Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian
Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian
Over the last two decades, many historians have
reconsidered the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in
the context of the early American tradition of treasure hunting. Well into the
nineteenth century there were European Americans hunting for buried wealth.
Some believed in treasures that were protected by magic spells or guarded by
preternatural beings. Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Mormon religion,
had participated in several treasure-hunting expeditions in his youth. The
church that he later founded rested to a great degree on his claim that an
angel named Moroni had appeared to him in 1823 and showed him the location of
an ancient scriptural record akin to the Bible, which was inscribed on metal
tablets that looked like gold. After four years, Moroni allowed Smith to
recover these “golden plates” and translate their characters into
English. It was from Smith’s published translation—the Book of Mormon—that
members of the fledgling church became known as “Mormons.” For
historians of Mormonism who have treated the golden plates as treasure, Moroni
has become a fantastical treasure guardian. In this essay, I argue for the
historical validity of the traditional understanding of Moroni as an angel.
In May 1985, a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune posed this
question: “In keeping with the true spirit (no pun intended) of historical
facts, should not the angel Moroni atop the Mormon Temple be replaced with a
white salamander?”1 Of course,
the pun was intended. Document forger Mark Hofmann’s “salamander letter”
was at the height of public attention at this time. Allegedly penned by Book
of Mormon witness Martin Harris, the letter has Harris describing Moroni as
a white salamander that bit Joseph Smith and then transformed into a capricious
spirit guardian of the golden plates. This letter and other Hofmann forgeries
portrayed Joseph Smith’s early religious experiences in terms of treasure seeking
and magic. The startling new documents caused Latter-day Saint historians to
reconsider the founding events of the restoration of the church.2 As one recent critic poses the question: “Was
he [Moroni] a magical guardian of a treasure or a biblical angel of the gospel?”3
Many clamored for a radical reinterpretation of the origins
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saint historian
Ronald W. Walker responded to the din:
As quieter perspectives inevitably settle in, the breathless ‘antithesis’
gives way to a more sedate “synthesis.” During this second phase,
what once seemed so revolutionary is reconciled and merged with the still
valid legacies of the past. To illustrate, our understanding of Joseph Smith’s
encounters with Moroni will not be insightful if we focus narrowly on Martin
Harris’s “trickster spirit” and forget the several contemporaneous
statements . . . that speak of Cumorah’s “angel.” These
apparent conflicts must be weighed, somehow harmonized, and molded into a
new, more complex understanding.”4
Walker predicted that after a reevaluation of the
treasure-seeking and magical influences, historians would return to the
traditional story as the more accurate interpretation of Mormon origins.5
Eventually, Hofmann’s forgery was exposed. The white
salamander fell from grace along with its creator. But Walker had also rightly
noted that “the question of whether the Smith family participated in money
digging and magic does not rely on the recently found letters [the Hofmann
forgeries]. The weight of evidence, with or without them, falls on the affirmative side of the
question.”6 Early Mormon history still needed to
be reconsidered. And so historians continued to explore the influence of
treasure seeking in particular and magic in general. In 1986, Signature Books
published Dale Morgan’s unfinished history of early Mormonism, which contained
his argument that Mormonism had evolved from Joseph’s treasure seeking and
magic. Morgan had grown up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
but had lost his faith and become disaffected.7 In 1987,
D. Michael Quinn produced Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Although a believing Latter-day Saint, Quinn
perceived a strong influence of magical tradition in early Mormonism.8
A few years later, in 1994, H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P.
Walters, former authors of anti-Mormon literature, presented a
new-and-improved, kinder, gentler anti-Mormonism with their book Inventing
Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record.9
Each of these books drew heavily on the early American history of treasure
seeking and magic to interpret the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
In particular, these books argued that Joseph Smith
originally spoke of Moroni as a treasure guardian. It was years
later—these authors held—that Smith’s creative mind or developing
exigencies transformed Moroni into an angel. Morgan, Quinn, and Marquardt and
Walters all portrayed Moroni’s initial visits to Joseph as treasure-seeking
experiences. They cast his interactions with Moroni as encounters between a
treasure seer and a treasure guardian. Then they argued that as Joseph matured
into the leader of an organized church, he reformulated his story and its
meaning to better suit his needs.10 In fact, whereas Latter-day Saints
usually refer to Moroni as the “angel Moroni,” in Early Mormonism
and the Magic World View, he is called
“the treasure-guardian Moroni.”11
For Morgan, as with Marquardt and Walters, revealing Moroni as a treasure
guardian showed that Joseph’s religious claims were illegitimate.12
These revisionist histories carried out the explorations
into treasure seeking and magic that the Hofmann forgeries had initially
sparked. However, they did so at the expense of other interpretations—and
in some cases at the expense of reliable sources and historical standards.
These authors did not go beyond the “breathless antithesis” to
synthesis. The revolutionary was not reconciled or merged with the still valid,
traditional understanding of early Mormonism. In sum, these works did not
provide the new and complex understanding that Walker had anticipated.
And so—strangely enough—this area of Mormon
history finds itself today in a position not unlike that described by Walker
during the heyday of the salamander. In this essay, I reassert his position
with reference to Moroni in particular and to the coming forth of the Book of
Mormon in general. Although Joseph Smith may have understood Moroni to some
extent as a treasure guardian, this was a secondary level of meaning for him.
An application of basic historical standards to relevant sources confirms that
Joseph understood Moroni primarily as an angel in the context of a divine
The problem addressed here maintains its validity regardless of one’s opinion
of Joseph Smith and his claims. Whether or not one believes an actual being
appeared to Joseph Smith, the question is whether Moroni evolved from a treasure
guardian into an angel in Joseph’s telling of the event.14 Before I proceed to answer this
question, it will be useful to review the early American practice of treasure
seeking and Joseph Smith’s involvement in this practice.
For the most part, the quest for buried wealth and its
associated belief system have slipped away into a forgotten world. Though
strange to us today, treasure-seeking beliefs probably influenced hundreds of
thousands of Europeans and thousands of early European Americans. Many early
Americans believed that treasures had been secreted in the earth by ancient
inhabitants of the continent, by Spanish explorers, by pirates, or even by the
dwarves of European mythology. Treasure hunters usually looked for caves and
lost mines or dug into hills and Native American mounds to find these hidden
deposits. A legend, a treasure map, or a dream of buried wealth initiated the
hunt. Local specialists were enlisted to use their divining rods or seer stones
to locate the treasure. To hide from the scrutiny of skeptics and the notice of
other treasure seekers, they worked under the cover of darkness.
