Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
The Evolution of Claims
Concerning the Origin of Joseph Smith’s Church
[p.341]The documents printed in whole or in part below are designed primarily to exhibit the ideas concerning the origins of the Mormon church held by Joseph Smith, his followers, and those who rejected his claims before 1835. These documents are both pro and con in character, but two things in particular they share: their undoubted contemporaneity and their entire lack of information that Joseph Smith had a visitation in 1820 from the Father and the Son.
Just about in this particular region, for some time past, much speculation has existed, concerning a pretended discovery, through superhuman means, of an ancient record, of a religious and divine nature and origin, written in ancient characters, impossible to be interpreted by any to whom the special gift has not been imparted by inspiration. It is generally known and spoken of as the “Golden Bible.” Most people entertain an idea that the whole matter is the result of a gross imposition, and a grosser superstition. It is pretended that it will be published as soon as the translation is completed. Meanwhile we have been furnished with the following, which is represented to us as intended for the title page of the work—we give it as a curiosity: * * *
[Palmyra, New York, Wayne Sentinel, 26 June 1829.]
The Palmyra Freeman says—The greatest piece of superstition that has come within our knowledge, now occupies the attention of a few individuals of this quarter. It is generally known and spoken of as the “Golden Bible.” Its proselytes give the following account of it. In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith, of Manchester, Ontario county, reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty, and informed that in a certain hill in [p.342] that town, was deposited the golden Bible, containing an ancient record of a divine nature and origin. After having been thrice thus visited, as he states, he proceeded to the spot, and after penetrating “mother earth” a short distance the Bible was found, together with a huge pair of Spectacles! He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, “under no less penalty than instant death.” They were therefore, nicely wrapped up and excluded from the “vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals!” It was said that the leaves of the Bible were plates of gold, about eight inches thick, on which were engraved characters or Hyeroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least) interpret these characters.
An account of this discovery was soon circulated. The subject was almost invariably as it should have been—with contempt. A few, however, believed the “golden” story, among whom was Martin Harris, an honest and industrious farmer of this town, (Palmyra). So blindly credulous was Harris, that he took some of the characters interpreted by Smith and went in search of some one, besides the interpreter, who was learned enough to English them; but all to whom he applied (among the number was a Professor Mitchell of New York,) happened not to be possessed of sufficient knowledge to give satisfaction! Harris returned and set Smith to work at interpreting the Bible. He has at length performed the task, and the work is soon to be put to press in Palmyra. Its language and doctrine are said to be far superior to those of the Book of life!!!
[Rochester, New York, Advertiser and Telegraph, 31 Aug. 1829. A summary of the same story appears in the Rochester Gem, 5 Sept. 1829.]
A fellow by the name of Joseph Smith, who resides in the upper part of Susquehanna county, has been, for the last two years we are told, employed in dedicating [dictating] as he says, by inspiration, a new bible. He pretended that he had been entrusted by God with a golden bible which had been always hidden from the world. Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed. The book purports to give an account of the “Ten Tribes” and strange as it may seem, there are some who have full faith in his Divine commission. The book it seems is now published. * * *
[Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio Phoenix, 8 June 1830, quoting the Bethany, Pennsylvania, Wayne County Inquirer.]
[p.343] Revelation to Joseph Smith, given in Fayette, New York, June 1830….After that it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world;
But after truly repenting, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose contenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all whiteness, and gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave unto him power, by the means which were before prepared, that he should translate a book;
Which book contained a record of a fallen people, and also the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles;
And also to the Jews, proving unto them, that the holy scriptures are true;
And also, that God doth inspire men and call them to his holy work, in these last days as well as in days of old, that he might be the same God forever. * * *
[Book of Commandments, Zion, 1833, Chapter 24. Text previously printed in Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph, 19 April 1831, and in Evening and Morning Star, June 1832 and again in June 1833.]
THE BOOK OF MORMON
Mr. Editor,—I have lately spent between two and three days examining a book of an extraordinary character, bearing the above title, which was lately brought from the state of New York, and is much talked of in some parts of the county of Windham, where it is circulating. I feel inclined to give a short account of it to such of your readers, as may not have opportunity of seeing it. It was printed at Palmyra, contains near six hundred pages, and claims to be divine inspiration, or written by men who had frequent interviews with God & angels. It is stated to have been written in the Egyptian language, on plates of gold, and to have been found in the town of Manchester, and county of Ontario, in a box of stones well cemented together, and buried in the earth, where it must have lain, according to things said in the book ever since A.D. 420. Joseph Smith Jr. found it, and he translated it, not from any knowledge of the language on the plates, but by means of two stones or glasses found with it in the box, which give light, and exhibit objects, when looked into in the dark. Eight persons testify, in a certificate appended to the book, that they have seen the plates, which have the appearance of gold, and are of curious workmanship;—and three more testify, in another certificate,
[p.344] that God showed them the plates, by an angel descending from heaven for the purpose. Thus all either express, or appear to have full confidence in the truth of the book. [There follows a long summary and critical analysis of the contents of the volume.] I am at a loss to determine whether the book originated from speculation only, or from fanaticism, or from both. I am credibly informed, that a church has been formed at the westward, on the plan of this book. If this is true, it may furnish a new denomination in religion.
