Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism
John Phillip Walker, editor
The Golden Bible
[p.263]Sometime in late 1826 the Smiths lost their farm. They had been unable to meet their payments and lacked a thousand dollars of completing the purchase when the land agent in Canandaigua foreclosed the property and sold it to Sheriff Lemuel Durfee. Although Durfee permitted the Smiths to remain in possession, in consideration of a small annual payment sufficient to pay the interest on the balance,1 the family was heartbroken—their long ordeal by poverty suffered to no purpose.
Despite this black turn in the fortunes of the family, Hyrum took Jerusha Barden to wife early in November;2 their marriage seems to have given Joseph courage to return to Harmony and press his suit with Emma Hale. His mother relates how one day he called her and his father aside and said, “I have been very lonely ever since Alvin died, and I have concluded to get married; and if you have no objections to my uniting myself in marriage with Miss Emma Hale, she would be my choice in preference to any other woman I have ever seen.” They not only gave him their blessing but urged him to bring Emma back with him and make their home with the family. Accordingly, Joseph set off for Pennsylvania.3
As always, he was welcome at Josiah Stowell’s, but when he rode down the river to the Hales to ask Emma’s hand, Issac, her father, was abrupt in refusal, giving among other reasons that Joseph was a stranger and followed a business he could not approve of.4 But Emma was both compliant and of age, and when Joseph proposed that they elope, one Sunday morning while her father was at church, she gladly mounted his old horse. The next day, January 18, 1827, at the home of Squire Tarbill in Bainbridge, they became man and wife.5 It was not expedient to remain in Bainbridge, for Hale was a man of quick temper and stubborn will, so Joseph set off with his bride for his father’s home, arriving before the month was out, “in good health and fine spirits.”6
Little information has survived to indicate what Emma thought of the strange surroundings to which she was brought. In Harmony the Hales had always been among the most respected members of the community, and if not affluent, at least beyond the immediate reach of hardship. It was far otherwise with the Smiths in Manchester, and the only special distinction to which her husband laid claim could not have made Emma entirely happy. She must have [p.264] often been homesick; there is at least one remembrance of her weeping, saying that she had been deceived and had got into a hard place.7 Yet the marriage on which she entered was to be the great experience of her life, standing up under stresses that would have shattered a relationship of lesser quality; whatever there was about her husband that she found unaccountable and disquieting, she had given herself to him irrevocably.
At some cost to her pride, but impelled by their need, Emma eventually wrote her father to inquire whether she could obtain the property she had left behind: her clothing, some furniture, and a few cows. In reply she received a formal assurance that her belongings were safe and at her disposal.8 Doubtless with some trepidation, she and Joseph set out in August for Harmony, taking Peter Ingersoll with them to help in moving her things. At sight of the runaways, Hale burst into tears. “You have stolen my daughter and married her,” he said to Joseph. “I had much rather have followed her to her grave. You spend your time in digging for money—pretend to see in a stone, and thus try to deceive people.” Joseph wept in turn, Peter Ingersoll says, and “acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.” It was a rare moment of self abasement in Joseph’s life. Much mollified, Hale told his son-in-law that if he would move to Harmony and work for a living, he would help Joseph establish himself, an offer Joseph gratefully accepted.9
Thus in a moment there opened up for Joseph the offer of a new life, a place he might make for himself in the world with strict regard to the traditional virtues of sobriety, thrift, and honest toil. In the affecting presence of his father-in-law, his wife clinging to his arm, it had been easy to turn his back upon his past. But back in Manchester the values shifted again. Throughout his life his father had labored at farming and it had profited him nothing. Joseph had never been able to regard himself as a son of the soil; against the constricted life of the farm he had already been in rebellion five years and more. Moreover, for all that moment of weakness before his father-in-law, Joseph could not so meanly regard his powers of second sight. He may or may not have believed unreservedly in his gift, but an irreducible minimum of belief he held all his life is exemplified by the tenacity with which he clung to his seerstone.
Above all, in promising Isaac Hale that he would give up his glass-looking, Joseph had not reckoned with the necessities of his family, who could neither understand nor condone his promise, insisting that he “resume his old practice of looking in the stone.” Peter Ingersoll, who claims to have been Joseph’s confidant at the time, tells us of the importunities of the family and the seer’s troubled indecision over what he should do.10 The family’s faith in Joseph at no time had ever wavered, and he could not be unmoved by the straits in which he saw them. Now perhaps as never in their lives they looked to him to retrieve their shattered fortunes; he had even [p.265] given them reason to think that this very fall they should obtain certain strange treasure which had engrossed them for years. The farm gone, their status upon it little better than that of squatters, they had no other hope than what he represented.
His irresolution did not last long. Turning his back upon the fair prospect Issac Hale had held out to him, he cast his lot with his family. The news spread at once through Palmyra in the shape of a heart-stopping rumor. After so many years of staring into his stone, white hat held close against his face while his eager followers dug up the countryside, Joe Smith—said this clamorous rumor—had done it. He had found in the side of a hill not three miles distant from his home a book written upon plates of gold, a treasure of incalculable value. Any skeptics were confounded the first time the elder Joseph walked into the village thereafter. The town loafers spiked his cider with whiskey, got him drunk, and extracted the whole dazzling story from him.11
Whatever the pressure of need which brought it to dramatic climax, Joseph Smith’s story of the golden plates was no invention of casual provenance. It has a complex history which traces its origins back almost to the inception of his money-digging, and in a sense goes back in time further still, to the firm belief in genius loci his father had brought with him from Vermont. The most diverse influences operated to shape the story, and over a long period of time it seems to have undergone many mutations, never twice told the same, even after a church had grown out of it and Joseph had set one version down in print for the benefit of that church. Yet in outline the story can be developed without much difficulty, and its basis in reality established.