Gathering at the designated spot, the treasure seekers
staked out magical circles around the treasure. They used Bible passages and
hymns, prayers and incantations, ritual swords and other magical items, or even
propitiatory animal sacrifices to appease or fend off preternatural guardians
of the treasure. Excavation usually commenced under a rule of silence. Should
someone carelessly mutter or curse, the treasure guardian could penetrate the
circle or carry the treasure away through the earth.15 For
one reason or another, the treasure seekers usually returned home empty-handed.
Joseph Smith’s Involvement in Treasure Seeking
In the major work of church history that he began in 1838,
Joseph Smith addressed the rumors regarding his pursuit of buried wealth. Most
Latter-day Saints are familiar with his account as found in the Pearl of Great
In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the name
of Josiah Stoal [Stowell], who lived in Chenango county, State of New York.
He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards
in Harmony, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to
my hiring to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine.
After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to
dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month,
without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman
to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having
been a money-digger. (Joseph Smith—History 1:56)16
Although Joseph downplayed his involvement, he
nevertheless admitted it.
Lucy Mack Smith, when dictating her history of the Smith
family, explained that Stowell hired Joseph because “he possessed certain
keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.”17
Lucy also used the term key in her
history to refer to the Urim and Thummim spectacles, which Joseph would later
obtain with the golden plates. She also used the phrase Urim and
Thummim to refer to Joseph’s seer stone(s).18
Smith’s apostles used this same terminology. For example, on
27 December 1841, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal a meeting of
the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with Joseph Smith in the Prophet’s home.
“I had the privilege,” Woodruff wrote, “of seeing for the first
time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.”19 We know that Joseph
had returned the spectacles to the angel Moroni over a decade earlier. Brigham
Young’s journal account of the same meeting clarifies that Woodruff was writing
about one of Joseph’s seer stones: “I met with the Twelve at brother
Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects
. . . [and] he showed us his seer stone.”20 The
terms key and keys—like the terms urim and Urim and Thummim—could be applied to seer stones and to the
spectacles found with the golden plates.21
Since Stowell hired Joseph in 1825, two years before Joseph received the
spectacles, the “keys” that Lucy mentioned were Joseph’s seer stones.
In 1826, Peter Bridgeman, Stowell’s nephew, attempted to
stop his uncle’s participation in treasure seeking by hauling Joseph Smith into
court on grounds of deception. However, Stowell testified in Joseph’s defense.
Notes of the legal proceedings record Stowell’s testimony “that Prisoner
[Joseph Smith] looked through [a seer] stone and described Josiah Stowels house
and out houses, while at Palmyra at Simpson Stowels . . . he had been
in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in
According to Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, Joseph
also used his seer stone to try to find treasures near his home in Manchester,
New York.23 A number of former neighbors and
other acquaintances from New York and Pennsylvania later recounted the Smith
family’s involvement with treasure seeking.24 In fact, the people
who tried to steal the plates from Joseph Smith in 1827 had hunted for treasure
with him in earlier years. They viewed the ancient record as a
treasure—as plates of gold rather
than as inscribed tablets. Now that precious metal had finally been unearthed,
they wanted their share.25 Before the Hofmann forgeries forced
a serious consideration of Joseph’s involvement in the folk practices of his
time, Latter-day Saints knew little of Joseph’s treasure seeking. Latter-day
Saint historian Richard L. Bushman notes that now, because of the efforts of
believing scholars to understand these events, “the magical culture of
nineteenth-century Yankees no longer seems foreign to the Latter-day Saint image
of the Smith family.”26
Although treasure seeking was common during Joseph’s youth,
by the end of his life the practice had dwindled.27 The
accompanying belief system likewise faded away along with its lore of treasure
guardians. The preternatural beings that guarded treasure took many forms. Most
treasures were guarded by ghosts or spirits—usually deceased humans. This
particular class of treasure guardians seems to have grown out of the practice
of grave robbing. In many ancient societies, people were buried with their
valuables in order to retain them in the next life.28 The
dead did not take kindly, therefore, to anyone who tried to plunder their
wealth. In fact, dying kings and nobles hoping to protect their sepulchers from
ransack may have generated this treasure-guardian lore in an effort to frighten
off tomb raiders. Frequently, treasure-guarding ghosts were either the spirit
of the person who had hidden the treasure or the spirit of a person who had
been killed and deposited with the treasure to watch over it.29 This
latter scenario was considered the customary practice of pirates.30
In some treasure tales, the unfortunate conscript lost his head.31
The devil and his minions made up the next major group of
treasure guardians.32 These satanic guardians apparently
owed their existence to the notion that God dwells in the heavens above the
earth and the devil lives beneath the earth. Satan laid claim on the treasure
deposited within his subterranean dominion.33 Also, since burying
treasure was often associated with greed, robbery, and murder, the devil found
his way into many a treasure tale.34 In 1825, a Palmyra newspaper
explained the recent failure of one group to recover a buried treasure:
“His Satanic Majesty, or some other invisible agent, appears to keep it
under marching orders; for no sooner is it dug on to in one place, than it
moves off like ‘false delusive hope,’ to another still more remote.”35
Animals formed the third most common class of
guardians—dogs being the most prevalent. There were treasures guarded by
ghost dogs, headless dogs, yellow dogs with two tails, black dogs, scarlet
dogs, and wolves. Other treasures were guarded by horses, bulls, a goat, a
black cat, a black panther, a wild boar, and a big black hog with enormous
An amphibian-reptilian assortment of sentinels constituted
an important subset of the animals said to guard treasure.37 For
example, an old European tradition held that people who had hidden away
treasures during their mortality could afterwards appear in the form of a toad
to guard them.38 About 1870, a company of treasure
diggers from Niagara County, New York, were said to have been foiled by a large
toad that threatened to kill them.39 The amphibian-reptilian category of
guardians extended beyond the natural species of this phyla complex—such
as frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes—to include dragons and other
monsters.40 Many people are familiar with the
dragon named Smaug who guarded treasure in a mountain in J. R. R.
Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien based
Smaug on the classic dragon treasure guardian.41
The dwarf is another classic medieval guardian of
subterranean treasure that persisted into the nineteenth century.42
Everyone who has heard the Germanic tale of Snow White remembers the seven
dwarves who mined gold and copper from a treasure mountain.43
Gnomes—who constituted one of the four classes of elemental
spirits—lived within the earth and held charge of many underground
treasures.44 In the early nineteenth century,
treasure seer Zimri Allen looked into his seer stone and saw subterranean
treasures near Rochester, New York, that had been buried by gnomes.45
We are even more familiar with a Celtic counterpart—the
leprechaun—who hoards his pot of gold but can be affected by lucky
Giants also appear here and there as guardians of treasure.46
Because of their size and strength, they made formidable guardians.47
According to early Mormon Martin Harris, members of Joseph Smith’s
treasure-hunting group had encountered a giant: “Samuel Lawrence told me
that while they were digging, a large man who appeared to be eight or nine feet
high, came and sat on the ridge of the barn, and motioned to them that they
must leave. They motioned back that they would not; but that they afterwards
became frightened and did leave. . . . These things were real to
them.”48 The capricious or even malevolent
efforts of the guardians helped explain the failure to secure buried treasure.
Moroni as Both Angel and Treasure Guardian
A few of Joseph Smith’s former acquaintances described
Moroni as a treasure guardian. For some modern historians, these accounts
reflect Joseph’s early understanding of his supernatural
experiences—before he founded a church and changed the Moroni story to
suit his needs. It is equally possible, however, that Joseph Smith’s former
neighbors changed the story to suit their needs.
Did Joseph “baptize” Moroni, or was Moroni “defrocked” by
others? The question may be formally stated: Did Joseph Smith’s
successive narratives eventually transform a treasure guardian into an angel,
or did his antagonists’ successive narratives eventually transform an angel
into a treasure guardian? The position that
Joseph changed his story may be called the treasure-guardian thesis. The
position that Joseph’s critics changed the story may be called the angel
Some early critics saw Moroni only as a treasure guardian. A
few of the modern historians who have emphasized that interpretation seem to
acknowledge the possibility that Joseph understood Moroni as an angel as well,
even in early years. The possibility of a dual interpretation needs further
emphasis, for treasure guardians and angels are not necessarily mutually
exclusive beings. “Angel” is listed as a category of treasure
guardian in folklorist Stith Thompson’s classic Motif-Index of
Likewise, “Treasure Angel” is listed in a recent bestiary by Carol
Rose.50 W. H. McIntosh’s History of
Wayne County, New York, includes a circa 1840 story wherein a treasure
guardian introduces itself as an angel to a company of treasure seekers by Rose
(about twenty miles east of Palmyra).51
Angels exist as guardians of treasure in Mormon thought as
well. In 1837, Joseph Smith Sr. blessed Wilford Woodruff: “Thou shalt have
access to the treasures hid in the sand to assist thy necessities. An angel of
God shall show thee the treasures of the earth that thou mayest have riches to
assist thee in gathering many orphan Children to Zion.”52 In
1877, President Brigham Young taught, “These treasures that are in the
earth are carefully watched, they can be removed from place to place according
to the good pleasure of Him who made them and owns them. He has his messengers
at his service, and it is just as easy for an angel to remove the minerals from
any part of one of these mountains to another, as it is for you and me to walk
up and down this hall.”53 Because angels can guard treasure in
both Mormon and non-Mormon belief, there is no need to adopt an evolutionary
model in which a treasure guardian is gradually changed into an angel. Book of
Mormon witness David Whitmer may have blended both interpretations when he
called Moroni “the angel, the guardian of the plates.”54
This analysis, which attempts to fulfill Walker’s
anticipation of a synthesizing of the two interpretations, requires a
reformulation of this essay’s central question: Was Moroni initially more
meaningful to Joseph Smith as an angel or as a treasure guardian? This modified version of the question defines a
modified “treasure-guardian thesis” and a modified “angel
thesis.” Walker conjectured that the angel thesis would ultimately
prevail. What does the historical record have to say?
To argue the treasure-guardian thesis, its proponents bring
forth a number of historical sources that describe Moroni as a treasure
guardian or a spirit. They contrast these accounts with the traditional account
of Moroni’s visits. Whereas Joseph’s 1838 history presents Moroni as a divine
messenger, these other accounts describe him as a treasure guardian—thus
invalidating Joseph’s claims to revelation from God. Abner Cole, editor of the Palmyra
Reflector, composed the first extant source
that explicitly identified Moroni as a treasure guardian. “The Book of
Pukei,” his parody of the Book of Mormon, narrated that “Jo. made a
league with the spirit, who
afterwards turned out to be an angel.”55
Later, in the fourth installment of his “Gold Bible” series of news
articles, Cole flatly stated the same as historical fact. “It will be
borne in mind,” he wrote, “that no divine interposition had been dreamed of at the period.”56
Then, in the following issue, Cole expounded the point: “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.”57 What was first given in parody was
restated as fact and then expounded as a historical framework.58
Joseph and Hiel Lewis, cousins of Emma Hale, also claimed
that Joseph initially described Moroni to them as a treasure guardian of gold
plates. “In all this narrative,” the Lewis brothers wrote,
“there was not one word about ‘visions of God,’ or of angels, or heavenly
revelations. All his information was by that dream, and that bleeding ghost.
The heavenly visions and messages of angels, etc., contained in Mormon books,
were after-thoughts, revised to order.”59 Like Abner Cole,
Joseph and Hiel Lewis articulated the theory that Moroni evolved from a
treasure guardian into an angel.
Joseph’s former neighbor Orlando Saunders disagreed. He
stated that Joseph “always claimed that he saw the angel.”60
And, more importantly, Joseph and his family presented Moroni as an angel from
the start. Thus Abner Cole and those detractors who followed him have nothing
on Joseph Smith. The detractors asserted that Joseph converted a treasure
guardian into an angel. Joseph and others maintained that Moroni was always an
angel. This takes us nowhere. Adequately addressing the question at hand
requires an application of the basic standards of source criticism and good
Eyewitness testimony is the most important standard of
historical reliability. The only mortal eyewitness to Moroni’s 1823-28
visits is Joseph Smith. All of Joseph’s extant narrations maintain that Moroni
is an angel. Aside from Joseph’s accounts, the only other firsthand accounts of
seeing Moroni come from Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer. In
June 1829, Moroni showed the golden plates to these “three witnesses of
the Book of Mormon.” They consistently described Moroni as a Judeo-Christian
angel in the context of a gospel restoration, not as a guardian spirit in the
context of a treasure quest.61 Therefore, all eyewitness accounts
agree on Moroni’s identity. Whether or not Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris
actually saw a preternatural being named Moroni, their accounts are firsthand.
