Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
[p.217]None of Dale Morgan’s works was more important or frustrating to him than his projected three-volume history of the Mormons. He began research in the 1930s and worked regularly through the early 1950s, trying to finish his “definitive history” of Mormonism. At his death in 1971, “The Mormons” remained among the unfinished business left behind. There were four completed chapters and two appendices he had intended to submit to his publisher. An additional three chapters survived in rough draft form.
It is a singular tragedy for Mormon historiography that Morgan did not finish what would have been his masterpiece. He probed more deeply, with a keener eye, into more relevant primary and secondary source materials than anyone had previously. Few had been as thorough, ambitious, honest, or had worked under a more serious disability. His thoughtful approach revealed new and sometimes controversial insights into the genesis of Mormonism. Among other things, his pioneering work dated the Palmyra, New York, revivals which prompted Joseph Smith to seek answers through prayer not in 1820, but in 1824-25. He also provided a carefully conceived naturalistic explanation for the production of the Book of Mormon. His pathbreaking analysis, given its place in the development of Mormon historiography, is remarkable and underscores the loss his death represented. While some readers will disagree with his conclusions, most will be impressed by the scope of his researches and the depth of his investigations.
In editing the following seven chapters and two appendices for publication a fine line has been travelled. All typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors have been corrected, but the source material Morgan quotes verbatim has been left without change. The first four chapters and the appendices were in final form and did not require significant editorial decisions. The endnotes have also been left generally as Morgan wrote them with almost no attempt to update or revise them.
Chapters 5 to 7, however, did not avail themselves to such ease in editing. Where several drafts of a section were present, that draft which appeared to be the latest or most complete, or which fit most evenly into the text of the chapter, was favored. When the final selections were made and placed in order, they meshed together with a high degree of cohesiveness. It is thus often difficult to detect [p.218] the editing when reading the “rough draft” chapters, although in a handful of instances necessary transitions have been added.
Originals of the first four chapters and the first appendix are housed at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, Special Collections division, in the Madeline R. McQuown Collection. Original drafts to chapters 5 through 7 and the second appendix are to be found in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Dale Lowell Morgan Collection. [p.219]
The Calling of a Prophet
The new place was two miles out the Stafford Road, just beyond the Palmyra township line in what was soon to become known as Manchester. Overgrown with great oaks, maples, beeches, and basswood, through which the sun struck here and there into fragrant growths of sassafras and wild tangles of raspberry briars, the hundred acres were part of the Everson land, owned by non-resident heirs who left it neglected.1 No one in Palmyra cared who lived there.
In this late autumn of 1818 there were ten Smiths, small and large, to take up residence on the farm. The tall and supple Joseph Smith, Senior, and Lucy, his wife, had six sons and daughters, with a last straggler yet unborn, a girl who would be named for her mother. The strapping eldest boy, Alvin, was twenty, and the children ranged on down through Hyrum, Sophronia, Joseph, Samuel, William, and Catherine to Don Carlos, who was two. The third son and fourth child, Joseph, Junior, was just short of thirteen and had first seen the light of day December 23, 1805, when amid their many peregrinations the Smiths had been briefly resident at Sharon, Vermont. All of the Smith children were tow-haired and blue-eyed; their paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, who had once predicted that a prophet would be raised up in his family,2 might well have been baffled had his eight grandchildren been ranged before him and he required to denominate the prophet from among them.
Two years had elapsed since the family turned their backs on Vermont’s stony hills and close-hemmed valleys to seek out a country of more promise. Three successive crop failures had given them their bitter fill of that land all granite and frost, the last year on the farm at Norwich sufficient to convince even the stubborn Joseph that Vermont was not for him. A foot of snow had fallen in June; snow fell even in July and August, at the height of summer, and a killing frost on September 10 cut down such hardy crops as had survived. The year 1816 has ever since been remembered as “eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death,” and on all the roads that fall, west across the Green Mountain to the valley of the Hudson and beyond, dust bellied up in sullen clouds about the wagons of those who, like the Smiths, had abandoned hope in New England.3
Joseph had lost his own farm long ago, and the farm at Norwich had offered only a tenant’s living, but even so, the uprooting had not [p.220] gone easily. As he took the long road west, going in advance to find a place where the family might make a fresh beginning, he must have reviewed sorely in his mind the years of obstinate, fruitless struggle while the friends of his boyhood who had let themselves be carried off by the Genesee fever which had raged in New England these twenty years had been clearing prosperous farms and otherwise establishing themselves in vigorous young towns scattered across western New York. At the age of forty-five, he was a failure, a thought which must have bit into his pride even as he justified himself. From 1638, when Robert Smith settled at Topsfield, Massachusetts, down to Joseph’s own time, the Smiths had been solid and substantial people, at one with the God-fearing and prosperous. Joseph’s father, Asael, a man of independent mind who had found the settled world of Topsfield too confining, had gone into upper New England, first to New Hampshire and subsequently to Vermont, where he, too, wherever he went, was a man competent to build a world for himself4
Joseph, Senior, had grown to manhood full of promise, a six-foot two-inch fellow powerful of limb and fond of wrestling, who, in his youth, like an earlier Jacob, had met one man only whom he could not throw.5 He had begun life farming his father’s farm on shares, confident of making his place in the world. But from the January day in 1769 when he took Lucy Mack to wife, his life had been wrenched and malformed by misfortune. The hopeful farm at Tunbridge. The catastrophic venture in storekeeping at Randolph, which had thrown him into the arms of the poverty that had held him cold and close ever since. Farms at Royalton and Sharon, at Tunbridge again, again at Royalton—just living enough, when eked out with the slender income from teaching school, to keep his ever-enlarging family clothed and fed. Twist and turn as he would, he could not get on in life, neither during the interval across the Connecticut River at Lebanon nor during the three gaunt years on the farm at Norwich.6 The Vermonters are wont to say that their climate consists of nine months of late fall; this was Joseph’s experience and he could be glad to have seen the last of such a land.