The circumstances which immediately gave rise to the tale of these fabulous plates clearly was Joseph’s interest in the antiquities. His mother has perserved an arresting memory of his imagination as it worked upon the ancient Americans; he was given, she says, to regaling the family with “some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined,” describing “the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship…with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.”12
The idea of a buried record which should have preserved the history of this vanished people followed logically—a book to give “an account of the ancient inhabitants (antediluvians) of this country, and where they had deposited their substance, consisting of costly furniture, etc., at the approach of the great deluge.”13 The record itself could be fashioned of nothing but gold, or Joseph would have violated every convention of the scryer.
It seems likely that it was in September 1823 that Joseph first intimated to the family that such a record existed. The recurrence of month and year in many different accounts, and the fact that the eldest brother, Alvin, who died in November 1823, figures large in [p.266] the story, is sufficient reason to think so.14 That Joseph’s peepstone played an important part in the events is clear, but its precise role is difficult to describe. Perhaps it was Joseph’s means of communication with the spirit which came to dominate the drama; or perhaps its clouded depths first revealed the existence of the treasure.15
The spirit who entered so decisively into the story is said to be the same spirit Walters the magician once attempted to propitiate with the sacrifice of a fowl. An imposing personage, the spirit was difficult to describe. A “little old man with a long beard” in one account, in another he was a very large, tall man dressed in an ancient suit of clothes covered with blood.16 Now he appeared “like a Spaniard, having a long beard down over his breast, with his throat cut from ear to ear and the blood streaming down”17 at another time he had something of the aspect of a Quaker, being dressed in the plainest of clothes.18 In this same description he was identified as “the spirit of one of the Saints that was on this continent, previous to its being discovered by Columbus,”19 and not long after, so far from being a mere spirit, he was recognized to be an actual angel of the Lord.20
Although this spirit, in whatever form, had revealed to Joseph long before 1827 that the record it so closely guarded should come into his hands, it was exacting about the conditions, Joseph being given to understand that the prescribed rituals must be adhered to without the smallest deviation.21 He was required to dress himself in black clothes and ride to the place of deposit on a black horse with a switch tail.22 Having arrived at the appointed place, he should demand the book in a certain name,23 and after obtaining it, go directly away, neither laying the golden record down nor looking behind him. Joseph’s father, it seems, found the requisite articles, and Joseph rode off into the darkness on his eerie mission. He found the place of deposit without difficulty, a stone box of strange workmanship, and was able to open it and take up the treasure that lay within. But in an incautious moment, impressed with the other treasures the vault contained, he laid the record down. Instantly the spirit appeared to buffet him with much violence as to send him reeling, and to inform him that because of his failure to abide by his instructions, he should not be permitted to carry away the precious record. When Joseph inquired timidly if he might be allowed to get the plates at another time, he was told to come back in one year, bringing his eldest brother back with him; they would then be given into his keeping.24
The mention of Alvin in this connection is not the least interesting feature of the legend. Lucy Smith says that Alvin displayed, if possible, a greater interest in Joseph’s story of the plates than any other member of the family, so much so that for a long time after his death they could not bear to hear anything said on the subject. 25 That Alvin would have been inclined to credit such a story is also evident from the remembrance of him perserved at Palmyra; he shared fully [p.267] the faith of his father, Hyrum, and Joseph in the strange powers of peepstones, and even experimented with one himself.26
The unlucky circumstance of Alvin’s death cast down all the hopes of the family. When September 22, 1824, came around, far from Alvin’s being able to participate in the obtaining of a choice treasure from out of the earth, his father was having to make up his mind to the unpleasant necessity of disinterring Alvin himself. The spirit shook his head over this second failure to observe the conditions required of him, but held out some hope to Joseph that he would yet succeed. He should wait another year, and again return to where the plates were hidden, bringing a man with him. To Joseph’s question who this man should be, the spirit would say only that Joseph would know him when he saw him.
According to Willard Chase, Joseph was disposed to think that Samuel T. Lawrence was the appointed individual, and so advised him, taking him to a singular-looking hill in Manchester and pointing out where the treasure lay buried. Subsequently, however, he changed his mind and declared that he had been mistaken; Lawrence was not the right man nor had he told him the right place. Two years went by,27 and then, as Joseph’s father told the tale, his son came to realize that the designated person was not a man but a woman; it was, in fact, none other than Emma Hale. Not again to be thwarted, Joseph courted and married Emma and brought her home to Manchester. With her help it was impossible that he should not at last obtain the plates. Once they were in his possession, Joseph would translate them with the aid of his stone; the translation would be published; and as the glorious consumation of the whole affair, from the profits of the work, the Smiths should be enabled “to carry into successful operation the money-digging business.”28
In general, the story of the golden plates as thus outlined seems to have been known in Palmyra by the early summer of 1827, though the prominent role given Emma may have been an afterthought. Willard Chase says that the elder Joseph related to him a story of the kind in June 1827 and held then the expectation that his son would succeed in getting the plates in September. In her own way, Joseph’s mother refers to the same expectation. She says that not long after Joseph brought Emma back to Manchester as his bride, he came home one night looking much exhausted, saying that as he was passing by the Hill Cumorah the angel had stopped him to remind him that he had not been enough engaged in the work of the Lord, that the time had come for the record to be brought forth, and he must be up and doing.29 If, as there is every reason to think, the legend had so far matured by the summer of 1827, it may be appreciated how grave were the embarrassments of Joseph’s position in the light of the promise he had made to Issac Hale, and why, finally, he took his courage in both hands and wedded his life to the legend.