The Moroni story began with those who claimed to have seen him.
Joseph and Hiel Lewis, who claimed to have heard their
version from Joseph, gave secondhand testimony.62 Of
course, their secondhand account describing a treasure guardian could be
weighed against dozens of secondhand accounts given by Mormons and others
describing an angel. The accounts given by David Whitmer regarding his mother
deserve mention. He reported that Mary Musselman Whitmer saw “an holy angel”
who showed her the plates.63
Revisionists also use the accounts given by neighbor Willard
Chase and by local businessman Fayette Lapham. Both claimed that Joseph Smith
Sr. described Moroni to them as a treasure guardian. As Joseph Smith Sr. would
have gained his knowledge of the matter directly from his son, Lapham and Chase
provided thirdhand evidence.64 Of course, these accounts could be
weighed against hundreds, if not thousands, of thirdhand accounts in which
Moroni is an angel.
As stories get passed along, they become more and more
susceptible to being distorted by biases. According to Oliver Cowdery’s serial
history written 1834-35, which is clearly informed by his discussions
with Joseph Smith, Moroni had given Joseph a warning: “When it is known
that the Lord has shown you these things, . . . they will circulate
falsehoods to destroy your reputation.”65 William Smith,
Joseph’s brother, remembered that as soon as Joseph obtained the plates, these
rumors prophesied by Moroni began to proliferate.66 In
1840, Elder Orson Pratt wrote that when the “inhabitants of that
vicinity” (western New York) heard about Moroni and the golden plates,
they “began to ridicule and mock at those things.” Before long,
“The news of his discoveries spread abroad throughout all those parts.
False reports, misrepresentations, and base slanders, flew as if upon the wings
of the wind in every direction.”67 In his 1838 history, Joseph stated
that after he returned the plates to Moroni, “The excitement however still
continued, and rumour with her thousand tongues was all the time employed in
circulating tales about my father’s family and about myself. If I were to
relate a thousan[d]th part of them it would fill up volumes.”68
Some of these tales found their way to Abner Cole, the
editor of the local tabloid. Cole explained his historical methodology on more
than one occasion. For example, in a 6 January 1831 article on Mormonism,
he announced his plans to expose the fledgling church and promised to provide
readers with the “facts” of the matter—”so far as they may
come to our knowledge.”69 These “facts” came not
through careful investigative journalism but from local rumor solicited through
his paper. Later, Cole specified the origins of his description of Moroni as a
treasure guardian: “This tale in substance, was told at the time the event
was said to have happened by both father
and son, and is well recollected by many of our citizens.”70
Tales told by local residents amount to no more than neighborhood gossip.
When we apply the criterion that firsthand accounts should
be favored over secondhand accounts, thirdhand accounts, and gossip, the angel
thesis forcefully asserts itself. Some skeptics may be tempted to reject this
analysis by arguing that Joseph and maybe even the Book of Mormon witnesses had
changed their story. Logicians call this kind of an argument “begging the
question.” Sources that speak of a treasure guardian may also have changed
their story. An unbiased analysis must consider both possibilities. Firsthand
accounts fall on the side of the angel thesis.
The second most important standard of historical methodology
is to favor sources composed closer to the time of the event in question over
sources composed later on. A historian prefers to work with contemporaneous
sources. In their absence, a historian will tend to rely on the earliest
sources available. What do the earliest documents tell us about Moroni?
Exponents of the treasure-guardian thesis cite the 1879
account given by Joseph and Hiel Lewis and the 1870 account given by Fayette
Lapham. These sources postdate the events they describe by half of a century,
which severely reduces their reliability. They could be weighed against
hundreds of Mormon accounts given in the middle decades of the nineteenth century
that describe Moroni as an angel.
Philastus Hurlbut collected Willard Chase’s description of
Moroni as a treasure guardian in 1833. However, at the same time, Hurlbut
collected Abigail Harris’s statement describing Moroni as “the spirit of
one of the Saints that was on this continent” as well as Henry Harris’s
statement identifying Moroni as an “angel.”71
Although the Chase account predates the official history of the church, it does
not predate Joseph Smith’s 1832 history, which describes Moroni as “an
angel of the Lord.”72
Abner Cole first described Moroni as a treasure guardian in
June 1830 in “The Book of Pukei,” his parody of the Book of Mormon.
This is a very early source; it predates the official history and even the 1832
history. However, it does not predate the “Articles and Covenants of the
Church of Christ,” which state that “God visited him [Joseph Smith]
by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were
pure and white above all whiteness, and gave unto him commandments which
inspired him from on high.”73 In fact, every relevant source that
predates Cole’s Book of Pukei calls Moroni an angel or implies as much. The
“Articles and Covenants” was the latest of these sources. Five others
are given here in chronological order, starting with the latest and working
back to the earliest:
On 2 June 1830, the Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio
PhÅ“nix reprinted a recent article from the Wayne
County Inquirer reporting that Joseph had
claimed to have been “entrusted by God with a golden bible” and a
“Divine commission.”74 Moroni is not explicitly mentioned,
but contextual phraseology clearly favors the angel thesis. This account
describes the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in terms of a traditional
Christian view—not as a treasure quest.
• In August 1829, an article appearing
in the Palmyra Freeman described Moroni as “the spirit of the Almighty.”75
Morgan and Quinn have emphasized the word spirit in this source and have
read it to mean spirit guardian of treasure. The prepositional phrase “of
the Almighty,” however, clearly gives the origin of the messenger in question.
Whether this being had a tangible body or not, it was an angel by definition.76
“The Testimony of Three Witnesses,” included in the
back of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, was probably composed in late
June 1829 when the Three Witnesses had their experience. It was certainly
composed before 26 March 1830 when the Book of Mormon was advertised for
sale.77 Their testimony speaks of Moroni as
“an Angel of God.”78
On 26 June 1829, the Wayne Sentinel reported the local stir concerning the discovery of
“an ancient record, of a religious and divine nature and origin” that
could be translated only “by inspiration.” In this article, talk of
things “divine” and “religious” brings this source down on
the side of the angel thesis.79
On 17 June 1829, Jesse Smith wrote a letter to his nephew
Hyrum Smith.80 Jesse wrote in response to letters
from the Joseph Smith family written about the fall of 1828.81 In
at least one of these letters from the Joseph Smith Sr. family, Moroni was
evidently called an angel. Citing the first of these letters, which had been
written by Joseph Smith Sr. or Joseph Smith Jr., Jesse commented:
He writes that the Angel of the Lord has revealed to him
the hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which
has lain in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last
made known to him, he says he has eyes to see things that are not and then has
the audacity to say they are; and the Angel of the Lord (Devil it should be)
has put me in possession of great wealth, gold and silver and precious stones
so that I shall have the dominion in all the land of Palmyra.