[Brattleboro’ (Vermont) Messenger, 30 Oct. 1830.]
Mr. Editor.—I have gotten some additional information respecting the Book of Mormon, which I send you for insertion in your paper, if you see fit. It is contained in an extract, which I have just taken from a letter written from a town in the State of New York, where, as I had been previously told, this Jos. Smith had resided some years, and from which he set out, with an attendant, in pursuit of the gold plates, which he found, as they say, about one hundred and fifty miles from the place of starting. The letter is dated Oct. 18th, 1830, and the extract is as follows:
“You have probably heard of the Gold Bible taken from the earth by Joseph, the money-digger. This he has translated from the Egyptian reformed language to English, by a pair of stone spectacles (provided by an angel) and a dark hat before his eyes. The books have been printed, and J. S. [Josiah Stowell?] and Mr. N—s are engaged in peddling the same. The society are increasing. Eighteen have been baptized in a day. H. P. [Hezekiah Peck?] and wife have been baptized, & are very strong in the faith. The girls are under conviction. The leaders pretend to cast out devils and work miracles, heal the sick, &c. We have seen none of their miracles here, except N. N. [Newel Knight] I heard say in meeting, that he had had the devil cast out.”
I just add, that I have been almost in contact with these peddlers in different parts of this county, having my information from them only through most credible second hand informers, who state that they said, they know the book, and the manner in which it is said to have been found, was true; or that they did not believe it, but knew it. They are said to be respectable men. The wife of one of them, though immersed formerly by an Elder in this county, has been [p.345] immersed or baptized again into this new system. I only state facts, and leave the judicious and pious to their own reflections.
[Brattleboro’ Messenger, 20 Nov. 1830.]
The Golden Bible.—Some two or three years since, an account was given in the papers, of a book purporting to contain new revelations from Heaven, having been dug out of the ground, in Manchester in Ontario Co. N.Y. The book, it seems, has made its appearance in this vicinity.—It contains about 600 octave pages, which is said to be translated from Egyptian Hieroglyphics, on metal plates, by one Smith, who was enabled to read the characters by instruction from Angels. About two weeks since some persons came along here with the book, one of whom pretends to have seen Angels, and assisted in translating the plates. He proclaims destruction upon the world within a few years,—holds forth that the ordinances of the gospel, have not been regularly administered since the days of the Apostles, till the said Smith and himself commenced the work —and many other marvelous things too numerous to mention. * * * The name of the person here, who pretends to have a divine mission, and to have seen and conversed with Angels, is Cowdray. * * *
[Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1830.]
About a couple of weeks since, three men, calling themselves Oliver Cowdry, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, appeared in our village, laden with a new revelation, which they claim to be a codicil to the New Testament. * * *
The account which they give is substantially as follows:—at a recent period an angel appeared to a poor ignorant man residing in or near Palmyra in Ontario County in the State of New York, directed him to open the earth at a place designated, where he would find the new revelation engraved on plates of metal. In obedience to the celestial messenger, Smith repaired to the spot, and on opening the ground discovered an oblong stone box tightly closed with cement. He opened the sacred depository and found enclosed a bundle of plates resembling gold, carefully united at one edge with three silver wires so that they opened like a book. The plates were about 7 inches long and 6 broad, and the whole pile was about 6 inches deep, [p.346] each plate about the thickness of tin. They were engraved in a character unintelligible to the learned men of the United States, to many of whom it is said they have been presented. The angel afterwards appeared to the three individuals, and showed them the plates. To Smith was given to translate the character[s] which he was enabled to do by looking through two semi-transparent stones, but as he was ignorant of the art of writing, Cowdry and the others wrote as Smith interpreted. They say that part of the plates escaped from them in a supernatural manner and are to be again revealed when the events of the time shall require them. * * *
[New York Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, 7 Dec. 1830, quoting the Painesville, Ohio, Geauga Gazette, ca. 23 Nov. 1830.]
“THE GOLDEN BIBLE.”—Yes, reader, strange as it may appear, there is a new Bible just published, entitled the “Book of Mormon,” and better known to some as the Golden Bible. * * * We have lately purchased one for the gratification of our curiosity, which was rather excited on learning that its doctrines were taught and believed in this and the adjoining counties.
We have not read it in course, but have perused it sufficiently to be convinced that it is one of the veriest impositions of the day. * * *
This Bible is closed by two certificates commending the work; to the first is attached the name of Oliver Cowdry and two other persons, and to the last are 8 names, among which are those of the father and two brothers of the reputed author.
On reading the name of Oliver Cowdry, in support of the divine authenticity of the work, whatever faith we might have been inspired with on reading the certificate, was banished, for we had known Cowdry some seven or 8 years ago, when he was a dabbler in the art of Printing, and principally occupied in writing and printing pamphlets, with which, as a pedestrian pedlar, he visited the towns and villages of western N. York, and Canada, and the only opinion we have of the origin of this Golden Bible, is that Mr. Cowdry and Mr. Smith the reputed author, have taken the old Bible to keep up a train of circumstances, and by altering names and language, have produced the string of jargon called the “Book of Mormon,” with the intention of making money by the sale of their books; and being aware that they would not sell unless an excitement and curiosity could be raised in the public mind, have therefore sent out twelve Apostles to promulgate its doctrines. * * *
[p.347] [Ashtabula (Ohio) Journal, 4 Dec. 1830, quoting the Cleveland Herald.]