Like the son who bore his name, to this day the elder Joseph Smith remains something of an enigma. Imagination and ambition were never beaten out of him but these were qualities which did not make any more endurable the drudgery of the farm. From the uncompromising realities of his life he took refuge in dreams. Lucy Smith remembered a number of visions her husband had had over the years, all of them, in her recollection, pointing up some religious moral. But she was more attracted by formal religion than he; at various times he could be a Methodist and a Universalist but was never permanently converted to any formalized belief;7 Lucy said of him that “he would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ and his Apostles.”8 Joseph’s daily life was more vividly colored, however, by that common heritage of his society, the [p.221] tenuous but ineluctable realities of magic, witchcraft, and demonology the Mayflower and the Arbella had disgorged so long ago into the gray mists of Massachusetts shore. Good fortune or bad, as Joseph well understood, was not an affair of Providence only; man had to contend with the dark world of the supernatural, penetrable or governable only by the most potent of ritual and incantation.9
The senior Smith brought much to the making of a prophet; his stalwart body, his hatred of the farm, his skeptical views on denominational religion, his love for the strange and the marvelous, his inventive fancy, his will to rise above the circumstances of his life. His wife Lucy, too, had a contribution that was not less vital. Shrewd, strong-willed, warm-hearted, garrulous, passionately devoted to her family, credulous and even superstitious, on the homeliest of terms with God, who manifested his mind and will to her in dreams and “providences,” Lucy was to see all these characteristics abundantly reflected in her third son—and ultimately in the church he founded. Although the Macks were born of no such settled tradition as the Smiths, they embodied many diverse energies at work in American society which were to be intimately bound up in the life of the Mormon prophet. Lucy’s father, Solomon Mack, after many ups and downs as soldier, tradesman, farmer, privateer, and commercial fisherman, in his rheumy old age had been converted to the Word and written a chapbook which he hawked about the Vermont country-side, riding painfully in a woman’s side saddle.10 The eldest of his sons, Jason, had become a preacher by the time of his twentieth birthday, a Seeker who believed that by prayer and faith the gifts of the Gospel, as enjoyed by the disciples of Christ, might be attained. Buying a tract of land in New Brunswick, Jason settled upon it a community of thirty impoverished families to whom he gave the rest of his life. The second son, Stephen, turned his attention to business. At the time of Lucy’s marriage he was already partner in a flourishing store at Tunbridge, and he was to make a comfortable fortune in Detroit and Pontiac. The third of Solomon’s sons was happily characterized by his sister as rather worldly minded, though “not vicious,” but possessed of “a very daring and philanthropic spirit.” The fourth son was content simply to remain in New Hampshire and till the family farm the rest of his days, while gathering to himself “field, flock, and herds.”11
Chance brought the elder Joseph Smith to Palmyra, 220 miles west of Albany and half as far east of the thriving young town of Buffalo. He stayed because he liked the looks of the place, with its rich farms set amid the green drumlins studding the low Ontario plain and the flourishing village at the heart of the township. No doubt, he would better have continued west into Ohio or Indiana, where lands were still to be had at a dollar or so an acre. But Joseph had no liking for the ax and little more for the plow, and was not the man to immure himself in a lonesome clearing at the outer reaches of civilization. Palmyra was a settled place already a generation old, lacking in neither amenity nor opportunity. Its prosperous business [p.222] establishments included a wagon and sleigh-making concern; a saddle and harness shop; two cabinet factories; a copper, tin, and sheet-iron manufactory; a sign-painting and gilding firm; a coopering business; two tailoring establishments; a tannery; a boot and shoemaking shop; a store vending paints, oils, dye-stuffs, drags, medicines, snuff, and other notions; and no less than five general stores. There was even a bookstore, and within the year the town would have its own newspaper, in which all of these concerns might seek the patronage of the public.12
Joseph rented a small frame house on Vienna Street near the eastern outskirts of the village,13 and there, after being joined by his family, he and Lucy opened a “cake and beer shop.” Their resources were too limited ever to permit them space in the columns of the village paper, but if a sign that creaked to every vagrant breeze was insufficient advertisement, the handcart Joseph built to peddle Lucy’s gingerbread, pies, boiled eggs, and root beer about the streets soon made their wares familiar to all the town.14 Not without a touch of malice, a contemporary observed that Joseph, with his “tongue as smooth as oil and as quick as lightning,” followed “a branch of the ‘American System’—the manufacture of gingerbread and such like domestic wares [in which] he was a considerable speculator, having on hand during a fall of price no less than two baskets full;” and it was suggested that the Smiths, in consequence of the amount of molasses they used, were against the tariff on that article.15 The slender income from the shop the family augmented with the sale of oil cloth coverings for tables and stands, painted by Lucy herself, and with proceeds from the day labor of Joseph and his sons at carpentering, coopering, and as harvest hands in the country roundabout.16
The fact remained that the location at Palmyra had not been fortunate. Joseph and Lucy had arrived in the village with few belongings but their children, in no wise situated to bargain for a piece of land, and by the following summer it was too late to buy on any advantageous terms, for De Witt Clinton had shepherded through the state legislature the long-dreamed-about Erie Canal project, the generation’s greatest work of internal improvement. Ground was broken July 4, 1817, and, though it was 1822 before canal boats moved produce out of Palmyra and 1825 before the state finally joined the Hudson to Lake Erie, land prices along the line of the canal did not wait to mount upon a dizzy upward spiral. Land having soared out of reach, sometime in the fall of 1818 Joseph and Lucy moved their brood out the Stafford Road to take up squatter possession of the hundred-acre tract that was to be their farm.