Apparently, Joseph Sr. or Joseph Jr. had written a letter to
Jesse that placed Moroni in a treasure-guarding context as well as an angelic
context. As Jesse relates it, Moroni put the Smiths in possession of several
local treasures. Jesse even used the words “hidden treasures.” Here,
however, the treasures were not gold and silver but rather “treasures of
wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation.” Most importantly, this
early letter cited by Jesse makes it quite clear that Joseph or his father
referred to Moroni as “the Angel of the Lord.” This letter, the
earliest relevant source, demonstrates the legitimacy of the treasure-guardian
interpretation. At the same time, it manifests the primacy of the angel
According to Quinn, “By 1830 Smith and his followers
were emphasizing that the otherworldly messenger was an angel.”82
But Jesse’s letter of 1829—the earliest relevant document—indicates
that in 1828, either Joseph or his father had called Moroni “the Angel of
the Lord.” All relevant sources predating Abner Cole’s 1830 news articles
identify Moroni as an angel or support this version of the story. By 1830,
Smith’s detractors were emphasizing that the otherworldly messenger was a
As with eyewitness testimony, a historical analysis of the
early sources overwhelmingly favors the angel thesis. Some skeptics may reject
this analysis on the grounds that Joseph Smith had changed his story before the
earliest sources were recorded. Unfortunately, we have no directly relevant
sources that were produced between Moroni’s first visits in 1823 and the recovery
of the plates in 1827. If there were only one Joseph Smith account, given at
any time during his life, that portrayed Moroni as more of a treasure guardian
than an angel, one might reasonably take this account as an accurate
representation of Joseph’s initial interpretation of Moroni’s 1823 appearances.
On the other hand, if there were an 1823
account from any
source—Joseph himself, his family, a friend of the family, or even a
bitter enemy—wherein Moroni was described primarily as an angel, valiant defenders
of the treasure-guardian thesis would probably argue that the story had already
been changed. Ultimately, the treasure-guardian thesis is unfalsifiable and
therefore, in a sense, falls outside the domain of history into the realm of
Proponents of the treasure-guardian thesis avoid the course
of analysis followed in the previous section by focusing on the dates their
sources claim for themselves rather than the dates on which these sources were
actually recorded. Many accounts recorded in later years were based on
conversations that took place much earlier. However, the passage of years
easily obscures, filters, and even distorts memories. For this reason,
historians generally favor the earliest possible accounts of the events under
investigation. Proponents of the treasure-guardian thesis, however, have had to
place their focus on later accounts that claim to be based on early
But even if we adopt this less-rigorous standard, the angel
thesis holds. Fayette Lapham reported that he spoke with Joseph Smith Sr. about
a treasure guardian in 1830, and Joseph and Hiel Lewis claimed that Joseph
Smith Jr. told them about a treasure guardian about April 1828.85 John
A. Clark, however, reported that Martin Harris spoke to him about an angel in
the fall of 1827.86
Neighbor Willard Chase said he talked to Joseph Smith Sr.
about a treasure guardian in June 1827.87 However, Joseph
Knight Jr. related, about November 1826, that Joseph “made known to my
father and I, that he had seen a vision, that a personage had appeared to him
and told him [where] there was a gold book of ancient date buried, and if he
would follow the directions of the Angel he could get it.”88
Abner Cole claimed that a treasure-guardian tale “was told at the time the
event was said to have happened by both
father and son.”89 However, Lucy Mack Smith and William
Smith both remembered that Joseph described Moroni to the family as an angel on
the very day Moroni first visited him.90 Joseph Smith himself
related the same.91
Proponents of the treasure-guardian thesis do not consider
the Smith family accounts as early sources because they suspect that the Smiths
distorted the story. And yet that is the very question at issue. Those who
described Moroni as a treasure guardian may also have distorted the story.
Sound source criticism applied equally to Mormon and non-Mormon accounts
supports the thesis that Moroni was transformed from an angel into a treasure
guardian—rather than the other way around.
To this point, I have focused on descriptions of Moroni
himself. His visits, however, occurred within the context of the coming forth
of the Book of Mormon. Morgan, Quinn, and Marquardt and Walters spend a great
deal of time noting the parallels between this context of the coming forth of
the Book of Mormon and the early American culture of treasure seeking. As
context often influences interpretation, we have two questions to consider: In
what contexts was Moroni said to have appeared? And which of these contexts was
most meaningful to Joseph at that time?
Joseph’s 1838 history recounts that Moroni first appeared
while Joseph was praying for forgiveness.92 Moroni would be more
likely to show up in this context as an angel than as a treasure guardian. However,
some have jettisoned Smith’s version in favor of an account stating that Moroni
appeared to him following one of his nocturnal treasure quests.93 This
account was given by John A. Clark, Palmyra’s Episcopal minister, recounting
what he had heard from Martin Harris. “According to Martin Harris,”
It was after one of these night excursions, that Jo, while he lay
upon his bed, had a remarkable dream. An angel of God seemed to approach him,
clad in celestial splendour. This divine messenger assured him, that he, Joseph
Smith, was chosen of the Lord to be a prophet of the Most High God, and to
bring to light hidden things, that would prove of unspeakable benefit to the
world. He then disclosed to him the existence of this golden Bible, and the
place where it was deposited—but at the same time told him that he must
follow implicitly the divine direction, or he would draw down upon him the
wrath of heaven.94
Lucy Mack Smith recounted her memory of what took place
on the evening of 21 September 1823:
One evening we were sitting till quite late conversing upon the subject of
the diversity of churches that had risen up in the world and the many thousand
opinions in existency as to the truths contained in scripture. . . .
After we ceased conversation he [Joseph] went to bed . . . but he
had not laid there long till [he saw] a bright [light] enter
room where he lay he looked up and saw an angel of the Lord.95
Was Joseph Smith hunting for treasure that night or
discussing the gospel? Reverend Clark and Mother Smith disagree on this matter.