THE GOLDEN BIBLE.
In the fall of 1827, a man named Joseph Smith of Manchester, Ontario county, N.Y. reported that he had three times been visited in a dream, by the spirit of the Almighty, and informed that in a certain hill in that town, was a Golden Bible, containing an ancient record of a divine nature and origin. On going to the spot he found buried the Bible with a huge pair of spectacles: The leaves (he said, tho’ he was not permitted to show them) were plates of gold, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and 1/8th of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hieroglyphicks, which with the spectacles he could interpret. Martin Harris an industrious farmer, caught the contagion, took some of the characters to different learned men to translate, but without success. He returned, set Smith to work at translating it, and has had it printed. * * *
[Ravenne Ohio Star, 9 Dec. 1830.]
Farmington, Ont. co. Jan. 1, 1831.
I observe by the public prints, that this most clumsy of all impositions, known among us as Jo Smith’s “Gold Bible,” is beginning to excite curiosity abroad, from the novelty of its appearance, and the assurance of its advocates, who in imitation of too many of our religious sects, who have gone before them, very charitably (at least in this region) threaten all who have the hardihood to refuse to subscribe to their rhapsodies, with “dire damnation.”
The two papers published in your village, for reasons easily explained, decline at present, throwing any light on this subject. To you, and you alone, do we look for an expose of the principal facts and characters, as connected with this singular business; I say singular, because it was hardly to be expected, that a mimicry, like the one in question, should have been gotten up at so late a period, and among a people, professing to be enlightened.
It is not from a persecuting spirit, that I solicit an exposure, or my maxim is that “error is never dangerous, where truth is free to combat it,” and that liberty of conscience in matters of religion, should be allowed to all. Among the bundle of papers herewith sent to you for inspection, you will find little else, than a dry statement of facts, without much reference to time or order; you will perceive that I have attempted to throw all the light I could upon the [p.348] “money digging mania,” which formerly pervaded this, and many other countries, which eventuated in the discovery of Jo Smith’s “Golden Treasure.”
For your knowledge of ancient & modern history, by which you will be enabled to relieve the dryness of the subject, by bringing before the public parallel cases, there can be no doubt that much useful information may result from your labors. I shall from time to time, send you such information as I may collect on this piece of legerdemain.
[Palmyra Reflector, 6 Jan. 1831.]
GOLD BIBLE.—We have long been waiting, with considerable anxiety, to see some of our contemporaries attempt to explain the immediate causes, which produced that anomaly in religion and literature, which has most strikingly excited the curiosity of our friends at a distance, generally known under the cognomen of the Book of Mormon, or the Gold Bible.
The few notices heretofore given in the public prints, are quite vague and uncertain, and throw but a faint light on the subjects. While some have evinced a spirit of rancor, without giving the why and wherefores; others have attached an ominous consequence to this transaction, which may have a tendency to mislead the ignorant.
It is our intention, so far as in us lies, to give, in accordance with the wishes of our friend “Plain Truth,”…a plain and unvarnished statement of facts, so far as they may come to our knowledge, which may, in our opinion, be considered as having any connection with the origin, rise, and progress of the book in question; so that our readers may not only judge of this, but of some other matters for themselves. * * *
[Palmyra Reflector, 6 Jan. 1931.]
[Lucy Mack Smith to Solomon Mack and wife, Waterloo, New York, 6 Jan. 1831:]
Dear Brother and Sister:
Although we are at a great distance from each other and have not had the pleasure of seeing each other for many years, yet I feel a great anxiety in your welfare, and especially for the welfare of your souls; and you yourselves must know that it is a thing of greatest importance to be prepared to meet our God in peace, for it is not long before He is to make His appearance on the earth with all the hosts of [p.349] heaven to take vengeance on the wicked and they that know not God. By searching the prophecies contained in the Old Testament we find it there prophesied that God will set His hand the second time to recover His people the house of Israel. He has now commenced this work; He hath sent forth a revelation in these last days, and this revelation is called the Book of Mormon. * * *
Perhaps you will inquire how this revelation came forth. It has been hid up in the earth fourteen hundred years, and was placed there by Moroni, one of the Nephites; it was engraven upon plates which have the appearance of gold….he hid them up in the earth, having obtained a promise of the Lord that they should come forth in His own due time unto the world; and I feel to thank my God that He hath spared my life to see this day.
Joseph, after repenting of his sins and humbling himself before God, was visited by an holy angel whose countenance was as lightening and whose garments were white above all whiteness, who gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high; and who gave unto him, by the means of which was before prepared, that he should translate this book. And by reading this our eyes are opened that we can see the situation in which the world now stands; that the eyes of the whole world are blinded; that the churches have all become corrupted, yea every church upon the face of the earth; that the Gospel of Christ is nowhere preached. This is the situation which the world is now in, and you can judge for yourselves if we did not need something more than the wisdom of man to show us the right way.