With characteristic unconcern for the details, all that Joseph Smith ever placed on record about the circumstances under which he came into actual possession of the golden plates is that he went at [p.268] the appointed time to the hill where they lay buried and received them from the heavenly messenger, being charged to look after them carefully under penalty of being cut off.30 His mother is much more generous with details. At this time, late September of 1827, Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight, from the Susquehanna country, were visiting the Smith home. Lucy maintains that they had come north out of concern for her family; Martin Harris says tactlessly that Stowell was “at old Mr. Smith’s, digging for money.”31 Be this as it may, about midnight on September 21 Joseph flustered Lucy by coming to her and asking if she had a chest with a lock and key. In view of the close quarters at which the family had to live, it might be supposed that Joseph should have known that answer without asking the question; nevertheless, he alarmed his mother, as she had more than an inkling of why he wanted it and could not supply the deficiency. Joseph calmed her fears, telling her that he would make out all right, and a moment later he left the house with Emma, the two of them rattling off in the horse and wagon which belonged to Joseph Knight.32
The Mormon prophet was never very communicative as to just what happened that night, and his wife could not be sure that anything at all had happened,33 but Willard Chase, who claims to have had the story from Joseph a week or two later, says that Joseph “arose early in the morning, and took a one-horse wagon, of some one that had stayed over night at their house, without leave or license; and, together with his wife, repaired to the hill which contained the book. He left his wife in the wagon, by the road, and went alone to the hill, a distance of thirty or forty rods from the road; he said he then took the book out of the ground and hid it in a tree top, and returned home.”34 Without much variation, this is the story Joseph told Martin Harris, with the additional detail, however, that while he was obtaining the plates, Emma knelt down and prayed. The book of gold he had hidden “in an old black oak tree top which was hollow.”35
On this mission Joseph and his wife were gone all night, not returning until long after sun-up, by which time Knight had fully decided that some rogue had made off with his property. When at length her son returned, Lucy says she trembled with fear, lest all might have been lost in consequence of some failure “in keeping the commandments of God.” Joseph reassured her: “Do not be uneasy Mother, all is right—see here, I have got a key.” This “key,” she found on taking it into her shaking hands, consisted of “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass,” the glasses being set in silver bows connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles, no less a marvel than the Urim and Thummim.36 He took them from her and left her, having said nothing whatever about the golden plates. But she would not be left in doubt that after all these years he had at last succeded in obtaining this singular record, for in a few moments he returned to ask her about having a chest made. “I told him,” Lucy says, “to go to a certain [p.269] cabinet-maker, who had made some furniture for my oldest daughter, and tell him that we would pay him for making a chest, as we did for the other work…namely, one half in cash and the other in produce. Joseph remarked that he would do so, but that he did not know where the money would come from, for there was not a shilling in the house.”37
This episode of the chest is by no means least curious among all such events. It has even been speculated whether Joseph was at first wholly serious in his claim to have gained possession of the plates: did he need a chest in which to keep a rare treasure, or did he claim possession of the treasure as an expedient for obtaining a chest he lacked money to buy? Willard Chase tells us that before Joseph got the plates, he came to him, as a skilled cabinet-maker, requesting that he make a chest. He intended shortly to move to Pennsylvania, he said, and before leaving expected to get the book of gold; he needed the chest so that he could keep the treasure under lock and key. Chase was given to understand that if he would make the chest, he should share in the treasure. Although Chase had done some digging by night, he was not much impressed by Joseph’s proposition, and suggested that the latter bring the golden book to him; he himself would keep it locked up. Joseph dismissed this idea as out of the question; he was commanded to keep the record for two years, without letting anyone other than himself look upon it. “I told him,” Chase affirms, “to get it and convince me of its existence, and I would make him a chest; but he said, that would not do, as he must have a chest to lock the book in, as soon as he took it out of the ground. I saw him a few days after, when he told me that I must make the chest. I told him plainly that I could not, upon which he told me that I could have no share in the book.”
Chase was left to wonder about Joseph’s motives, for ten days or so after that fateful September 22, Joseph came over to relate the story of how he had obtained the plates. Was he still hoping to cajole the cabinet-maker into giving him what he wanted? Chase heard later that Joseph had told one of the neighbors that “he had not got any such book, nor never had such an one, but that he told the story to deceive the d—d fool, (meaning me,) to get him to make a chest.”38
Many contradictory stories were now afloat. Had Joseph lied in the first place to get himself a chest made? Or was he lying when he denied having the plates? Very few in Palmyra could make up their minds what to believe. But those few could not be deceived. The men who dug fruitlessly at Joseph’s direction over so many years had implicit faith that he had at last come up with something worth naming, and with furious determination, they set about making him share in his find. It was their contention, Martin Harris says, “that they had as much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed that Joseph had been traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them.”39 [p.270]
So resounding was the uproar which followed that it has left its impress even on Joseph’s almost impervious autobiography. The most strenuous exertions, he says, were used to get the plates from him. “Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible.”40 One of his neighbors remembered that on one occasion Joseph was ducked in a pond;41 Joseph himself says that things came to such a pass that several times he was shot at, narrowly escaping.42 If Joseph had a sense of irony that was even vestigial, he must have been struck with the predicament into which he had got himself, forced into the most strenuous efforts to hide a treasure the very existence of which is hard to credit. He had, in truth, taken by the tail a bear he was never afterward able to let go.