The new place was better, but just barely better, than living in town. Liable to eviction at any time, the Smiths had small incentive to work the land. Any improvements they might make would only go to increase the value of the property to their own disadvantage should they ever be situated to bargain for its purchase. Beyond clearing a few acres, enough to provide space for a small log house [p.223] and garden, they did nothing with the land, making their living instead by tapping maple trees, retailing cordwood to the villagers, manufacturing and selling black-ash baskets and birch brooms, laboring at well digging and carpentering or as harvest hands, and still peddling, on holidays and at times of militia muster, gingerbread cakes and beer.17
It is apparent that they squatted upon the property for several years before contracting to buy it, since Lucy reports that Alvin, during the two years before his death on November 19, 1823, played a major part in finding the funds for the first two payments. How desperately poor the Smiths were at this time is suggested by Ontario County reports. Judgments for $79.09 and $115.61 respectively having been obtained against Joseph Smith by Job J. Brooks, and Abner Woodworth, the sheriff sent to execute the judgements, reported back on November 27, 1822, that Smith had “no goods or chattels lands or tenements whereon to levy.” After a second effort, on December 20, 1822, the sheriff reported satisfaction of the Brooks judgement, but made the same report as before on the Woodworth judgement. See entries under “S” in Book of “Executions,” Ontario County Clerk’s Office, Canandaigua, New York. Tucker speaks of the Smiths as having been at first squatters upon their farm, and what is said by him and other residents of Palmyra, e.g., Thomas L. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity (Palmyra, 1930), pp. 219-20, as to the Smiths’ neglect of their property is best explained by their having had no legal interest in it until some years after they located on it. Lucy’s recollection that “something like thirty acres of land were got ready for cultivation the first year,” and William’s remembrance that in all some sixty acres were cleared, would seem to apply to the period after the purchase of the farm was arranged.
In one way or another—principally, it would seem, through the energetic efforts of Alvin—the family scraped together enough money to contract with the owners of the property for its purchase. Very little is known about the terms. Land in the general vicinity had sold ten years earlier at around five dollars an acre, and ten years later values had advanced to the neighborhood of thirty-five dollars.18 Perhaps the price approached twenty dollars an acre, spread over a period of ten years or so, though William Smith reported that the farm was “articled for, to be paid in yearly installments of $100 each.”19 William also said, replying to the reproaches of their neighbors as to the shiftlessness of the family, that clearing the land presented great difficulties, sixty acres of it being as heavily timbered as any land he had ever seen, their labors made the heavier by the 1,200 to 1,500 sugar maples which had to be attended to each spring when the sap began to rise.20 Down to the time they contracted to buy the property, the family was content to live in the log house put up in 1818, described as “a small, one-story, smoky” dwelling divided in two rooms below, with a low garret above, likewise divided in two apartments. To this structure a bedroom wing of sawed slabs had been added later. In their new security, the Smiths began to build a small frame house, converting the original home into a barn, though it does not seem that the new house was ever wholly completed during the period of their residence.21
By their neighbors the family was regarded sometimes with tolerance and even liking, sometimes with amiable contempt. Their poverty was an annoyance to those who could lay it to bad management or pure shiftlessness, and the increasing propensity of the elder Joseph for the marvelous gained him nothing in popular esteem. Puffing upon her old clay pipe, Lucy was a welcome visitor in the kitchens of her neighbors, a good hand with the stick, and on occasion called in to help out with family washings. Joseph and his sons were known now and then to tap a keg of cider or something harder, but as one acquaintance remarked philosophically in later years, “everybody drank them times.” Except for a few weeks each winter when school was kept, the younger children were allowed to run wild, while the two eldest sons, Alvin and Hyrum, increasingly had to pitch in with their father in providing a living for the family. Alvin was regarded as the hardest worker, but Hyrum and Sophronia were the children most smiled upon.22
The third son, Joseph, to whom it fell in the end to fulfill his father’s faith that the family was meant to occupy a station in life “above the generality of mankind,” did not display any precocious earmarks of greatness. To those who later came inquiring about [p.224] extraordinary incidents which must have attended his childhood, his mother could reply only that apart from an refection which for a time threatened the amputation of one leg, “nothing occured during his early life, except those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existance.”23 His contemporaries remembered him as a dull eyed boy inexpressive of countenance and somewhat taciturn, like his father a skilled wrestler, goodnatured, and possessed of both a facile tongue and a lively and original imagination.24 The schooling he had received enabled him to read without much difficulty and write an imperfect hand, and it is said that he had “a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic,” but these were, in Orson Pratt’s words, his “highest and only attainments.”25 Orasmus Turner, who with other devils in the office of the Palmyra Register delighted in blackening Joseph’s face with printers ink when the boy came by for his father’s paper, later recalled him to have “a little ambition; and some very laudable aspirations; the mother’s intellect occasionally shone out in him feebly, especially when he used to help us solve some portentous questions of moral or political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red school house on Durfee street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics that used to drop in upon us in the village; and subsequently, after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.”26
This language describes Joseph more particularly between his seventeenth and twentieth years, the debating school having been established in January 1822,27 whereas the revival which awakened him to a passing concern with Methodism blazed up in the Palmyra churches late in 1824.28 Although in his autobiography Joseph presents himself in quite another light, there is no reason to think that religion much engaged him before the fall of 1824, and his mother’s remark, in however curious a context, that up to the age of eighteen he had never read the Bible through,29 may be given full credence. The penetrating anxieties of the revival of 1824-25 gave rise in him to a more pressing interest in religion, and Pomeroy Tucker is our warrant that Joseph became familiar with the Bible so as to quote from it and elaborate a text with great assurance, his interpretations of scriptural passages always original and unique.30
Joseph’s own history of these years, and particularly his account of the experiences upon which are founded the claims of his church to a divine calling, must wait upon another chapter, when it will become apparent how at variance is his narrative with facts readily developed from other sources which have less of self-interest to serve. But let us here contemplate the religious tradition in which he grew up.