God, seeing our situation, had compassion upon us, and has sent us this revelation that the stumbling block might be removed, that whomsoever would might enter. He now established His Church upon the earth as it was in the days of the Apostles. * * * I want you to think seriously of these things, for they are the truths of the living God.
Please to accept this from your sister,
[Ben E. Rich, Scrap Book of Mormon Literature, Chicago, 190-, 1:543-45.]
[W. W. Phelps to E. D. Howe, Canandaigua, New York, 15 Jan. 1831:]
DEAR SIR—Yours of the 11th, is before me, but to give you a satisfactory answer, is out of my power. To be sure, I am acquainted with a number of the persons concerned in the publication, called the “Book of Mormon.”—Joseph Smith [p.350] is a person of very limited abilities in common learning—but his knowledge of divine things, since the appearance of his book, has astonished many. Mr. Harris, whose name is in the book, is a wealthy farmer, but of small literary acquirements; he is honest, and sincerely declares upon his soul’s salvation that the book is true, and was interpreted by Joseph Smith, through a pair of silver spectacles, found with the plates. The places where they dug for the plates, in Manchester, are to be seen. When the plates were said to have been found, a copy of one or two lines of the characters, were taken by Mr. Harris to Utica, Albany and New York; at New York, they were shown to Dr. Mitchell, and he referred to professor Anthon who translated and declared them to be the ancient short-hand Egyptian. So much is true. The family of the Smiths is poor, and generally ignorant in common learning. * * *
Jo Smith, junior, according to the best information we can obtain on this subject, was born in the State of Vermont. His father emigrated to this county (Ontario county, N.Y.) about the year 1815, and located his family in the village of Palmyra. The age of this modern prophet is supposed to be about 24 years. In his person he is tall and slender—thin favored—having but little expression of countenance, other than that of dulness; his mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he has had at school, he made little or no proficiency, and it is asserted by one of his principle followers, (who also pretends to divine illuminations,) that Jo, even at this day is profoundly ignorant of the meaning of many of the words contained in the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith, senior, the father of the personage of whom we are now writing, had by misfortune or otherwise been reduced to extreme poverty before he migrated to Western New-York. His family was large consisting of nine or ten children, among whom Jo junior was the third or fourth in succession. We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity, to which might be added, so far as it may respect the elder branch, a propensity to superstition and a fondness for every thing marvelous.
We have been credibly informed that the mother of the prophet had connected herself with several religious societies before her present illumination; this also was the case with other branches of the family, but how far the father of the prophet, ever advanced in these particulars, we are not precisely informed, it however appears quite certain that the prophet himself never made any serious pretensions to religion until his late pretended revelation.
[p.351] We are not able to determine whether the elder Smith was ever concerned in moneydigging transactions previous to his emigration from Vermont, or not, but it is 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 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. This opinion however, did not originate by any means with Smith, for we find that the vulgar and ignorant from time immemorial, both in Europe and America, have entertained the same preposterous opinion.
It may not be amiss in this place to mention that the mania of money digging soon began rapidly to diffuse itself through many parts of this country; men and women without distinction of age or sex became marvellous wise in the occult sciences, many dreamed, and others saw visions disclosing to them, deep in the bowels of the earth, rich and shining treasures, and to facilitate those mighty mining operations, (money was usually if not always sought after in the night time,) divers devices and implements were invented, and although the spirit was always able to retain his precious charge, these discomfited as well as deluded beings, would on a succeeding night return to their toil, not in the least doubting that success would eventually attend their labors.
Mineral rods and balls, (as they were called by the imposter who made use of them,) were supposed to be infallible guides to these sources of wealth—“peep stones” or pebbles, taken promiscuously from the brook or field, were placed in a hat or other situation excluded from the light, when some wizard or witch (for these performances were not confined to either sex) applied their eyes, and nearly starting their balls from their sockets, declared they saw all the wonders of nature, including of course, ample stores of silver and gold.
It is more than probable that some of these deluded people, by having their imaginations heated to the highest pitch of excitement, and by straining their eyes until they were suffused with tears, might have, through the medium of some trifling emission of the ray of light, receive imperfect images on the retina, when their fancies could create the rest. Be this however as it may, people busied themselves in consulting these blind oracles, while the ground was nightly opened in various places and men who were too lazy or idle to labor for bread in the day time, displayed a zeal and perseverance in this business worthy of a better cause.
[p.352] [Palmyra Reflector, 1 Feb. 1831.]
* * * In the commencement, the imposture of the “book of Mormon,” had no regular plan or features. At a time when the money digging ardor was somewhat abated, the elder Smith declared that his son Jo had seen the spirit, (which he then described as a little old man with a long beard,) and was informed that he (Jo) under certain circumstances, eventually should obtain great treasures, and that in due time he (the spirit) would furnish him (Jo) with a book, which would give an account of the Ancient inhabitants (antideluvians,) of this country, and where they had deposited their substance, consisting of costly furniture, &c. at the approach of the great deluge, which had ever since that time remained secure in his (the spirits) charge, in large and spacious chambers, in sundry places in this vicinity, and these tidings corresponded precisely with revelations made to, and predictions made by the elder Smith, a number of years before.