That turbulent fall of 1827 comes down to us graphically in the narrative of Joseph’s mother. Her husband, Lucy says, learned within a few days after Joseph came into possession of the golden plates that ten or twelve men had gathered together with Willard Chase at their head, for the purpose of uncovering Joseph’s find.43 These men had actually sent sixty or seventy miles for a conjuror of rare accomplishment to divine for them where the treasure lay hid. The name of this conjuror has not been preserved, which is unfortunate, because Brigham Young declares that the man, whom he knew personally, was “possessed of as much talent as any man that walked on the American soil”—a fortune-teller, necromancer, astrologer, and soothsayer with a particular gift for language, insomuch that to those who loved swearing it was music to hear him.44
Impressed by the appearance on the scene of a wizard of such formidable attainments, the elder Joseph hastened home to inquire of Emma if she knew whether his son had taken the plates from their place of deposit, or if she could tell him where they were. Emma was remarkably vague upon the subject in view of the fact that she had accompanied Joseph on that historic night; she did not know where the plates were, or even whether Joseph had removed them from their ancient hiding place.
The elder Joseph insisted upon the danger, so Emma set off in search of her husband, who was engaged in digging a well in the adjacent village of Macedon. Lucy explains that Joseph kept constantly about his person the “key” he had displayed to her, the Urim and Thummim, through which “he could in a moment tell whether the plates were in any danger. From “an impression” he had had, Joseph came up out of the well just as Emma rode up. Informed what had transpired, he looked in the Urim and Thummim and saw that the golden record was safe but nevertheless decided it was advisable to return home.45
When they got there, they found the elder Joseph pacing the ground in anxiety. His son calmed his fears, saying, “Father, there is no danger—all is perfectly safe—there is no cause of alarm.” After taking a cup of tea and dispatching to find a chest with a good lock [p.271] and key, Joseph started off to where the golden record was secreted, three miles away. Taking up the plates, he set out through the woods for home.
He arrived bruised and breathless, with a tale of having been thrice attacked along the way by men who sought to wrest his treasure from him; he had fought them all off and had managed to bring the plates home safe.46 His father, Josiah Stowell, and Joseph Knight went out in search of his assailants, but in vain; no sign of the miscreants was to be found. Hyrum came on the gallop with a chest, and in it Joseph placed “the record,” which meantime had been veiled from the profane eyes of the family by the linen tow frock in which he had carried it home.
Joseph’s father never required a spur for his imagination, and out of the slender basis in fact the events of the afternoon provided—Joseph’s coming home with the plates, his story of having been attacked along the way, and the injury to his person—he contrived an imposing elaboration of Joseph’s legend. According to this burgeoning odyssey, the spirit which had given the plates into Joseph’s keeping had repented of its action and made a desperate effort to regain possession. “In sheer spite,” as the Palmyra Reflector heard the story, “this rogue of a spirit” raised a whirlwind which flung trunks and limbs of trees about Joseph’s ears, and bruised him severely in the side. As LaFayette Lapham heard the tale in his turn, devils beset Joseph with hideous yells all the way home, and not content with that, “as he was going over the fence, one of the devils struck him a blow on his side, where a black and blue spot remained three or four days.” Perhaps the afternoon was stormy; perhaps Joseph was struck by a lashing limb and injured slightly. Whatever the difficulties with which he had to contend, legend and history can agree that he got home safe with something under his arm which the family accepted as being the golden plates.47
If Joseph is regarded as a competent witness in his own behalf, he put away in Hyrum’s clapboard chest that afternoon a record “engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, each plate… six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving.”48 What it was that Joseph kept under lock and key, if not a record of this description, is difficult to say. Peter Ingersoll claimed that Joseph told him the treasure was nothing more than a few quarts of sand, washed beautifully white by the rain, which he had found in the woods and brought home in his frock.49 Martin Harris, who many times “hefted” the chest in which the plates were kept, says that he “knew from the heft that they were lead or gold,” and he knew too that Joseph had [p.272] not credit enough to buy so much lead. The metallic character of the plates was also evident from the fact that one witness “heard them jink” when they were placed in a box prepared for them.50 That the plates were thus not a pure figment of Joseph’s imagination, despite the fact that no one was ever permitted to examine them, is manifest. They evidently had both mass and weight, for Joseph told Willard Chase they weighed between forty and sixty pounds, and Martin Harris agreed.51
On first bringing home the plates, Joseph hid them under the hearth in his father’s home. The house which had so long been under construction was still unfinished, and it was impossible to regard this hiding place as a secure one, for Joseph’s old money-digging associates were nothing if not persistent. “The wall being partly down,” says Martin Harris, “it was feared that certain ones, who were trying to get possession of the plates, would get under the house and dig them up.” Accordingly, Joseph took the plates out again and hid them under the floor of the old log-house across the road, once their home and now used by the family as a cooper’s shop. Perhaps, as his mother would have us believe, Joseph was warned by the Urim and Thummim of the deadly peril to which the plates were exposed; perhaps, as Martin Harris heard from him later, he was warned by an angel; at any rate, Joseph tore up the floor of the shop, took the plates from the box, and hid them in a quantity of flax. He then nailed up the box and replaced it under the floor.52 The desperate money-diggers had now enlisted the aid of Willard Chase’s sister, Sally. In her green glass, Lucy informs us, “she could see many very wonderful things,” including the place where the treasure lay hid. Sally saw well enough; that night, when “the mob” came to ransack the Smith farm, they tore up the floor of the cooper’s shop and “shivered in pieces” the empty box Joseph had hidden under it. The plates themselves, by some fortunate chance, went undiscovered.53
It was at this difficult moment, without a shilling to his name, helpless to avail himself of the offer made to him in August by his father-in-law, his days turned into nightmare by the very men whose deference he had so long commanded, that Joseph found a stout supporter who became the single most decisive force in shaping his strange career. As in the early stages of a forest fire, when a slight dew, a small shift of wind, or an obstructing stone, may suffice to abort the fire, any of a dozen small adversities might have extinguished Joseph’s incipient church in its first precarious months. The erratic enthusiasm Martin Harris brought to Joseph’s tale of the golden plates was the fitful wind which fanned the smoldering spark of Mormonism into flame; and the money that was forthcoming from him over the next two and a half years was the tinder on which the fire fed until its hungry growth crowned in the inflammable popular will for a new revelation.
