Question: Did Joseph Smith, Sr. practice "divination"?


Question: Did Joseph Smith, Sr. practice "divination"?

Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths, claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination"

It has been claimed that Joseph Smith, Sr., practiced "divination," and that this is evidence for the strong role which "magick" played in the Smith family's early life. This claim relies on one of the Hurlburt-Howe affidavits, given by Peter Ingersoll, a former neighbor of the Smiths.

Ingersoll's affidavit reads:

‘Was a neighbor of Smith from 1822 to 1830. The general employment of the family was digging for money. Smith senior once asked me to go with him to see whether a mineral rod would work in my hand, saying he was confident it would. As my oxen were eating, and being myself at leisure, I went with him. When he arrived near the place where he thought there was money, he cut a small witch-hazel, and gave me direction how to hold it. He then went off some rods, telling me to say to the rod, ‘Work to the money,’ which I did in an audible voice. He rebuked me for speaking it loud, saying it must be spoken in a whisper. While the old man was standing off some rods, throwing himself into various shapes, I told him the rod did not work. He seemed much surprised, and said he thought he saw it move. It was now time for me to return to my labor. On my return I picked up a small stone, and was carelessly tossing it from one hand to the other. Said he, (looking very earnestly,) ‘What are you going to do with that stone?’ ‘Throw it at the birds,’ I replied. ‘No,’ said the old man, ‘it is of great worth.’ I gave it to him. ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you only knew the value there is back of my house!’ and pointing to a place near, ‘There,’ said he, ‘is one chest of gold and another of silver.’ He then put the stone which I had given him into his hat, and stooping forward, he bowed and made sundry maneuvers, quite similar to those of a stool-pigeon. At length he took down his hat, and, being very much exhausted, said, in a faint voice, ‘If you knew what I had seen, you would believe.’ His son, Alvin, went through the same performance, which was equally disgusting.

‘Another time the said Joseph senior told me that the best time for digging money was in the heat of summer, when the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise near the top of the ground. ‘You notice,’ said he, ‘the large stones on the top of the ground; we call them rocks, and they truly appear so, but they are in fact, most of them chests of money raised by the heat of the sun.’’.... [1]

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony

Some of Ingersoll's claims are clearly false, based on other, more reliable testimony. It is telling that the critics often wish to jettison Ingersoll's claims as those of a teller-of-tall-tales or a liar when it is clear that he cannot be trusted. Yet, when no evidence exists (pro- or con-) save Ingersoll's testimony, they then present his witness as a reliable data point for conclusions about the early years of Joseph Smith and his family. Of Ingersoll's claims, Richard L. Anderson noted:

Peter lived near Joseph Smith and was employed to go with him to Pennsylvania to move Emma's personal property to the Smith farm in the fall of 1827. Ingersoll claims that after this, Joseph told him he brought home white sand in his work frock and walked into the house to find "the family" (parents, Emma, brothers and sisters) eating. When they asked what he carried, he "very gravely" told them (for the first time) that he had a "golden Bible" and had received a revelation that no one could see it and live. At that point (according to Ingersoll), Joseph offered to let the family see, but they fearfully refused, and Ingersoll says that Joseph added, "Now, I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun."

Rodger Anderson [author of the book under review by Anderson] agrees with me that this is just a tall tale. Why? Family sources prove they looked forward to getting the plates long before this late 1827 occurrence, and Joseph had far more respect for his family than the anecdote allows. So Rodger Anderson thinks that Ingersoll at first believed Joseph and then retaliated: "it seems likely that Ingersoll created the story as a way of striking back at Smith for his own gullibility in swallowing a story he later became convinced was a hoax" (p. 56). That may be, and there are perhaps others making affidavits with similar motives. But the more provable point is that good stories die hard. Facts were obviously bent to make Joseph Smith the butt of many a joke. So anecdotes could be yarns good for a guffaw around a pot-bellied stove.

Ingersoll has another story in this class. Joseph planned to move Emma and the plates to Pennsylvania at the end of 1827. Then Ingersoll has Joseph playing a religious mind game with Martin Harris: "I . . . 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, said Jo, that it took his notion, for he promptly give me the fifty." Willard Chase tells a similar story, not identifying his source. But in this case both Joseph Smith and Martin Harris gave their recollections. Both say that Martin was converted to Joseph Smith's revelations first and then offered the money out of conviction, not because of sudden street-side flattery. The best historical evidence is not something told by another party, especially one with hostility to the person he is reporting....

Rodger Anderson recoils at my suggestion that the affidavits were "contaminated by Hurlbut," but he has merely argued harder for one road to this same result. Rodger Anderson then contends that Hurlbut's influence does not matter, since many of the statements were signed under oath before a magistrate. This is one of scores of irrelevancies. The question is credibility, not form. As Jesus essentially said in the Sermon on the Mount, the honest person is regularly believable, not just under oath. Nor does the act of signing settle all, since it is hardly human nature to read the fine print of a contract or all details of prewritten petitions. Rodger Anderson finds Ingersoll's sand-for-plates story "the most dubious" (p. 56) and thus admits that Ingersoll is "the possible exception" in "knowingly swearing to a lie" (p. 114). But Ingersoll does not tell taller stories than many others glinting in the hostile statements reprinted by Rodger Anderson. Like the persecuting orthodox from the Pharisees to the Puritans, the New York community was performing an act of moral virtue to purge itself of the stigma of an offending new religion. Hurlbut contributed to the process of mutual contamination of similar stories and catch-words....

Rodger Anderson closes his survey with the appeal to accept "the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits" as significant "primary documents relating to Joseph Smith's early life and the origins of Mormonism" (p. 114). Some tell of "early life," but many only repeat tall tales or disclose the prejudice that Joseph Smith said faced him from the beginning. There are some authentic facts about the outward life of young Joseph, but his inner life makes him significant. It is this other half that the testimonials brashly claim to penetrate but cannot. To the extent that the Prophet's spiritual experiences are the primary issue, the Hurlbut-Deming statements are not primary documents.

Here I have discussed some aspects of their objective shortcomings, but I do not intend to take much time answering countercharges. Those who think like Rodger Anderson will continue to reason that the Hurlbut-Deming materials contain serious history because "many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family" (p. 114). That is too sloppy for my taste. Downgrading a reputation is serious business, and I want a reasonable burden of proof to be met on each major contention. Knowing the family is not enough—knowing specific incidents is required. The mathematics of true personal history is fairly simple: half-truths added to others still retain their category of half-truths; conclusions without personal knowledge have zero value; and any number multiplied by zero is still zero.

A final, highly personal reaction: I once discussed a negative biography with a friend, literature professor Neal Lambert. After pointing out shortcomings in method and evidence, I self-consciously added an intuitive judgment: "and I think there is a poor tone to the book." Instantly picking up my apologetic manner, Neal answered vigorously, "But tone is everything." In reality, attitude penetrates the judgments we make, whether in gathering the Hurlbut-Deming materials or in defending them. With few exceptions, the mind-set of these testimonials is skeptical, hypercritical, ridiculing. But history is a serious effort to understand, and tools with the above labels have limited value. [2]

Notes

  1. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 235-236. (Affidavits examined) Reproduced in "The Origin of Mormonism," Christian Enquirer (New York) 5/51 (25 September 1852): [1]. Also available in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:40-45.
  2. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80. [{{{url}}} off-site] [Anderson's references have been silently removed from this citation.]