The time at length arrived, when young Jo was to receive the book from the hand of the spirit, and he repaired accordingly, alone, and in the night time to the woods in the rear of his father’s house (in the town of Manchester about two miles south of this village) and met the spirit as had been appointed. This rogue of a spirit who had baffled all the united efforts of the money diggers, (although they had tried many devices to gain his favor, and at one time sacrificed a barn yard fowl,) intended it would seem to play our prophet a similar trick on this occasion; for no sooner had he delivered the book according to promise, than he made a most desperate attempt, to regain its possession. Our prophet however, like a lad of true metal, stuck to his prize, and attempted to gain his father’s dwelling, which it appears, was near at hand. The father being alarmed at the long absence of his son, and probably fearing some trick of the spirit, having known him for many years; sallied for thin quest of the youthful adventurer. He had not however, proceeded far before he fell in with the object of his kind solicitude who appeared to be in the greatest peril. The spirit had become exasperated at the stubborn conduct of the young prophet, in wishing to keep possession of the book, and out of sheer spite, raised a whirlwind, which was at that particular juncture, throwing trunks and limbs of trees, about their ears, besides the “elfish sprite” had belabored Jo soundly with blows,—had felled him once to the ground, and bruised him severely in the side. The rescue however, was timely, Jo retained his treasure, and returned to the house with his father, much fatigued and injured. This tale in substance, was told at the time the event was [p.353] said to have happened by both father and son, and is well recollected by many of our citizens. It will be borne in mind that no divine interposition had been dreamed of at the period.
[Palmyra Reflector, 14 Feb. 1831.]
* * * It is well known that Jo Smith never pretended to have any communion with angels, until a long period after the pretended finding of his book, and that the juggling of himself or father, went no further than the pretended faculty of seeing wonders in a “peep stone,” and the occasional interview with the spirit, supposed to have the custody of hidden treasures; and it is also equally well known, that a vagabond fortune-teller by the name of Walters, who then resided in the town of Sodus, and was once commited to the jail of this county for juggling, was the constant companion and bosom friend of these money digging imposters.
There remains but little doubt, in the minds of those at all acquainted with these transactions, that Walters, who was sometimes called the conjurer, and was paid three dollars per day for his services by the money diggers in this neighborhood, first suggested to Smith the idea of finding a book. Walters, the better to carry on his own deception with those ignorant & deluded people who employed him, had procured an old copy of Cicero’s Orations, in the latin language, out of which he read long and loud to his credulous hearers, uttering at the same time an unintelligible jargon, which he would afterwards pretend to interpret, and explain, as a record of the former. inhabitants of America, and a particular account of the numerous situations where they had deposited their treasures previous to their final extirpation.
So far did this impostor carry this diabolical farce, that not long previous to the pretended discovery of the “Book of Mormon,” Walters assembled his nightly band of money diggers in the town of Manchester, at a point designated in his magical book, and drawing a circle around the laborers, with the point of an old rusty sword, and using sundry other incantations, for the purpose of propitiating the spirit, absolutely sacrificed a fowl, (“Rooster”) in the presence of his awe-stricken companions, to the foul spirit, whom ignorance had created, the guardian of hidden wealth; and after digging until day-light, his deluded employers retired to their several habitations, fatigued and disappointed.
If the critical reader will examine the “Book of Mormon,” he will directly perceive, that in many instances, the style of the Bible, from which it is chiefly copied, has been entirely altered for the worse. In many instances it has been copied upwards, without reference to chapter or verse, [p.354] (taking Jeremiah for an example) and that the old and new Testament, have been promiscuously intermingled, with the simple alteration of names, &c, with some interpolations, which may easily be discovered, by the want of grammatical arrangement. * * *
[Palmyra Reflector, 28 Feb. 1831.]