When De Witt Clinton, as one of the state canal commissioners, rode in 1810 along the line of the proposed Erie Canal, he talked with an old woman living near Oneida Lake who informed him that she belonged to “the church,” but what church she could not tell.31 [p.225] Diverting as Clinton found this item for his journal, it encompased both the genius and the dilemma of American churches, for the faith whereof the woman spoke had no confession other than her Bible, no ministry beyond her daily walk, no edifice but her heart. Joseph’s grandfather, Asael, was a communicant of the same church. In 1799, addressing the theme of religion for the benefit of his posterity, he was principally concerned to instruct them to “search the Scriptures and consult sound reason” in all that pertained to Deity. Not in the outer formalities, he declared, but in the hidden things of the heart lay the surest hope of salvation.32 In his eccentric fashion, Solomon Mack exhibited another aspect of this conviction; his conversion was effected in his old age by firey lights in the night and mysterious voices calling him by name, terrifying him until he understood that the Lord had taken this direct means to call him to redemption.33
Lucy Smith, though caught up by the prevailing anxiety to feel “a change of heart,” could not deliver herself from the impasse resulting from the disintegration of Protestantism into its racking schisms: “If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world; and if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. No church will admit that I am right, except the one with which I am associated. This makes them witnesses against each other, and how can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they are all unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days!” As for the elder Joseph, he finally threw up his hands in the conviction that “there was no order or class of religionists that knew any more concerning the kingdom of God than those of the world.”34
Neither Joseph’s parents nor his grandparents were avowedly irreligious, but all, by formal definition, were unchurched. In this as in the rationalism that pervaded their thinking, they reflected in all fidelity the state of contemporary religion. Save only in New England, where Congregationalism for two hundred years had straggled obstinately to preserve its condition of blessed matrimony with the state, no church the length and breadth of the land had been able to maintain itself in privilege and keep a firm grasp upon its membership. As immigrants poured across the Atlantic from England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, France, and the Rhineland, the churches which were the most yeasty ferment of the Reformation came with them. There was little stability in these churches, and even the tightest bonds of fellowship grew slack in the social climate of the New World. With a vast frontier open to the west and society always in flux, the American community was not stable and could not be made so. Nowhere was this instability more immediately reflected than in the churches. Of ministers there were never enough, from Anglican bishops to Methodist circuit-riders; and had there been, no church proved supple beyond its rivals in adjusting its institutions to the difficulties and the challenge inherent in the new order of society. Everywhere the people slipped out of the grasp of the churches, [p.226] many of them, in truth, having been held but by the collar. Yet break-up did not degenerate into entire disintegration. The Great Awakening of 1740-60 which called men back to devotion in new agony of soul, blew its sonorous trumpets through all the colonies, and reinvigorated all the churches. Revivalism was made respectable, and presently it came to grips with the rationalism which for a time promised to make away with religion entirely. The first generation after the American Revolution saw a war for the souls of men carried to the most distant back-woods.35
Other forces were at work within the churches themselves. The doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers, with its theses of the equality of every man before the Lord and the right of every man to approach the Lord on his own authority, was one of the most seminal of the ideas that came out of the Reformation, and it accorded happily with the individualism, political and economic, which was a basic characteristic of American society. But like many other coinages, the idea lent itself readily to debasement. Zealots with the most startling claims began to trouble the religious scene.