Which account is accurate?
Clark’s 1840 account predates Lucy’s by five years, but
neither account is contemporaneous. His reminiscence is based on a conversation
he had with Martin Harris in 1827 or 1828.96 Did Harris really say
that Joseph had been treasure hunting on the night of 21 September 1823? If so,
did he hear about or misremember hearing something about a treasure quest on
that night from Joseph Smith—which would make Harris a secondhand source—or
did Harris get this idea from someone else who had heard it from someone else?
Clark’s account is thirdhand at best. Lucy was there.
Therefore, reliance on Reverend Clark with regard to this
contextual element must be questioned. Even if Joseph had been digging for
treasure that night, a treasure-seeking context does not change Moroni’s
status. Clark recounted Harris describing Moroni as an “angel of God
. . . clad in celestial splendour” and as a “divine
messenger” who spoke of the purposes of “the Most High God.”97
Moroni appeared three times that night. Joseph later wrote,
“Almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me the
third time, the cock crew, and I found that day was approaching so that our
interviews must have occupied the whole of that night.” Joseph got up and
went to work, but he was so tired that his father told him to go home and rest.98
Joseph walked back toward the log home but fell to the
ground when he tried to climb over a fence. At this moment, Moroni again
appeared, delivered the same message he had given during the night, and
instructed Joseph to go immediately to the hill that is now known as Cumorah.99
Moroni would meet Joseph again on the hill.
The earliest reliable accounts of Joseph Smith’s encounter
with Moroni on the hill contain elements of both treasure seeking and angelic
dispensationalism. In his 1832 history, Joseph explained why he failed to
obtain the plates: “I had been tempted of the advisary and saught the
Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandment that I should have an eye
single to the glory of God.”100 It is difficult to condemn young
Joseph, whose family had suffered so much poverty. His candid admission that he
intended to financially benefit from the plates of gold invokes the
treasure-seeking belief system that he had participated in on occasion.
However, it should also be stressed that Joseph attributed his impure intent
not to his treasure-seeking background but rather to being “tempted of the
advisary.” Moroni filled the role of an angel as he informed young Joseph
that God’s purposes were far greater than the Smith family’s financial
Moroni had clearly instructed Joseph as to the purpose of
Joseph’s recovery of the plates. And yet, according to Joseph himself, sometime
between Moroni’s daytime visit near the farm fence and his appearance on the
hill an hour or so later, Joseph’s mission to obtain the ancient record
devolved into a quest for riches. When did this occur? When he approached the
hill, had his mind slipped into a treasure-seeking context? Did he climb the
slope of the hill for a golden treasure? Some critics hold that he did. The
following cognitive process may have occurred:
1. Joseph began to think of the monetary worth of the golden plates.
2. Thinking of the plates as treasure caused Joseph to think of his
recovery of the plates in a treasure-seeking perspective.
3. Thinking with a treasure-seeking perspective caused Joseph to consider
Moroni as a treasure guardian.
Or perhaps Joseph’s background experience in treasure
seeking caused him to begin to see both Moroni and his plates in light of that
Accounts of Joseph’s first visit to the hill differ as to
when he had begun thinking of the plates as treasure. Cowdery’s 1834-35
history states that as Joseph began walking to the hill, the power of God and
the power of the devil both vied for his attention, and Joseph began to
struggle between them. Satan tempted him to desire riches. His family had
worked so hard to scrape out a living. Eventually, Joseph gave in. The
1834-35 history continues:
You will have wondered, perhaps, that the mind of our brother should be so
occupied with the thoughts of the goods of this world, at the time of arriving
at Cumorah, on the morning of the 22nd of September, 1823, after having
been rapt in the visions of heaven during the night, and also seeing and hearing
in open day; but the mind of man is easily turned, if it is not held by the
power of God through the prayer of faith, and you will remember that I have
said that two invisible powers were operating upon his mind during his walk
from his residence to Cumorah, and that the one urging the certainty of wealth
and ease in this life, had so powerfully wrought upon him, that the great
object so carefully and impressively named by the angel, had entirely gone
from his recollection that only a fixed determination to obtain now urged
him forward. In this, which occasioned a failure to obtain, at that time,
the record, do not understand me to attach blame to our brother: he was young,
and his mind easily turned from correct principles, unless he could be favored
with a certain round of experience. And yet, while young, untraditionated
and untaught in the systems of the world, he was in a situation to be lead
into the great work of God, and be qualified to perform it in due time.101
In this account, Joseph’s mind had turned by the time
he reached the hill.
Other accounts differ from the 1834-35 history. Based
on an 1875 interview with David Whitmer, the Chicago Times reported:
He strolled out and away from the house and sought the hill Cumorah. . . .
He found the exact spot designated by the white-robed visitor, and at once
commenced digging in the rock-ribbed soil. At the depth of two and a half
or three feet his faith was rewarded by the discovery of A SQUARE STONE CASKET.
Overpowered by the discovery he rested for a few moments, and then
visions of worldly emolument flitted through his overwrought brain. He had
been singled out as the discoverer of this secret of the infinite! Should
he neglect this golden opportunity to amass a fortune? No! . . .
While these worldly thoughts occupied Joseph’s mind, the angel of the Lord
again suddenly stood before him, told him that he had approached this sacred
spot in [an] irreverent mood, that the secrets of the casket could never be
his until he sought them in the proper spirit, and then hurried him unceremoneously
to the plain below.102
Although this news story was based on an interview with
Whitmer, the style and tone are clearly not that of the plainspoken Whitmer.
The artistic flair of this dramatic retelling enjoins us to question how far
the reporter strayed from Whitmer’s narration. The reporter overlays the
treasure-digging context, with Joseph digging for the plates, but this before he thinks of the deposit as treasure—which
does not occur until the moment he sees the stone box.