Harris was at this time a man in his forty-fifth year. His father had been one of the early settlers of Palmyra, and he himself had [p.273] grown up as one of the wealthier farmers of the community, having amassed a competence said to have approached ten thousand dollars. As had been the case with Josiah Stowell, however, Harris’s farm could not provide a sufficient outlet for his energies; there was in his spirit something wayward which the passing years found ever more difficult to confine.
This restlessness had been fully evidenced in his seeking after the things of God. At various times he had been a Quaker, a Universalist, a Restorationer, a Baptist, and a Presbyterian. He had an unstable, violent temper, and yet withal a certain Christian meekness which emerged at unexpected moments. There were many paradoxes in his nature, above all a shrewd, almost naive practicality that was perpetually at war with his uncritical appetite for the marvelous. John A. Clark, an Episcopalian minister of Palmyra, says of him that he “had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions, and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts,” and seemed at this period “to be floating upon the sea of uncertainty” in his religious views, his extensive knowledge of the scriptures united with a most disputatious turn of mind.
His wife declares that “about a year previous to the report being raised that Smith had found gold plates, he became very intimate with the Smith family, and said he believed Joseph could see in his stone any thing he wished.”54 This is substantially what Harris himself says. He relates how, after Joseph had had his peepstone for some time, he questioned Joseph about it. The seer proposed to bind the stone on his eyes and run a race with him in the woods, but Harris was seemingly not inclined to exercise of this description. A few days later, at the Smith home in Manchester, Joseph gave him a conclusive demonstration of his powers. While sitting on the bars, Harris says, he was picking his teeth with a pin. “The pin caught in my teeth, and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him—I said, ‘Take your stone.’ I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat—the old white hat—and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.”55
From a seer so rarely gifted, anything might be expected, but when the rumor of the golden plates first reached his ears, Harris wondered only whether the money-diggers had not “dug up an old brass kettle, or something of the kind.” On going into Palmyra next day, he found the village profoundly stirred by the report of Joseph’s find. Harris indicates that there was already some tendency to refer to the plates as a “golden bible,” but this may be the particular color his own habit of mind applied to the story as he reflected upon it in [p.274] later years. In any event, he became curious enough to decide that he would ride over to the Smith home and see what lay back of the floating stories.
Before he had done so, Joseph’s mother came to see him. She advised him of Joseph’s bringing home the plates and said that her son had sent her over to request that Harris come and talk with him. For some reason he does not make clear, Harris resisted her importunities, but sent her home in his carriage accompanied by his wife and daughter. When his womenfolk returned, he questioned them at length. Yes, they told him, for a certainty Joseph had found something; it was kept in a glass box; both had lifted the box and found it very heavy. Perhaps Mrs. Harris reported the colloquy Joseph’s mother says she had with her son: “Joseph,” she had said, “can you look full in my eye, and say before God, that you have in reality found a Record, as you pretend?” And he answered indifferently, “Why, yes, Mrs. Harris, I would as soon look you in the face, and say so as not, if that will be any gratification to you.”56
Harris was inclined to dissemble his interest, but a day or so later he rode over to the Smith farm. Joseph was away when he arrived, but this suited Harris very well; he proceeded to catechize the other members of the family separately, to see whether their stories agreed. Their stories did agree, and when Joseph came home, Harris eagerly drew him aside. Joseph described the plates that he had found “by looking in the stone” and informed Harris that “the angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal. He [the angel]told him to go and look in the spectacles, and he would show him the man that would assist him. That he did so, and he saw myself, Martin Harris, standing before him. That struck me with surprise. I told him I wished him to be very careful about these things. ‘Well,’said he, ‘I saw you standing before me as plainly as I do now.’ I said, if it is the devil’s work I will have nothing to do with it; but if it is the Lord’s, you can have all the money necessary to bring it before the world. He said the angel told him, that the plates must be translated, printed and sent before the world. I said, Joseph, you know my doctrine, that cursed is every one that putteth his trust in man, and maketh flesh his arm; and we know that the devil is to have great power in the latter days to deceive if possible the very elect; and I don’t know that you are one of the elect. Now you must not blame me for not taking your word. If the Lord will show me that it is his work, you can have all the money you want.”
On this impressive note the interview ended. Harris went on home, and before retiring he prayed God to instruct him as to the course he should pursue. The “still small voice spoken in the soul”gave him the answer. The book was the Lord’s work, and he was under a covenant to bring it forth.57
More than any other person, Martin Harris seems to have been responsible for the fact that Joseph’s concept of the golden plates [p.275] came to have a religious content. It is clear from other sources that Harris did not view the golden bible with the eye of the spirit exclusively; he got the village silversmith to give him an estimate of the value of the plates, taking as a basis Joseph’s account of their dimensions;58 and he listened raptly when Joseph’s mother expatiated on the profits the work might bring, not merely from sales of the translation to be published by Joseph, but from public exhibition of the plates, the price of admission to be twenty-five cents.59 To be enriched for doing the work of the Lord suited the inclination of Harris exactly.