There were the merely apocalyptic, like Nimrod Hughes down in Abingdon, Virginia, who, when Joseph Smith was not yet six years old, announced by direct revelation from heaven that on June 4, 1812, one-third of mankind would be destroyed. Nimrod was neither the first nor the last to give such notice of the approaching end, the winding-up scene having been imminently looked for in America with hardly less of satisfaction than of apprehension since Cape Cod gave shelter to the Mayflower. There were others, only too glad to pass by the threatened unpleasantness, well persuaded that the Millennium had already begun, like McDonald, the bald-headed tailor of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who in 1822 came to the realization that he himself must be Jesus Christ, and, fortified by reassurances he found in the Bible, began expounding the happy doctrine of living forever. Christ had many such incarnations, sometimes embodied in the fleshly tenements of a woman, like the gentle Ann Lee, who in 1774 had brought to America from England her Shaking Quakers, or like Jemima Wilkinson, the lustrous-haired Universal Friend, over on Keuka Lake only a few rifle shots away from the Smith farm. Even God the Father was occasionally discovered incarnate, as in the person of Joseph Dylks, the Leatherwood God, who in 1828 put an Ohio community into an uproar with his doctrine that he was the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost united in one supernal personage. Cry out as the newspapers might against these “wretched fanaticisms,” they had a way of proliferating until it seemed at times that the whole continent was on its way to becoming a vast lunatic asylum. No idea was too absurd, no person too squalid, to compel belief. A club-footed prophet, Issac Bullard, may serve to represent his kind. In the summer of 1817 he wandered into Vermont from Lower Canada to gather himself a following of “Pilgrims” near Woodstock, a few miles south of the neighborhood so lately abandoned by Joseph and Lucy Smith. Commissioned by God to plant the church of the [p.227] Redeemer “in the wilderness, and among the heathen,” in his dusty beard and bearskin girdle, Issac set out at the head of his sixty followers west across the mountains into New York, down through Ohio to Cinnicinnati, and on down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Arkansas, where the prophet died and the remnant of his following scattered.36
Hardly a state in the Union lacked some such exemplar of the Christian life. If established churches turned away from the Bullards in disgust, it was to defend themselves in turn from Universalists, deists, and still worse those who mocked them in their revivals and denounced their brimstone theology. Against such critics, they were not defenseless; the revivalists, with their rare gift for evoking the very sound and sight of the damned shrieking in hell, from the middle twenties roamed back and forth across western New York and upper New England, ravaging the souls of all who heard them. It was against this smoking background that Mormonism was to take form; nor was Mormonism strangest among the “isms” spawned by the “burnt-over district;” on the pages of history Joseph Smith’s church is jostled by spiritualism, Perfectionism, and Millerism, its toes stamped upon by Anti-Masonry, its ribs bruised by the bony elbows of Abolitionism, its throat parched by the arid winds of the Temperance crusade.37
In this milieu young Joseph grew to manhood. Yet, during the years of his boyhood, there were things about his environment far more inflammatory to the imagination than the narrow road and the straight gate. For seven years after the great revival of 1816-17 Palmyra lived at peace with God, the Smiths themselves not even church-goers. It was not the mysteries of the Kingdom of God but the mysteries of antiquity that engaged the attention of boys growing up in Palmyra. No one had yet unriddled the conundrum of America’s past, not even so much as the monumental structures left by the mound-builders. No one had convincingly explained where the Indians had come from, though the profoundest ingenuities of the antiquarians had been expended on the problem. It had been suggested, though not received with any great credence, that the Americas had been peopled by Scythians who in some long time past had crossed into Russian America across the Straits of Bering. A more popular view was that the Indians were the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel. Romans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, ancient Greeks—all made claims upon the credulity of the public mind.
News items intermittently picked up by the Palmyra paper exhibited both the general interest in the matter and the baffling character of the information brought to light. A Roman coin believed to date from 150 years after Christ had been found in digging a cellar in Tennessee. Plates of brass thought to be cartouche boxes and the blade of a large knife had been found with skeletal remains in the course of excavations made for the Erie Canal. A stone tablet enigmatically inscribed in Latin had turned up in Pompey, New York. Farther afield, there were recurring stories of white [p.228] Indians living in the remotest recesses of the Rocky Mountains, where mammoths were said to roam as well.
If there was an element of doubt about such advices, as being mere newspaper stories, there was no question that a vanished people had once overspread eastern America. The mounds this lost race had built were being dug into by wandering antiquarians from western New York to the Mississippi. So far back as 1810 De Witt Clinton, who like many gentlemen of the age shared Thomas Jefferson’s interest in antiquarian pursuits, had taken note of three mounds in the vicinity of Canandaigua—mounds overgrown by trees which, judging from their annual rings, he estimated to be from 150 to 300 years old, and second growth at that. Other mounds in the Muskingum Valley of Ohio were surmounted by trees which on the same evidence he could believe to be a thousand years old.38 Nobody was willing to conceive that such mounds were the work of the Iroquois. Typically, in 1817 a writer declared that this country, which had every mark of having been for centuries a desolate wilderness, at one time had been thickly inhabited “by a warlike people, who had made much greater advances in the arts of civilized life, than any of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America, who have been known since its discovery by Europeans.”39 Such a view prevailed through another generation. Not long before log cabins and hard cider preempted his attention, William Henry Harrison was converted to the romantic thesis that the final extirpation of this mysterious people had taken place on the banks of the Ohio, where a feeble band, the “remnant of mighty battles fought in vain,” had, he was pleased to fancy, there collected “to make a last effort for the country of their birth, the ashes of their ancestors and the altars of their gods.”40
It was General Harrison’s conceit that the scene of final doom had been enacted in the Ohio Valley, but in western New York, where the mounds were fewer and much less imposing than in the West, it seemed more logical to the settlers that the last clashes of arms had taken place on the very ground where their farmhouses stood. In the vicinity of Palmyra, many of the high mounds of glacial debris were also pronounced to be the work of human hands, a conclusion made all the more plausible in that many of the drumlins were capped by pallisaded forts. It would be some years before the antiquarians could demonstrate that these log fortifications dated only from the historic Iroquois period, and in the years of Joseph Smith’s growing up, opinion was general that they remained from the last wretched struggles of that doomed race of antiquity.
The fascinating possibilities of this vanished civilization were not lost on the people living in and around Palmyra. Faced with extermination, the ancients must have hidden away their valuables to preserve them from their merciless enemies. Obviously, these riches lay buried still, the prize of those souls able to find them.