SOMETHING NEW.—THE GOLDEN BIBLE
* * * Some hundreds of the rabble and a few intelligent citizens of the western part of New York and the western [eastern] part of Ohio, have, with the wildest enthusiasm, embraced a reigned revelation purporting to be literally new. From the advocates of this new religion called Mormonism, from a letter received from the intelligent Post Master at Palmyra, extracts from Mr. Thomas Campbell’s letters and other sources, embracing the subjoined pieces taken from the Telegraph of Painesville, O.: from these different quarters I learn the following particulars. For a long time in the vicinity of Palmyra, there has existed an impression, especially among certain loose classes of society, that treasures of great amount were concealed near the surface of the earth, probably by the Indians, whom they were taught to consider the descendants of the ten lost Israelitish tribes, by the celebrated Jew [M. M. Noah] who a few years since promised to gather Abraham’s sons on Grand Island, thus to be made a Paradise. The ignorance and superstition of these fanatics soon conjured up a ghost, who they said was often seen and to whom was committed the care of the precious deposit. This tradition made money diggers of many who had neither intelligence nor industry sufficient to obtain a more reputable livelihood. But they did not succeed and as the money was not dug up, something must be dug up to make money. The plan was laid, doubtless, by some person behind the curtain, who selected suitable tools. One Joseph Smith, a perfect ignoramus, is to be a great prophet of the Lord, the gabled ghost the angel of his presence, a few of the accomplices the apostles or witnesses of the imposition, and, to fill up the measure of their wickedness and the absurdity of their proceedings, the hidden golden treasure, is to be a gold bible and a new revelation. This golden bible consisted of metallic plates six or seven inches square, of the thickness of tin and resembling gold, the surface of which was covered with hieroglyphic characters, unintelligible to Smith, the finder, who could not read English. However, the angel (ghost!) that discovered the plates to him, likewise informed him that he would be inspired to translate the inscriptions without looking at the plates, while an amanuensis would record his infallible reading; all which was accordingly done. But [p.355] now the book must be published, the translation of the inscriptions which Smith was authorized to show to no man save a few accomplices, who subscribe a certificate of these pretended facts at the end of the volumes. Truly a wise arrangement! * * *
[Dayton, Ohio, Evangelical Inquirer, 7 March 1831.]
We have received the following letter from Palmyra, N.Y. on the subject of Bible impostors. It is signed by ten individuals of the first respectability.
Palmyra, March 12, 1831.
The “gold bible” question excites but little interest in this section of country, its followers being few and generally of the dregs of community, and most unlettered people that can be found anywhere, and besides there is much reason to doubt the sincerity of many of them.
The first idea of a “Book,” was doubtless suggested to the Smiths by one Walters, a juggling fortune-teller, who made the ignorant believe that an old book in his possession, in the Latin language, contained an account of the anti-deluvians, &c. and the word was given out that the book Smith has about to find, was a history of hidden treasures.
Smith and his father belonged to a gang of money-diggers, who had followed that business for many years, Jo pretending he could see the gold and silver by the aid of what they called a “peep stone.”
The book is chiefly garbled from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocraphy having contributed its share; names and phrases have been altered, and in many instances copied upwards.—A quarto Bible now in this village, was borrowed and nearly worn out and defaced by their dirty handling. Some seven or eight of them spent many months in copying, Cowdery being principal scribe. * * *
The whole gang of these deluded mortals, except a few hypocrites, are profound believers in witchcraft, ghosts, goblins, &c. * * * We have only to add that the facts published in the “Reflector,” are true as far as has come to our knowledge.
[Painesville, Ohio, Telegraph, 22 March 1831.]
There appears to be a great discrepancy, in the stories told by the famous three witnesses to the Gold Bible; and these pious reprobates, individually, frequently give [p.356] different versions of the same transaction. In the first place, it was roundly asserted that the plates on which Mormon wrote his history, (in the reformed Egyptian language) were of gold, and hence its name; gentlemen in this vicinity were called on to estimate its value from its weight, (something more than 20 lbs.) Smith and Harris gave out that no mortal save Jo could look upon it and live; and Harris declares, that when he acted as amanuenses, and wrote the translation, as Smith dictated, such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself.
Whitmar’s description of the Book of Mormon, differs entirely from that given by Harris; both of whom it would seem, have been of late permitted, not only to see and handle it, but to examine its contents. Whitmar relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his father’s farm near Waterloo, when they found the book lying on the ground; Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alledging that the book was in the custody of another, intimating that some Divine agent would have it in safe keeping.
This witness describes the book as being something like 8 inches square; (our informant did not recollect precisely,) the leaves were plates of metal of a whitish yellow color, and of the thickness of tin plate; the back was secured with three small rings of the same metal, passing through each leaf in succession;—that the leaves were divided equidistant, between the back & edge, by cutting the plates in two parts, and united again with solder, so that the front might be opened, as it were by a hinge, while the back part remained stationary and immoveable, and in this manner remained to him and the other witnesses a sealed book, which would not be revealed for ages to come, and that even the prophet himself was not as yet permitted to understand. On opening that portion of the book which was not secured by the seals, he discovered inscribed on the aforesaid plates, divers and wonderful characters; some of them large and some small, but beyond the wisdom of man to understand without supernatural aid.
Some of the other apostles give somewhat similar accounts, but varying in many particulars, according to their various powers of description.—Harris however gives the lie to a very important part of Whitmar’s relation, and declares that the leaves or pages of the book are not cut, and a part of them sealed, but that it opens like any other book, from the edge to the back, the rings operating in the place of common binding.
As these details, under different modifications, (for it must be borne in mind, that these Mormonites have given [p.357] versions of the same particulars,) are pretty well understood in this vicinity, we shall give our distant readers but small portions at a time. We have on hand a new edition of the prophet’s vision, at the time the Gold Bible was revealed to him by the Spirit, and the subsequent transactions, as related by JO’s father and his elder brother;—also sundry money digging scenes in whch the Smiths acted conspicuous parts, all of which will be given to the public in due time. * * *
[Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831.]
For a letter written from South Bainbridge, New York, in March 1831 by A. W. Benton, published in the Utica, New York, Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, April 9, 1831, see Appendix A.