Nevertheless, the fact that the book was the work of God, that he, Martin Harris, was an instrument in the hands of the Lord, was the consideration which moved him most powerfully. In this fact Joseph could find matter for meditation. Men could be moved by their religious beliefs as by no other means, for religious faith dignified and enobled what it touched. A man who gave him five dollars to search out in his peepstone the whereabouts of a lost cow was discontent and wanted his money back if the cow could not be found. A man who gave him fifty dollars to do the work of the Lord rejoiced in his soul over his own generosity and counted the money well spent. Joseph seems to have been quick to see the implication of this truth, and ordered his life accordingly. Not folk magic but religion should henceforth be his sphere, his plates of gold found to comprise, in all truth, a golden bible.
The lives of Joseph’s family not less than his own were reshaped by this decisive new direction given his life, their very memories remolded to its necessities. The stories they told in later years about the intercourse of Joseph with angels and devils were not fabricated out of whole cloth. Their memories had a content of the supernatural that was inextricably a part of their daily life, and this they were able to accommodate to the great legend in which Joseph involved them. In the process of accommodation they may have had some troubled moments, wondering in their hearts whether their early life had been quite as Joseph represented it to the world, but the rationalization required of them was not, after all, very difficult. It was not for them to say how God should bring his purposes to pass. If, over the years, Joseph had made spirits rather than angels their familiars, perhaps God in his wisdom had made the truth appear in such a light until the world was ready for it. With the wisdom of hindsight they could rearrange their memories, perceive what was reality in the seeming reality, and substitute the reality for the seeming. No one need doubt the accent of Lucy’s letter to her brother Solomon so early as January 1831. Her son, Joseph, she was able to say earnestly, had been visited by a holy angel who gave him “commandments which inspired him from on high,” and he had been given at the same time means to translate a golden record and bring its saving message to the world. “I feel to thank my God,” she cried devoutly, “that he hath spared my life to see this day.”60
1. This is the arrangement described by Thomas L. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity (Palmyra, 1930), p. 219, although he pictures Durfee as owner of the property from the beginning. Lucy Mack Smith’s confused and pathetic account, Biographical Sketches (Liverpool, 1853), pp. 92-98, 129, at any rate agrees that Durfee “became the possessor of the farm,” and that the Smiths remained on it thereafter only at Durfee’s pleasure. It would seem that Lucy’s pride makes her insist that they missed only the final payment, for it is inconceivable that they could have contracted to buy the farm in no more than five installments, and even more inconceivable that they would have engaged to pay at the rate of a thouand dollars a year, the sum she says they would have needed to save the farm.
2. Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 40, gives the date of Hyrum’s marriage as November 2, 1826, no doubt correct, for a communication to the Wayne Sentinel remarks that among three recent weddings in Manchester was that of “Mr. Hiram Smith to Miss Jerusha Barden.”
5. History of the Church, 1:17; see also the statement by W. R. Hines in Naked Truths about Mormonism, Jan. 1888, and Emily C. Blackman, History of Susquehanna County (Philadelphia, 1873), p. 582. Emma, who was born at Harmony on July 10, 1804, at the time of her marriage was in her twenty-third year, accountable for her own actions before the law. Thus in a legal sense Joseph did not, as has sometimes been said, “steal” his wife.
6. Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 98. Willard Chase, in his statement in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 244-45, relates, on the authority of Samuel Lawrence, a remarkable story to the effect that Joseph persuaded Lawrence to take him south with a tale concerning a silver mine found there, and then induced Josiah Stowell to bring him and Emma home with another story of a gold bar he had located in a cave near Watertown. This may possibly have been the case, but the story is unsupported from any other source.
9. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 234, 235. The independent account of this episode, as given by Isaac Hale, agrees substantially with that of Ingersoll. When Joseph and Emma appeared at his home in company with Ingersoll, Hale says, “Smith stated to me, that he had given up what he called ‘glass-looking,’ and that he expected to work hard for a living, and was willing to do so. He also made arrangements with my son Alva Hale, to go to Palmyra, and move his (Smith’s) furniture, &c. to this place. He then returned to Palmyra, and soon after, Alva, agreeable to the arrangement, went up and returned with Smith and his family.” Alva is himself on record as having heard Joseph say “that this ‘peeping’ was all d—d nonsense,” and that Joseph “was deceived himself but did not intend to deceive others;—that he intended to quit the business, (of peeping,) and labor for his livelihood.” Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 268.
12. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 84, 85. As exhibiting the persistent interest of the Smiths during this period in the ancients and their treasures, see the affidavits of Peter Ingersoll, Roswell Nichols, and William Stafford, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 233, 237-38, 257-58.
15. The evidence that Joseph’s peepstone played a key part in the affair of the golden plates is formidable. Orasmus Turner remarks that even after Joseph had begun to spread abroad the story of a visitation from an angel, the other members of the family had a different version. On one occasion they showed a neighbor Joseph’s stone, carefully wrapped in cotton and kept in a mysterious box, and told him that “it was by looking at this stone, in a hat, the light excluded, that Joseph discovered the plates….It was the same stone the Smiths had used in money digging, and in some pretended discoveries of stolen property.” Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), p. 216. Martin Harris tells the same story, saying that Joseph told him he found the plates “by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The (Smith) family… told me the same thing.” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 169. Willard Chase declares that Joseph made a similar admission to him immediately after coming into possession of the plates; had it not been for the stone from the Chase well, “he would not have obtained the book.” Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 246. Brigham Young, when exhibiting Joseph’s stone in 1856, identified it as “the Seer’s stone with which The Prophet Joseph discovered the plates of the Book of Mormon.”
16. Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 28, 1831, July 7, 1830; [La] Fayette Lapham, “Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago,” Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 307-308.
