Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined
by Rodger I. Anderson
[p.113]Four conclusions emerge from the foregoing reexamination of Joseph Smith’s New York reputation. First, I can find no evidence that the primary source affidavits and other documents collected by Philastus Hurlbut, Eber D. Howe, and Arthur B. Deming are other than what they purport to be. The men and women whose names they bear either wrote them or authorized them to be written. Ghost-writing may have colored some of the testimony, but there is no evidence that the vast majority of testators did not write or dictate their own statements or share the attitudes attributed to them.
Second, every contemporary attempt to impugn these accounts failed. Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris’s effort to prove Isaac Hale’s letter a forgery was contradicted by Hale himself. The attempts by Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith to exonerate the Smith family of certain charges were undone by the more candid admissions of friends or other family members. And RLDS apostle William Kelley’s report, designed to discredit Joseph [p.114] Smith’s debunkers, was itself discredited by many of those contacted by Kelley. The fact that these efforts resulted in impeaching not a single witness who testified against Smith, though many of these same witnesses were still alive and willing to repeat their testimony, supports the conclusion that the statements collected by Hurlbut and Deming can be relied on as accurate reflections of their signers’ views.
Third, with the possible exception of Peter Ingersoll, there is no evidence that the witnesses contacted by Hurlbut in 1833-34 and Deming in 1888 perjured themselves by knowingly swearing to a lie. In fact, existing evidence goes far to substantiate the recorded stories. The harmony of the accounts, the fact that they were collected by different people at different times and places, and the sometimes impressive confirmations supplied by independent witnesses or documents never intended for public consumption discredit the argument that the work of Hurlbut and Deming contains nothing but “trumped-up evidence.”
Fourth, there is no evidence that the majority of witnesses indulged in malicious defamation by repeating groundless rumors. Many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family. They did not always distinguish hearsay from observation, fact from inference, but they generally state whether or not the source of the information is firsthand, and several witnesses provided enough information to demonstrate that much of what was previously thought to be popular rumor about the Smiths was not wholly groundless.
Having survived the determined criticism of Mormon scholars Hugh Nibley and Richard L. Anderson, the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits must be granted permanent status as primary documents relating to Joseph Smith’s early life and the origins of Mormonism. In using the reminiscences, however, several measures of reliability should be followed. For one, preference should be given to witnesses [p.115] speaking from personal, direct knowledge, not hearsay or obvious neighborhood gossip. The recitals of Isaac Butts, Joseph Capron, Willard Chase, Isaac Hale, Abigail Harris, Henry Harris, W. R. Hine, and William Stafford are primary examples of witnesses having firsthand experience with members of the Smith family and Martin Harris. The general Manchester and Palmyra, New York, affidavits are less useful in this regard.
For another, two or more accounts relating specific incidents in essentially identical detail are probably more reliable than recitals of events relying on one source only. Abigail Harris and Lucy Harris left separate but similar accounts of Martin Harris’s initial financial interest in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith’s promise that the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon were to be placed on public display as evidence of the truth of the book was remembered by Nathaniel Lewis, Joshua M’Kune, and Alva Hale, among others. Sophia Lewis and Joshua M’Kune also recalled Joseph Smith’s statement that his first born son would be able to open and read the Book of Mormon plates. And the unanimity of individual testimony regarding the consumption of alcohol and treasure hunting is striking.
Finally, accounts by non-Mormons containing information that can be substantiated by Mormon witnesses, such as Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, or David Whitmer, may also be accurate in their uncorroborated claims.
In general terms, the Hurlbut, Howe, Deming, and Kelley testimonials paint a portrait of a young frontiersman and his family struggling to eke out a minimal existence in western New York, facing the discouraging realities of life on the margins of society. Intelligent and quick-witted, if not always a hard worker, Joseph Smith, Jr., had been brought up by parents who believed in angels, evil spirits, and ghosts; in buried treasures that slipped into [p.116] the earth if the proper rituals were not performed to exhume them; in divining rods and seer stones; in dreams and visions; and that despite their indigent status, their’s was a family chosen by God for a worthy purpose.
Following the death of their eldest son Alvin, on whom the family had placed their dreams, Joseph Jr. seems to have assumed the role of favored son. Whether hunting for buried treasure or the ancient record of a lost civilization, neither Joseph nor his family saw any conflict between the secular pressures of earning a living, even by so esoteric a means as money digging, and a religious quest for spiritual fulfillment. If they could accomplish one goal by pursuing the other, so much the better.
Nondescript and of little consequence until he started attracting others to his peculiar blend of biblical Christianity, frontier folk belief, popular culture, and personal experience, Joseph Smith was an enigma to his incredulous New York neighbors. For them, he would always remain a superstitious adolescent dreamer and his success as a prophet a riddle for which there was no answer. [p.117]