CANANDAIGUA, Aug. 15th, 1831.
* * * You have heard of MORMONISM—who has not? * * * The individuals who gave birth to this species of fanaticism are very simple personages, and not known until this thrust them into notice. They are the old and the young Joe Smith’s, Harris a farmer, Ringdon [Rigdon] a sort of preacher on general religion from Ohio, together with several other persons equally infatuated, cunning, and hypocritic. The first of these persons, Smith, resided on the borders of Wayne and Ontario counties on the road leading from Canandaigua to Palmyra. Old Joe Smith had been a country pedlar in his younger days, and possessed all the shrewdness, cunning, and small intrigue which are generally and justly attributed to that description of persons. He was a great story teller, full of anecdotes picked up in his peregrinations—and possessed a tongue as smooth as oil and as quick as lightning. He had been quite a speculator in a small way in his younger days, but had been more fortunate in picking up materials for his tongue than stuff for the purse. Of late years he had picked up his living somewhere in the town of Manchester by following a branch of the “American system”—the manufacture of gingerbread and such like domestic wares. In this article he was a considerable speculator, having on hand during a fall price no less than two baskets full, and I believe his son Joe Junr., was at times a partner in the concern. What their dividends were I could not learn, but they used considerable molasses, and were against the duty on that article. Young Joe, who afterwards figured so largely in the Mormon religion, was at that period a careless, indolent, idle, and shiftless fellow. He [p.358] hung round the villages and strolled round the taverns without any end or aim—without any positive defect or as little merit in his character. He was a rather stout able bodied fellow, and might have made a good living in such a country as this where any one who is willing to work, can soon get on in the world. He was however, the son of a speculative Yankee pedlar, and was brought up to live by his wits. Harris also one of the fathers of Mormonism was a substantial farmer near Palmyra—full of passages of the scriptures—rather wild and flighty in his talk occasionally—but holding a very respectable character in his neighborhood for sobriety, sense and hard working.
A few years ago the Smith’s and others who were influenced by their notions, caught an idea that money was hid in several of the hills which give variety to the country between the Canandaigua Lake and Palmyra on the Erie Canal. Old Smith had in his peddling excursions picked up many stories of men getting rich in New England by digging in certain places and stumbling upon chests of money. The fellow excited the imagination of his few auditors, and make them all anxious to lay hold of the bilk axe and the shovel. As yet no fanatical or religious character had been assumed by the Smith’s. They exhibited the simple and ordinary desire of getting rich by some short cut if possible. With this view the Smith’s and their associates commenced digging, in the numerous hills which diversify the face of the country in the town of Manchester. The sensible country people paid slight attention to them at first. They knew them to be a thriftless set, more addicted to exerting their wits than their industry, readier at inventing stories and tales than attending church or engaging in any industrious trade. On the side & in the slopes of several of these hills, these excavations are still be to be seen. They would occasionally conceal their purposes, and at other times reveal them by such snatches as might excite curiosity. They dug these holes by day, and at night talked and dreamed over the countless riches they should enjoy, if they could only hit upon an iron chest full of dollars. In excavating the grounds, they began by taking up the green sod in the form of a circle of six feet diameter—then would continue to dig to the depth of ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty feet. At last some persons who joined them spoke of a person in Ohio near Painesville, who had a particular felicity in finding out the spots of ground where money is hid and riches obtained. He related long stories how this person had been along shore in the east—how he dreamt of the very spots where it could be found. “Can we get that man here?” asked the enthusiastic Smith. “Why,” said the other, “I guess as how we could by going for him.” “How far off? …. I guess some two hundred miles—I would go for him myself but I want a little change to bear my expenses.” To work [p.359] the whole money-digging crew went to get some money to pay the expenses of bringing on a man who could dream out the exact and particular spots where money in iron chests was hid under ground. Old Smith returned to his gingerbread factory—young Smith to his financing faculties, and after some time, by hook or by crook, they contrived to scrape together a little “change” sufficient to fetch on the money dreamer from Ohio.2
After the lapse of some weeks the expedition was completed, and the famous Ohio man made his appearance among them. This recruit was the most cunning, intelligent, and odd of the whole. He had been a preacher of almost every religion—a teacher of all sorts of morals.—He was perfectly au fait with every species of prejudice, folly or fanaticism, which governs the mass of enthusiasts. In the course of his experiments, he had attended all sorts of camp-meetings, prayer meetings, anxious meetings, and revival meetings. He knew every turn of the human mind in relation to these matters. He had a superior knowledge of human nature, considerable talent, great plausibility, and knew how to work the passions as exactly as a Cape Cod sailor know how to work a whale ship. His name I believe is Heny Rangdon or Ringdon, or some such word. About the time that this person appeared among them, a splendid excavation was begun in a long narrow hill, between Manchester and Palmyra.3 This hill has since been called by some, the Golden Bible Hill. The road from Canandagua to Palmyra, runs along its western base. At the northern extremity the hill is quite abrupt and narrow. It runs to the south for a half mile and then spreads out into a piece of broad table land, covered with beautiful orchards and wheat fields. On the east, the Canandaigua outlet runs past it on its way to the beautiful village of Vienna in Phelps. It is profusely covered to the top with Beach, Maple, Bass, and Whitewood—the northern extremity is quite bare of trees. In the face of this hill, the money diggers renewed their work with fresh ardour, Ringdon partly uniting with them in their operations.