In taking up the quest for buried treasure, which was to give him a first gratifying and then perilous celebrity, and bring him out [p.229] finally upon a high plateau of eminence as prophet, seer, and revelator to a new religion, Joseph Smith displayed not originality so much as a striking ability to compel belief. Desultory digging had been carried on in western New York for a half-generation or more,41 and the urge to dig in the earth in search of treasure was of greater antiquity still, as old and as widespread as the human race. The feverish digging that distinguished the early twenties in and around Palmyra was, moreover, only a local form taken by a contagion that broke out epidemically across hundreds of miles of country, from the valley of the Connecticut to that of the Susquehanna.
Though the evidence is too slender to justify a firm conclusion, Vermont appears to have been the place of prime infection, the lore of the money-digger and the rural diviner carried from its rocky hills west and south wherever emigrating Vermonters settled-in the Susquehanna Valley, about the Finger Lakes, in the Genesee country, in the Western Reserve of Ohio. The infertile mountain farms held insufficient of wealth to recompense the grueling labor they never ceased to demand. Not honest effort but miracle was the best hope of the farmer; and it is the authentic tones of the Vermonter one hears when the elder Joseph Smith pointed out to one of his neighbors at Palmyra the large stones embedded in the ground of his farm-rocks in appearance, but only in appearance; in reality nothing less than chests of money raised to the surface of the earth by the heat of the sun.42
It may be that the elder Joseph had done some treasure-hunting before leaving Vermont;43 as to this, a Palmyra editor in 1831 was unable to say, but did print it as “a well authenticated fact that soon after his arrival here, he evinced a firm belief in the existence of hidden treasures, and that this section of the country abounded in them. He also revived, or in other words propagated the vulgar, yet popular belief that these treasures were held in charge by some evil spirit, which was supposed to be either the DEVIL himself, or some one of his most trusty favorites.”44 That the senior Joseph did much to launch his son upon his troubled career as a diviner and peepstone seer, that his unbounded extravagance of statement as to the wonders his son could see contributed largely to his celebrity, is clear from all accounts; the more fantastic stories of Joseph’s early powers and the marvels he discerned are to be traced back to the wagging tongue of his father.45
All the influences that worked upon Joseph Smith to make him what he became are difficult now to separate out of the matrix of his history. The social environment was favorable, the whole climate of opinion and belief in which so much more was possible of growth than in another time and place. There was some compulsion working upon him from within the family, the rich lore they had carried with them out of Vermont, and the pressure of their continuing poverty, the more irksome because of their conviction that their rightful state in life was above the common level. Lacking in education and opportunity, which might have afforded him some conventional [p.230] outlet for the energies that drove him, Joseph was all the more reclined to reach out for the rewards that the career of the diviner promised him.
Perhaps Joseph the Seer will be more readily understood if we turn aside for a moment to consider his exact analogue, a boy who turned up among his followers in Utah a generation later.
William Titt, like Joseph himself, belonged to the disinherited. He exhibited the same sense of insecurity, the same hunger for attention, the same desire to please, the same wayward imagination. His mother dead, and unable to get along with his stepmother, about the year 1857, as a boy perhaps twelve years old, he was sent from Great Salt Lake City down to a town in southern Utah to make his home with the gentle Thomsonian doctor, Priddy Meeks. The boy, Priddy tells us, was born a natural seer, but no one knew it until he came to live in the Meeks family. Priddy was inclined to think that the Lord overruled William’s coming, for though he himself had “the knowledge of the science of seer stones” and was gifted in knowing one when he came upon it, he was never able to see in such a stone. William, as it developed, could see into them readily, “and did a great deal of good by finding lost property and by telling people how their kinsfolks were getting along, even in England. He would satisfy them that he could see correct by describing things correctly.” Sometimes, of course, William fell into pitfalls which Joseph Smith had run afoul in his time—”when it came to things that the devil did not want the truth to come out the devil had power to make false appearances, and William would miss the truth. William being young and limited in experience he was not able to compete with the devil at all times, and they [individual devils] undertook to destroy him and they told him if it had not been for old Meeks they would have destroyed him.” Priddy was convinced that it was because of William’s gifts that the devils sought to destroy him.
