact, considering the number of elapsed years. Nor does Mahaffey’s witness specify that it was Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet who was the subject of his recollection. It is known that there was another man named Smith operating in the same area around 1815 and that this Smith was also an oracle and money digger.26 Without knowing which Smith the old man had in mind, this recollection is of questionable value even if true.
Besides quoting Mahaffey’s witness, Nibley also cites J. H. Kennedy as stating that Smith’s first venture as a money digger was in 1819, Pomeroy Tucker as stating [p.20] that it occurred in 1820, and Willard Chase as claiming that it “was not until 1822 or after.”27 Kennedy was in fact a biographer of Smith, not a witness of his money digging, and depended for his date on Pomeroy Tucker’s earlier account. Nibley paraphrases Kennedy as saying that Smith “started looking for treasures with a peep-stone” in 1819. What Kennedy actually said, following Tucker, who knew Smith personally, was that the stone was found in 1819 but not used by Smith for money digging until 1820. Thus to derive his contradiction, Nibley misquotes Kennedy, who was simply following Tucker’s account, and then quotes Tucker to oppose the two as irreconcilable.
Also, Chase did not say, as Nibley intimates, that Smith did not dig for money until “1822 or after” but rather that after obtaining a stone from Chase in 1822, Smith made such a disturbance in the community that Chase ordered the stone returned. Chase explicitly says that this did not mark the beginning of Smith’s money digging, which he, agreeing with Tucker, assigns to the year 1820.28 Thus of the four sources cited by Nibley as disagreeing about the year of Smith’s first money-digging venture, one is untrustworthy and the other three are in harmony.
Another of Nibley’s errors is a failure to consider Mormon sources when they concur with non-Mormon accounts. Nibley makes light of non-Mormon claims that the Book of Mormon was originally discovered by the same means Joseph Smith claimed to use for locating buried treasures, but he chooses to ignore Martin Harris’s statement of 1859: “Joseph … described the manner of finding his plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The family had likewise told me the same thing.”29 Harris, who was the first convert to Mormonism outside the Smith family, here confirms Orsamus Turner’s 1851 recollection that the Smith family “said it was by looking at this stone in a hat, the light excluded, that [p.21] Joseph discovered the plates.”30 Nibley ignores Harris’s statement, for to do otherwise would lend an air of respectability to one of those sources Nibley condemns as “beneath notice.”
The Myth Makers also tends to disregard context. In his eagerness to impugn the whole corpus of non-Mormon literature, Nibley misquotes, misphrases, and misrepresents his opponents. For example, he has Orsamus Turner state that the only “peep-stone” Smith ever used was the Urim and Thummin found with the plates. However, Turner states not only that the plates were found by means of a stone but also that it was “the same stone the Smiths had used in money digging, and in some pretended discoveries of stolen property.”31 Not only does Nibley quote, in several places, from Turner’s entire report, in one place he quotes from the very paragraph in which Turner writes about Smith’s peep-stone. On that occasion, however, Nibley attributes the remark not to Turner but to G. W. Cowles, who reprinted Turner’s account verbatim in his Landmarks of Wayne County New York.32 Why Nibley does this is unclear, unless he does not want readers to know that his source is the same in both instances.33
Nibley’s misrepresentation is manifest even when he is accusing others of the same mistake. For example, he refers to Pomeroy Tucker’s account of Joseph Smith’s first money-digging venture and quotes Tucker as saying that “several of the individuals participating in this, and many others well remembering the stories of the time, are yet living witness of these follies.…” Nibley claims he has thus caught Tucker describing witnesses, “not of the events, but of ‘the stories of the time.'”34 But Tucker’s entire statement reads: “This was the inauguration of the impostor’s money-digging performances; and the description given of this first trial and of its results is as near exactitude as can at this time be recollected from his own accounts. Several [p.22] of the individuals participating in this and subsequent diggings, and many others well remembering the stories of the time, are yet living witnesses of these follies, and can make suitable corrections if the particulars as stated are not substantially according to the facts.”35 Clearly, then, the phrase “living witnesses” refers primarily to “individuals participating in this and subsequent diggings” and only parenthetically to those “remembering the stories of the time.” Of the three sources of information listed by Tucker, Nibley seizes on the least significant as if it were Tucker’s only claim to credence.