About this time a very considerable religious excitement came over New York in the shape of a revival. * * * The singular character of the people of western New-York—their originality, activity, and proneness to excitement furnished admirable materials for enthusiasts in religion or roguery to work upon. * * *
It was during this state of feeling in which the money diggers of Ontario county, by the suggestions of the Ex-Preacher from Ohio, thought of turning their digging concerns into a religious plot, and thereby have a better chance of working upon the credulity and ignorance of their associates and the neighborhood. Money and a good living might be got in this way. It was given out that visions had [p.360] appeared to Joe Smith—that a set of golden plates on which was engraved the “Book of Mormon,” enclosed in an iron chest, was deposited somewhere in the hill I have mentioned. People laughed at the first intimation of the story, but the Smiths and Rangdon persisted in its truth. They began also to talk very seriously, to quote scripture, to read the bible, to be contemplative, and to assume that grave studied character, which so easily imposes on ignorant and superstitious people. Hints were given out that young Joe smith was the chosen one of God to reveal this new mystery to the world; and Joe from being an idle young fellow, lounging about the village, jumped up into a very grave personlike man, who felt he had on his shoulders the salvation of the world, besides a respectable looking sort of black-coat. Old Joe, the ex-preacher, and several others, were the believers of the new faith, which they admitted was an improvement on christianity, foretold word or words in the bible. They treated their own invention with the utmost religious respect. By the special interposition of God, the golden plates on which was engraved the Book of Mormon, and other works, had been buried for ages in the hill by a wandering tribe of the children of Israel, who had found their way to western New York, before the birth of christianity itself. Joe Smith is discovered to be the second Messiah who was to reveal this word to the world and to reform it anew.
In relation to the finding of the plates and the taking the engraving, a number of ridiculous stories are told. Some unsanctified fellow looked out the other side of the hill. They had to follow it with humility and found it embedded beneath a beautiful grove of maples. Smith’s wife, who had a little of the curiosity of her sex, peeped into the large chest in which he kept the the engravings taken from the golden plates, and straightway one half of the new bible vanished, and has not been recovered to this day. Such were the effects of the unbelievers on the sacred treasure. There is no doubt but the ex-parson from Ohio is the author of the book. It is full of strange narratives—in the style of the scriptures, and bearing on its face the marks of some ingenuity, and familiar acquaintance with the Bible. It is probable that Joe Smith is well acquainted with the trick, but Harris the farmer and the recent converts, are true believers. Harris was the first man who gave credit to the story of Smith and the ex-preacher. He was their maiden convert—the Ali of the Ontario Mahomet, who believed without a reason and without a murmur. They attempted to get the Book printed, but could not raise the means till Harris stept forward and raised money on his farm for that purpose. Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the Professors of Columbia College for the purpose of showing [p.361] them to him. Harris says that the Professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decypher them. Said he to Harris, “Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Doct. Mitchell and show them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction.” “Where does he live,” asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the Golden Plates to submit to Doct. Mitchell. Harris says that the Doctor received him very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings—made a learned dissertation on them—compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered [by] Champollion in Egypt—and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more.
The object of his going to the city to get the “Book of Mormon” printed, was not however accomplished. He returned with his manuscript or engravings to Palmyra—tried to raise money by mortgage on his farm from the New York Trust Company—did raise the money, but from what source—whether the Trust Company or not I am uncertain. At last a printer in Palmyra undertook to print the translations of Joe Smith, Harris becoming responsible for the expense. They were called translations, but in fact and in truth they are believed to be the work of the ex-Preacher from Ohio, who stood in the back ground and put forward Joe to father the new bible and the new faith. After the publication of the golden bible, they began to make converts rapidly. The revivals and other religious excitements had thrown up material for the foundation of a new sect, they soon found that they had not dug for money in vain—they began to preach—to pray—to see more visions—to prophesy and perform the most fantastic tricks—there was now no difficulty in getting a living and the gingerbread factory was abandoned. They created considerable talk over all this section of the country. * * *
[Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer, 31 Aug., 1 Sept. 1831.]
1. Presumably the Wayne Sentinel refrained from comment on the Book of Mormon because it had been responsible for printing it, while the Palmyra Freeman, being Anti-Masonic in its politics, may have been willing for the anti-Masonic content of the Book of Mormon to influence the public mind in any way it could.
2. It is interesting to consider whether Sidney Rigdon, who had been in the vicinity of Canandaigua in December 1830 and January 1831 while investigating Joseph Smith and his church, had become locally identified with the conjurer brought to Palmyra from the west in 1827 to find Joseph’s golden plates.
3. This large excavation or cave, though not in the Hill Cumorah proper, became a subject of many legends in and around Palmyra. See Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, 1867); Saints’ Herald, 1 June 1881; and Thomas L. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity (Palmyra, 1930).