Some of William’s sore trials, beset by these devils, Priddy describes at length. There was the time three devils came into the house and caught the boy around the body, nearly squeezing him to death. Priddy called in two of the brethren to join him in laying on hands, that these foul spirits might be rebuked. William began cursing them, and the brethren were taken aback, knowing that William did not swear, but Priddy urged them on. Sure enough, they had hardly laid hands on him than William cried, “There goes one devil out of the door; there goes another, and there goes another,” whereupon he became rational again. Another case: Priddy got his wood only at the cost of considerable labor, in which William had to join, and it so happened that when they went for wood, these three devils would meet the two of them, tormenting the boy so badly that on one occasion they had to go home without their wood. Although he himself could not see the devils, Priddy knew they were there, for the skin would crawl and draw all over him, and his hair stand up “like a scared hog’s bristles.” The last time these devils came to trouble William, Priddy relates, the boy “was upstairs in bed after [p.231] night. He said he saw them all three coming slowly as though they were doubtful. They approached close by and one said, ‘I do not intend to have my trip for nothing. I will go and attack that yearling in the yard; and in the morning I found that yearling on the lift and it died, and I took the hide off and hung it on the pole. When William saw the hide off he said, ‘Do you know what killed that yearling calf?’ I said, ‘Poverty, I guess.’ ‘No; said he. ‘It was one of these devils for he told me was going to attack that yearling last night.’ If he had not told me that, I should never have known what killed it.”46
Though one may smile, albeit with a degree of tenderness, at the ingenuousness of the kindly practitioner of botanic medicine, what Dr. Meeks tells us of the seer who lived in his own family is illuminating in its bearing on the truism that the magician on any level is always the creation of his environment. In a recent work dealing with magic and religion, Arturo Castiglioni makes this point, and he goes on to say that the magician’s voice in reality is nothing but the echo of the voice of the hopes and desires of the crowd, created by collective suggestion. The essential quality in the magician, Castiglioni remarks, is his ability to provoke, in himself and others, the peculiar state of mind the exercise of magic demands. On both sides faith is indispensable. Men with a critical and developed spirit, who are in any way inclined to doubt themselves, are never true magicians, while the group for whom the magician practices, “imbued with faith and will, solely animated by desire for the success of the awaited magic action, is divested, from the beginning, of all critical faculty and rational action that might impede suggestion or render it difficult. Any occurence, no matter how simple or insignificant, is interpreted according to promise and expectation, and the impression it creates is proportionate to the organization, preparation, and numerical size of the group.” Within certain limits, belief in the magician must be absolute; failures never attributable to him or his art, but to hostile forces, errors committed by others, or a false interpretation of the orders received. The rituals and incantations—all the professional paraphernalia of the magician—have the extremely important function of preparing the atmosphere, concentrating the attention, allaying criticism, exciting the emotional faculties of the onlookers and imbuing them with faith in the anticipated feat.47
With the minor adjustment that any abstract analysis requires in being fitted to a concrete situation, these remarks are notably applicable to Joseph Smith—not merely during the years when he fulfilled the function of the magician in the lowly calling of rural scryer, but later as well, when he had become the oracle of God. That correspondence will become more fully apparent as this narrative progresses, but Joseph’s fantastic employment of his youth was in no sense incidental to what he finally became; it was, in fact, absolutely pivotal. Had Joseph Smith not taken up with peepstones, there would be no Mormon church today. [p.233]
1. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, 1867), pp. 12-13; Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, 1853), pp. 70, 92.
2. So Joseph Smith declared in his journal under date of May 17, 1836, History of the Church, 2:443. Orasmus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), p. 213, indicates that before his death the eldest son, Alvin, was looked upon within the family as most likely to fulfill the expectation.
4. Joseph F. Smith, Jr., “Asahel Smith of Topsfield,” Topsfield Historical Collections, 8 (1902): 87-101; Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, Ancestry and Posterity of Joseph Smith and Emma Hale (Independence, Missouri, 1929), pp. 51-75.
6. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 45-69. For the period of the Smith residence in Vermont, see also the fresh information developed by Fawn M. Brodie in her biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History (New York, 1945), pp. 1-9.
9. Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, pp. 12, 23; Turner, Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, pp. 213-14; E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), pp. 232-61; John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (New York, 1842), p. 225; [La]Fayette Lapham, “An Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith Forty Years Ago,” Historical Magazine 8 (May 1870): 305-309; Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine, 26 (Aug. 1880): 198; Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 1831; New York Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, Aug 31, 1831.
10. Solomon Mack, A Narrative [sic] of the life of Solomon Mack. Containting an Account of the Many Severe Accidents He Met with During a Long Series of Years, Together with the Extraordinary Manner in which He Was Converted to the Christian Faith (Windsor, 1811?); Historical Magazine 8 (Nov. 1870): 318.
12. See the advertising columns of the Palmyra Register from November 26, 1817. This paper, on file in the New York State Library, is indispensable to any study of Mormon beginnings. The paper had various names: Palmyra Register, 1817-21; Western Farmer, 1821-22; Palmyra Herald, and Canal Advertiser, 1822-23; and Wayne Sentinel from 1823.
15. New York Morning Courier and New York Enquirer, Aug. 31, 1831, a dispatch written from Canandaigua under date of Aug. 15, 1831. This account has escaped Mormon historians who have reproached Tucker for originating, long afterwards, the “slander” of the cake and beer shop.
17. No coherent account of their settlement upon and eventual undertaking to purchase their farm was given by any member of the Smith family, most of what is known about it having to be pieced together from the account by Lucy Smith. In dating for 1818 the removal of the Smiths from Palmyra to the farm in Farmington (later Manchester), however, Pomeroy Tucker has been followed. He says that the Smiths arrived in Palmyra from Vermont in the summer (better, perhaps, the fall) of 1816, and that they lived in the village for two and a half years before moving to the farm. Orasmus Turner writes simply that as early as 1819 the Smiths occupied some new land out the Stafford Road, that here he himself remembered first having seen the family “in the winter of ’19, ’20, in a rode log house, with but a small spot underbrushed around it.” Lucy herself is ambiguous about the move, but implies that they undertook to buy the property within a year of their arrival in Palmyra, and within two years were located on the farm, in “a snug log-house neatly furnished.” Joseph has said that his family lived in Palmyra “about four years” before moving to Manchester, but the Smiths were certainly living on the farm at the time of the census of 1820, as is shown by the returns for Ontario county in the National Archives. It seems likely that the log house was built during the summer of 1818 and that the Smiths moved in as soon as it was finished.”