Finally, Nibley’s method of analysis is arbitrary. The same method applied to the “traditional” Mormon history would easily result in equal confusion. Using Nibley’s same criteria, it would be easy to demonstrate the intrinsic contradictions in the canonized account of Mormon origins, pointing to various improbable stories, exaggerations, and every other shortcoming Nibley heaps on non-Mormons.
Thus Nibley’s The Myth Makers only proves what no one ever thought of denying, namely that not all historical documents are of the same evidential quality. Beyond that rather obvious fact, Nibley’s argument fails on every significant point. Illogic, unsupported speculation, specious charges, misrepresentation, factual errors, indiscriminate and arbitrary use of sources, disregard of context, and a lack of scholarly standards characterize the book advertised by its publisher as a “masterful expose … [of] the makers of myths who told their untruths about Joseph Smith.”36
If Joseph Smith’s neighbors are to be discredited, it must be on the basis of better evidence than that advanced by Nibley. [p.27]
4. Among the numerous examples to the contrary which might be listed are John Corrill’s A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints … (St. Louis: Printed for the author, 1839); T. B. H. Stenhouse’s The Rocky Mountain Saints … (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873); John D. Lee’s Mormonism Unveiled … (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Co., 1877); and William Wyl, Mormon Portraits … (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing & Publishing Company, 1886).
7. For an excellent survey of pre-Joseph Smith money digging in America, see Herbert Leventhal’s In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 110-18. For Joseph Smith’s and other early Mormons’ direct involvement, see D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987). Contemporary references to money digging include the Palmyra Herald, 24 July 1822; the Ontario Repository, 9 Feb. 1825; the Palmyra Wayne Sentinel, 16 Feb. and 27 Dec. 1825; the Vermont Rutland Herald, 22 Aug. 1826; the Lyons Advertizer, 29 Aug. 1827; the Vermont American, 7 May 1828; the New York Norwich Journal, 2 July 1828; the Rochester Gem, 15 May 1830; the Palmyra Reflector, 1 Feb. 1831; Thurlow Weed, Life … 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883-84), 1:7; and Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middleton, Vermont … (Rutland, VT: Tuttle & Co., Printers, 1867), 43-64. This last source also presents tentative evidence that Joseph Smith, Sr., before Joseph Jr.’s birth, was involved in a short-lived religious cult which advocated among other notions belief in divining rods, which if true would explain occasional references to the elder Smith’s money digging before his famous son’s involvement. This cult, which broke up around 1802, also listed among its more prominent members William Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery’s father, who appears to have brought up his children in the same faith. When Oliver Cowdery first met Joseph Smith in 1829, Smith praised his convert’s “gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands.” A Book of Commandments … (Zion: W. W. Phelps & Co., 1833), 19. Later Smith reworded this statement, obscuring the exact nature of Cowdery’s “gift.”
8. The American Weekly Mercury, 27 March 1729, in Leonard W. Labaree et al., eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959- ), 1:137. Franklin’s entire article should be read as evidence of how widespread the practice had become by 1729.
11. Nibley points to the repeated claim that these neighbors were “intimately acquainted” with Smith, forgetting that such a claim is an editorial comment and not part of their original testimonies. Later writers stressed the intimate friendship between Smith and his neighbors for effect, but few of the actual witnesses claimed more than a fairly extended acquaintance. This may indeed limit the value of their testimony but not because they were “pretty low-life themselves.”
28. Howe, 240. Tucker’s and Chase’s accounts do disagree on another point, but not about the year in which Smith began digging for money. Tucker states that Smith borrowed Chase’s stone in 1819, but Chase says that Smith procured it from him in 1822. Tucker should in this instance be rejected in favor of Chase, who is not only an earlier and more careful witness but also was there and speaks from firsthand experience. Unfortunately, when Tucker wrote his book, Chase was paralyzed and thus incapable of correcting the error.