17. See the letter to James T. Cobb written from Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 23, 1879, by two of Emma’s cousins, Hiel and Joseph Lewis. This was Joseph’s description of the spirit in talking to their father shortly after the translation of the plates began. William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons (New York, 1902), p. 28. The Spaniard may have figured in the story as a result of the digging in the Susquehanna country in 1825. Frederick G. Mather, “The Early days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (Aug. 1880): 200, mentions a “headless Spaniard” said to have guarded the treasure Josiah Stowell sought.
20. The earliest printed reference to this apparition describes it still differently as “the spirit of the Almighty.” See the Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph, Aug. 31, 1829, quoting the Palmyra Freeman of a day or so before.
21. The account that follows is a blending of three different versions which became current, that of Willard Chase set down in 1833, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 242-43; that of John A. Clark, first published in the Episcopal Recorder in 1840 and reprinted two years later in his Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia, 1842), pp. 224-27; and that of LaFayette Lapham, which, though not printed until some forty years later in Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 307-308, seems to be a reasonably accurate remembrance of a rambling discourse with which the elder Joseph favored Lapham and Jacob Ramsdell. Lapham thought this interview had taken place in 1830, but I am inclined to date it a year earlier. Of the three accounts, the first and third are the most valuable.
22. These details are from Willard Chase; the Lapham account adds that Joseph was required to carry with him a coverlid and a napkin. The essential injunction laid upon him was that he must not lay down the treasure until he had wrapped it in the napkin.
23. The power of names is one of the most widespread of magical beliefs. See Arturo Castiglioni, Adventures of the Mind (New York, 1946), p. 33. The belief crops up again in Mormon history in some of Joseph Smith’s early revelations, and in the mystic names bestowed upon the Saints in the rites of the endowment, by which they are to be summoned at the day of resurrection.
24. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 85-86, tells a story which, allowing for differences in the idiom, is striking in corroboration of the legend as I have reconstructed it from “hostile” sources: In the September before Alvin’s death, which Lucy erroneously places in 1824, Joseph made an effort to obtain the plates, but having taken them up, laid them down again for the purpose of covering the box, lest some one chancing to pass that way get whatever treasures remained. When he turned round to take up the record again, “behold it was gone, and where he knew not, neither did he know the means by which it had been taken from him.” He kneeled in prayer, whereupon “the angel of the Lord appeared to him, and told him that he had not done as he had been commanded, for in a former revelation he had been commanded not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands, until he got into the house and deposited them in a chest or trunk, having a good lock and key.” He had not done this, and so he had been deprived of the record. The angel showed him the plates again, but when he reached forth his hand to take them, “he was hurled back upon the ground with great violence.” This story Lucy relates separate and distinct from her son’s narrative of having been shown the plates a year earlier.
27. There is a curious lacuna in the various stories which would indicate that one year Joseph forgot all about his September 22 appointment with the spirit. The Lapham account mentions such a lapse, though placing it before rather than after Alvin’s death. Willard Chase says that after Joseph informed Samuel Lawrence of the plates, Lawrence waited two years before trying to get the plates, which may be another way of accounting for the same lapse.
There is more than a little reason to believe that the money-diggers of Palmyra and vicinity actively sought the plates with Joseph sometime before 1827, perhaps several years earlier; and the appearance of so confirmed a treasure-seeker as Lawrence in the story may be further evidence of this. David Whitmer, apparently in 1828, talked with some young men who claimed to have dug for such plates in company with Joseph, and they maintained that they “saw the plates in the hill that he took them out of” before Joseph obtained them. See Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881. The story has persisted in Palmyra that before Joseph claimed to have found the plates in the Hill Cumorah, they had been dug after in another hill, see Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity, p. 238, in which the hill is pointed out. Also see the confused account in Clark, Gleanings by the Way, p. 227.
32. Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 100. The detail of Joseph’s having jounced off with Emma in a borrowed wagon is fully supported, see Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 245-46; Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 164, 165; Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 307; and an unpublished statement by Joseph Knight, Jr., dated August 16, 1862, cited in B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:84. Martin Harris says the wagon belonged to Stowell.
36. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 101, 106. Joseph himself described this instrument only as “two stones set in silver bows.” The most complete description is by Martin Harris: “The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few grey streaks.” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 165-166. Harris seems to have examined these out-size spectacles the following year, in Pennsylvania; Lucy is the only person who claims to have seen them at Palmyra. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York, 1867), pp. 32-33, says that the “spectacle pretension…is believed to have been purely an afterthought, for it was not heard of outside the family for a considerable period subsequent to the first story [of the finding of the plates].”
42. In his letter to John Wentworth published in Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 708. On the subject of the persecutions Joseph is not the most reliable of witnesses, but it may be that someone actually did take a shot at him, and that this is the basis in fact for an incident Lucy Smith relates, placed by her however in Joseph’s fifteenth year. See her Biographical Sketches, p. 72.
44. Journal of Discourses 2:180; and see also Journal of Discourses 5:55. Young says the conjuror journeyed to and from Palmyra three times in the effort to lay hands on Joseph’s plates. It is not unlikely that this is the same person who figured in an episode at Albion in the fall of 1825, while Joseph was in Pennsylvania. With the aid of a mineral stone buried in a hat, a diviner of that locality had spied out a monstrous potash kettle filled with the purest bullion, thought to have been buried prior to the flood. Efforts to obtain it were unavailing because “His Satanic Majesty, or some other invisible agent,” kept it under “marching orders.” Wayne Sentinel, Dec. 27, 1825, quoting the Albion Orleans Advocate. Albion lies about fifty miles west of Palmyra by air, upwards of sixty by road or canal.