18. The later valuation is given by John Fowler, Journal of a Tour in the States of New York in the Year 1820 (London, 1831), p. 103, though Fowler thought the farm in question, one of 300 acres, could be bought for ten dollars less. The earlier valuation comes from De Witt Clinton’s journal of 1810, both properties being located in the Holland Purchase. Clinton was told by the agent of the Holland Company that the lands were going for from five to eight shillings the acre on ten year contracts, for two years of which the interest was forgiven. See William W. Campbell, ed., The Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton (New York, 1849), pp. 117-18.
20. See the interview with William Smith shortly before his death in November 1893, reprinted in Appendix B. One of the old neighbors of the Smiths, Lorenzo Saunders, who had gone to school with William, recalled that the family once won the county’s fifty dollar bounty by producing 7,000 pounds of sugar in a single season (unpublished affidavit dated Reading, Michigan, Sept. 20, 1884, in possession of the Reorganized LDS church).”
22. See the recitals by Tucker and Turner, and the statements about the Smiths printed in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 232-61; Saints’ Herald, June 1, 1881; Naked Truths about Mormonism, Jan. 1888; and Thomas Gregg, The Prophet of Palmyra (New York, 1890), pp. 34-56.
25. Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh, 1840). Although Mormon writers have tended to exaggerate Joseph’s ignorance in early life, to make more imperative “the gift and power of God” which alone enabled him to write the Book of Mormon, this summation of his education probably hews to the facts. Joseph got some schooling at Bainbridge, New York, in the winter of 1825-26 which contributed to the attainments here described. A copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon in the University of Utah library, which was inscribed by Joseph at Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1830, does not indicate too imperfect a hand. I have not seen an earlier specimen of his handwriting.
35. Walter W. Sweet, in The American Churches (New York, 1948) and Revivalism in America (New York, 1944), has provided short summaries of American religious history, but perhaps the most instructive background work for a study of Mormonism is John M. Mecklin’s The Story of American Dissent (New York, 1934). In its earlier state Mormonism was a church of the disinherited, yet subsequently in Utah took on something of the character of an establishment, and Mecklin’s book exhibits in broad perspective the historical processes involved.
36. For Nimrod Hughes, see the St. Louis Louisiana Gazette, Oct. 3, 1811, May 9, 1812; for McDonald, the Washington, D.C., Daily National Intelligencer, Sept. 12, 1823, and the Wayne Sentinel, Oct. 8, 1823; for the Shakers, Marguerite Fellows Melcher, The Shaker Adventure (Princeton, 1941); for Jemima Wilkinson, Robert P. St. John, “Jemima Wilkinson,” Quarterly Journal of the New York Historical Association 9 (April 1930): 158-75; for Dylks, R. E. Taneyhill, “The Leatherwood God,” Ohio Valley HistoricaI Miscellanies, No. 3 (Cincinnati, 1871); for Bullard, Z. Thompson, History of Vermont (Burlington, 1842), Part 2, pp. 203-204, Bellows Falls Vermont Intelligencer and Bellows Falls Advertiser, Nov. 10, 1817, Wayne SentineI, May 26, 1826, and Woodstock Vermont Chronical, June 24, 1831.
38. De Witt Clinton, “A Discourse delivered before the New York Historical Society…6th December, 1811,” New-York Historical Society Publications 2 (1811): 89-90. Also see his journal of 1810, in Campbell, ed., Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton, pp. 109, 150, 156-57, 172-73. Many remains in western New York were sketched in 1848 by E.G. Squier. See his Antiquities of the State of New York (Buffalo, 1851).
41. In 1810 De Witt Clinton talked with a horticulturist living at Ovid who had dug at six places on his property, without finding anything more than burnt ashes and charcoal. Earlier in the summer he observed near the Little Falls of the Mohawk River “large holes dug, which we are told were made by money-seekers from Stone Arabia.” Campbell. ed., Life and Writings of De Witt Clinton, pp. 156, 157, 47.
42. See the affidavit by Peter Ingersoll, Dec. 2, 1833, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 233. For contemporary accounts of the money-digging craze as it raged in Vermont, see the Palmyra Herald and Canal Advertiser, July 24, 1822, and the Wayne Sentinel, Feb. 16, 1825. The latter relates how, at Tunbridge, where the Smiths had formerly lived, an old gentleman had been informed in a dream as to the place of the burial of a chest of money in Randolph. With a mineral rod he located it exactly and made an excavation fifteen feet square and seven or eight feet deep, actually coming upon the chest. “One of the company drove an old file through the rotten lid of the chest, and perceiving it to be nearly empty, exclaimed with an oath, ‘There’s not ten dollars a piece: No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than the chest moved off through the mud, and has not been seen or heard of since.”
43. Historical Magazine 8 (Nov. 1870): 316. This account is perhaps suspect because the source, Judge Daniel Woodward, also says that the senior Joseph had been engaged in counterfeiting activities during his time of residence in Vermont. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 7, has shown he was a victim, not an accomplice. See the legal record of this affair, Supreme Court Records, vol. 3, pp. 35, 84-86, 108, in the Windsor County Clerk’s Office, Woodstock, Vermont.
45. See, e.g., Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 232-61; [La] Fayette Lapham, “Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago,” Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 305-309; and the reminiscences of Dr. W. D. Purple reprinted in Appendix A.
46. “Journal of Priddy Meeks,” Utah Historical Quarterly 10 (1942): 179, 180, 200-202. Priddy adds that a neighbor persuaded William by fair promises to go and live with him. He became careless, used bad language, went to the city, after awhile married, “and the last account I had was in the papers: he had a mining lawsuit and got beat.” Put in other terms: by the time William grew to manhood the climate had changed and society had no place for a seer in peepstones.