Other sources indicate that Joseph’s mind had not turned
until after he opened the box. Congregationalist minister Truman Coe of
Kirtland, Ohio—who apparently heard Joseph relate the story of his visit
to the hill—wrote that Joseph went “as directed by the angel, and
pried up the stone under which he discovered the plates shining like gold, and when
he saw them his cupidity was excited, and
he hoped to make himself rich by the discovery.”103
Joseph’s mind may not even have turned at this point. Lucy
Mack Smith recounted that when Joseph saw the plates, he reached into the box
and grasped them. And it was only then, “as he was taking them
hence,” that “the unhappy thought darted through his mind.” Lucy
places the point at which his mind turned even closer to the moment when
“the angel of the Lord appeared to him, and told him that he had not done
as he had been commanded.”104 It would seem that, at this moment,
Joseph’s treasure-seeking perspective immediately evaporated. Lucy placed
Joseph’s turn of mind so close to Moroni’s appearance that a treasure-seeking
context had little time to influence Joseph’s perception of Moroni. Indeed,
Lucy mentions only a thought of wealth darting through his mind. According to
her account, the cognitive process laid out above could not have occurred;
Joseph never began thinking of Moroni as a treasure guardian. The David Whitmer
and Truman Coe accounts suggest the same.
However, as shown, the 1834-35 history—which
should be favored as a more historically reliable account—stated that
Joseph began thinking of the plates as treasure as he walked to the hill. If
so, this would have provided time for Joseph to ponder a treasure-seeking
context that could have influenced a change in his understanding of Moroni.
Nevertheless, the possibility that Joseph began thinking of Moroni in terms of
a treasure guardian as Joseph walked from his house to the hill remains just
For the most part, whether Joseph began thinking of Moroni
primarily in terms of a guardian lacks relevance because the most reliable
accounts present Joseph’s perception of his recovery of the plates not as an
evolution but as a devolution. Rather than a treasure turning into an ancient
record, the ancient record became a treasure. Joseph’s own mind apparently
traveled the same pathway that the minds of his detractors later followed.
However, as the same source recounts, if Joseph had begun to think of the angel
primarily in terms of a treasure guardian, then Moroni’s sudden appearance on
the hill and his chastening message put an abrupt end to this shift in
The 1834-35 history recounts that because of Joseph’s
impure motive, when he attempted to lay hold on the plates, he experienced a
shocking sensation. “What was the occasion of this he knew not—there was the pure unsullied record, as had been
described—he had heard of the power of enchantment, and a thousand like
stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth, and supposed that
physical exertion and personal strength was only necessary to enable him to yet
obtain the object of his wish.” Yet, failing, he exclaimed, “‘Why can
I not obtain this book?'” Unbeknownst to Joseph, Moroni was there with him
on the hill. “‘Because you have not kept the commandments of the
Lord,'” Moroni answered. Joseph looked “and to his astonishment,
there stood the angel who had previously given him the directions concerning
this matter.”105 This account, like others given by
Joseph Smith and by other early Mormons, combines elements of treasure seeking
and angelic ministration.106 Which context was most important?
Quinn compares the shock that Joseph experienced with
treasure tales including the motif of shock as a deterrent.107
But as shown above, the 1834-35 history states that Joseph was confused
by the shock and did not know what to make of it. Then, seeking to understand
this perplexing situation, he drew on his knowledge of treasure tales and
reasoned that some enchantment was holding the plates in the earth. Since
Joseph did not initially know what to make of this shock, he probably had not
approached the hill with a treasure-seeking perspective. By the time he reached
the hill, he desired the plates as treasure; but until he was shocked, he
apparently had not superimposed any other contextual elements of treasure
seeking. It seems that he still understood Moroni primarily as an angel.
In retrospect, Joseph understood that his thoughts had taken
a turn for the worse. The reliable accounts that mention Joseph’s perception of
the plates as treasure also clarify that his perception had strayed from the
original meaning as given earlier by an angel. Therefore, if Joseph ever
considered Moroni primarily in terms of a treasure guardian, it was for a short
period of time and was of secondary significance.
For the believer, the issue is largely irrelevant because
these accounts present a treasure-seeking context compatible with the
traditional understanding of Moroni as an angel. For example, when Lucy Mack
Smith narrated her history, she spoke frankly of the treasure-seeking context.
She called the plates a “treasure” and stated that the angel had
warned Joseph in the nighttime “that he must beware of covetousness, and
he must not suppose the Record was to be brought forth with the view of getting
gain, for this was not the case, but that it was to bring forth light and
intelligence, which had for a long time been lost to the world; and that when
he went to get the plates, he must be on his guard, or his mind would be filled
with darkness.”108 In Lucy’s account, a
treasure-seeking context does not rule out angels at all. Moroni is perfectly
aware of Joseph’s background and admonishes him accordingly.
Oliver Cowdery composed the 1834-35 history in part to
counter the statements that Eber D. Howe had published in Mormonism
Unvailed.109 If this early church history
downplayed the treasure-seeking context within which Joseph understood the
coming forth of the Book of Mormon, it nonetheless admitted it. Moreover, this
history deemed Joseph’s treasure-seeking interpretation as incorrect and based
on superstitious tales—”he had heard of the power of enchantment,
and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasure of the earth.”
Joseph’s momentary consideration of treasure-seeking beliefs, however, had no
bearing on the reality of either the heavenly messenger or the metal plates.
From the vantage point of 1835, Joseph and Oliver could differentiate the
objective existence of the angel and the plates from Joseph’s culturally
informed understanding of them in 1823. Thus, while the 1834-35 history
openly admits the validity of the treasure-seeking context, it properly places
it in a position of secondary importance to the visits of the angel. To
whatever extent Joseph did view the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in the
context of the treasure-seeking beliefs of his youth, it may have paved the way
for Moroni to deliver his message.110 As stated in the 1834-35
history, because Joseph was “young, untraditionated and untaught in the
systems of the world, he was in a situation to be lead into the great work of
God, and be qualified to perform it in due time.”111
Quinn places the coming forth of the Book of Mormon not only
within a treasure-seeking context but also within the larger context of
“magic,” as opposed to “religion.”112 In
its technical sense, stripped of pejorative usage, magic is usually more manipulative and coercive in its
approach to the preternatural, whereas religion is defined more in terms of supplication and
submission. Also, magic tends to be individualistic, whereas religion tends to
be communalistic.113 Treasure seers and other scryers
attempted to entrap or bind familiar spirits into their seer stones or crystal
balls so that the spirits could be forced to reveal buried treasures or occult
knowledge. These manipulative actions were conducted to achieve personal ends.
With Joseph and Moroni, we get an entirely different picture. Joseph
supplicates God for forgiveness; he submits to Moroni’s chastening instruction;
and he uses his seer stone to bring about divine purposes that will benefit all
of humanity, not himself or even his family. His encounters with Moroni are
marked by supplication and submission to bring about communal purposes, as
opposed to manipulation and coercion to effect a personal end. Though outside
the accepted boundaries of mainstream Christian orthodoxy, these encounters
are, by definition, religious, not magical.