45. It is likely that in speaking of the Urim and Thummim Lucy has reference here to Joseph’s peepstone, about which her book is extremely reticent. (In her single reference to it she calls it a “key,” the same term she applies to the Urim and Thummim.) That this is a sensitive point is indicated by the fact that the editions of her book published in Utah change her language in reference to the peepstone from “key” to “means.” Joseph was accustomed to carrying his stone about with him, and he never claimed to be able to see anything in the Urim and Thummim that he could not also see in his stone.
The circumstances of Joseph’s going to Macedon to work, and Emma’s seeking him there, is mentioned not only by Lucy but by Willard Chase, who places the event about ten days after Joseph claimed to have obtained the plates. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 246.
46. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 102-109. This same story was told to Willard Chase in October 1827 but with Joseph being attacked by two men rather than three. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 5:55, speaks of Joseph having had to knock down “two or three” men in bringing home the plates. Martin Harris further reduces the number of assailants in saying that Joseph, enroute home, “was met by what appeared to be a man, who demanded the plates, and struck him with a club on his side, which was all black and blue. Joseph knocked the man down, and then ran for home, and was much out of breath. When he arrived at home, he handed the plates in at the window, and they were received from him by his mother.” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 166.
47. Palmyra Reflector, Feb. 14, 1831; Historical Magazine 7 (May 1870): 307. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 5:55, would have us believe that “millions and millions” of spirits sought to prevent Joseph from getting the plates. Heber C. Kimball remarked, somewhat ambiguously, “You know that the world has made a great deal of fuss, and told many lies about the devil pitching on to Joseph Smith when he went to get the plates, but they will get to a place where the devils will handle them worse than they did Joseph when he got the plates; if they do not embrace the Gospel it will be so.” Journal of Discourses 3:230.
48. Letter to John Wentworth, Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 707. The only other description of the plates in detail seems to be that by Martin Harris, who says that they were “seven inches wide by eight inches in length, and were of the thickness of plates of tin; and when piled one above the other, they were altogether about four inches thick; and they were put together on the back by three silver rings, so that they would open like a book.” Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 165.
53. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 107-109. According to Martin Harris, when the plates were taken from the cooper’s shop, “they were put into an old Ontario glass-box. Old Mr. Beman sawed off the ends, making the box the right length to put them in, and when they went in he said he heard them jink, but he was not permitted to see them” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [July 1859]: 167). Beman had been one of Joseph’s associates in the money-digging, and his daughter Louisa subsequently became one of the prophet’s plural wives. He is evidently the “man by the name of Braman” referred to by Lucy. The details of the plates’ being kept from this time in a glass box is confirmed by Isaac Hale, who saw the box after the removal to Pennsylvania (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 263).
Lucy would have us believe that not only the plates but a singular breastplate Joseph had obtained with them were thus nailed up. She is the only one who ever claims to have handled this breastplate, and I am inclined to doubt that her memory is substantive. According to her story, one day after he brought the plates home, Joseph called her from work to show her this breastplate, wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief so thin that she could see the glistening metal. “It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the centre of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of two of my fingers, (for I measured them,) and they had holes in the end of them, to be convenient in fastening. The whole plate was worth at least five hundred dollars.” Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 107. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York, 1945), p. 40, has suggested that Joseph may have found a copper breastplate of a kind often found in mounds; had this been the case, however, he would doubtless have made public exhibition of it as he did the Egyptian mummies and papyri he acquired in 1835.
54. See the statements concerning Harris by his wife Lucy, his cousin Henry, and G. W. Stodard in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 251-52, 254-57, 260-61; and accounts of him in the Wayne Sentinel, May 21, 1831, the Rochester Daily Democrat, June, 1841, and Clark, Gleanings by the Way, pp. 222-24, 254.
56. Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 111-12. Lucy Smith’s account of her visit to the Harris home confirms in general Harris’s own story, but she pictures Mrs. Harris as trying to press upon her two hundred dollars or so “to assist in getting the record translated,” an offer Lucy Smith declined with dignity. Nothing that is known about Lucy Harris and her views about the proper use of money entitles this to any credence. The story is doubtless explained by the various humiliations Lucy Smith subsequently experienced at the hands of Lucy Harris, and the need that worked upon her memory to put her family in a light befitting their sense of integrity.
57. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (July 1859): 168-70. There is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of Harris’s account of Joseph’s appeal to him for financial aid. Peter Ingersoll, however, says that Joseph came to him seeking to borrow money, his brother-in-law, Alva, to be his security. Ingersoll agreed to let him have the money if he could not obtain it elsewhere. Joseph then went to Palmyra, and, according to the story he told Ingersoll, “I there met that dam fool Martin Harris, and told him that I had a command to ask the first honest man I met with, for fifty dollars in money, and he would let me have it. I saw at once…that it took his notion, for he promptly gave me the fifty.” A variant version owing to Willard Chase is that Joseph met Harris in the street at Palmyra and told him, “I have a commandment from God to ask the first man I meet in the street to give me fifty dollars, to assist me in doing the work of the Lord by translating the Golden Bible.” Harris, “being naturally a credulous man,” gave him the money. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, pp. 236, 246. In contrast to this is Lucy Smith’s story that the first time Harris came over to the farm after the finding of the plates, he stepped immediately up to Joseph, took a bag of silver out of his pocket, and said, “Here, Mr. Smith, is fifty dollars; I give this to you to do the Lord’s work with; no, I give it to the Lord for his own work.” Biographical Sketches, pp. 112-13.
59. See the affidavit of Abigail Harris in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, p. 253. Lucy’s later history at Kirtland and Nauvoo, when she exhibited Joseph’s Egyptian mummies and other odds and ends in exactly this way, leaves no room for doubt as to the substantial accuracy of these remarks.