The contextual elements of the earliest encounters with
Moroni, as given in the most reliable sources, support the angel thesis. Some
skeptics may dismiss this conclusion by arguing that Joseph and Lucy and Oliver
changed the entire
story—transforming not only Moroni’s identity but also the treasure-seeking
context in which he appeared. Such an argument would rest on presupposition. As
with the data that directly impinge on the issue of Moroni’s initial status,
historical standards and principles of logic apply to indirect contextual
interpretation. Faithful Latter-day Saints should acknowledge that a
consideration of the context in which Moroni visited Joseph lends a significant
degree of credibility to the treasure-guardian interpretation. Critics should
acknowledge that contextual considerations lend even more credence to the
heavenly messenger interpretation.
Many historians—both believing Latter-day Saints and
secular academics—have placed the founding events of the restoration of
the church within other contextual frameworks: millenarianism, biblicism,
evangelicalism, seekerism, primitivism, restorationism, and dispensationalism.114
Although an interpretive framework of magic suggests that Moroni was a treasure
guardian, each of these other legitimate contextual interpretations suggests
that Moroni was an angel. A preference for the treasure-guardian thesis
probably results in part from an assumption that everything in Mormonism must
owe its origins to an evolutionary process. Hence, if Moroni was later
understood as an angel, he must have been initially understood as something
else. However, if Moroni is an actual being, whom the Lord sent into the Smith
garret, that is not the case.
Another way we can attempt to determine the direction in
which the Moroni story developed is by considering the alternatives to Joseph
Smith’s version of the events. What exactly are the treasure tales and how do
they compare with the traditional account? Emma Smith’s cousins, Joseph and
Hiel Lewis of Harmony, Pennsylvania, described Moroni as the ghost of a
Spaniard whose throat was “cut from ear to ear, and the blood streaming
down.”115 Josiah Stowell had hired Joseph to
come down to Pennsylvania to locate a legendary Spanish mine.116
Joseph could not find the mine, but he did find true love and eloped with Emma
Hale, which upset her family.117 Based on the failed Spanish-mine
venture, her Lewis cousins apparently concocted a murdered Spaniard treasure
guardian and then superimposed it upon the angel. After describing Moroni as a
bloody ghost, the Lewis cousins proceeded to dismiss the revelations that
Joseph experienced. We might call this a “strawghost” argument.
Unfortunately, this poor old ghost’s severed head finally fell off. The year
after the Lewises gave their account of early Mormonism, investigative journalist
Frederic Mather talked to residents of Harmony, Pennsylvania, and reported that
“a headless Spaniard guarded it [the ancient record] with great
Fayette Lapham described Moroni as a classical European
giant: “a very large and tall man . . . dressed in an ancient
suit of clothes.”119 In contrast, Oliver Cowdery, in his
1834-35 history, wrote that the “stature of this personage was a
little above the common size of men in this age.”120
David Whitmer said the angel stood at about five feet ten inches.121
Joseph himself related that when Moroni made his initial appearance, he was
standing in the garret of the Smith family’s log home—”between the
floors of the room.”122 As the half-story garret was
probably no higher than six feet, Lapham’s giant literally does not fit.123
Whereas Lapham dresses Moroni in an ancient suit of clothes, Joseph remembered
him wearing a white robe.124
Willard Chase reported that Joseph Smith Sr. had told him
that Moroni initially appeared as a creature that looked “something like a
toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him [Joseph Smith
Jr.] on the side of his head.”125 Because some species of reptiles
and amphibians, and toads in particular, could serve as treasure guardians,
Chase reinforced his portrayal of Moroni as a treasure guardian by associating
him with a toadlike creature. Decades later, Chase’s brother-in-law, Benjamin
Saunders, repeated this story but improved upon it, claiming that he heard the
story directly from Joseph Jr.126 In 1893, Benjamin’s nephew Orson
Saunders shared some of his home-brewed hard cider with a newspaper reporter,
took him to the Hill Cumorah, and quoted
Joseph Smith Jr. (whom he had never met) as saying that the creature was indeed
a toad—an “enormous toad”—and that it turned into not a
man but a “flaming monster with glittering eyes.”127
It is an amphibian story, but it sounds more like a “fish story.” In
the newspaper reporter’s account of the Orson Saunders account of the Benjamin
Saunders account of the Willard Chase account of the Joseph Smith Sr. account
of Joseph Smith Jr.’s account of his encounter with Moroni, we can see the
process of distortion at work.
Abner Cole provided another description of Moroni. We read
in Pukei 2:4 that the “spirit” was “a little old man” and
that “his beard of silver white, hung far below his knees.” Cole’s
Book of Pukei further informs its readers that the spirit was wearing items of
Egyptian, Hebrew, and Native American clothing. The items of costume obviously
spoof the Book of Mormon’s Egyptian, Hebraic, and Native American connections.
Without this clothing, the “spirit” is described only as a little old
man with a long beard. Here we have a textbook description of a gnome—one
of the “elemental spirits” and a classical treasure guardian.
Early critics not only portrayed Moroni as a treasure
guardian but also imputed evil to him. Abner Cole wrote that when Joseph Smith
Sr. arrived in the Palmyra-Manchester area of New York, he revived the
“vulgar, yet popular belief” that the treasures buried in that area
“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.”128 Cole seems to have equated this
“evil spirit” with the “old spirit” that appeared as a
little man with a long beard. Anglo-American folk belief included the idea that
the devil could appear as a “dwarf” or as “a little, gray old
The Chase and Lapham accounts also seem to impute evil to
Moroni by describing him as a toadlike creature and a giant. In
European-American folk belief, the toad always represented or embodied evil.130
Giants are usually malevolent.131 By imputing evil to Moroni, these
accounts attacked Moroni’s angelic status and even ruled out classifying him as
an angelic treasure guardian. Their Moroni definitely did not come from heaven.
In both the Chase and Lapham accounts, the guardian is dangerously violent.
Whereas Chase has the guardian strike Joseph on the side of his head, Lapham
has the giant “strike him on the breast.” These accounts bring to
mind the Chicago Times interview with
David Whitmer given above, wherein Moroni “hurried him unceremoneously to
the plain below.” Each of these accounts apparently exaggerates the
shocking sensation that Joseph experienced when he attempted to remove the
plates in 1823.
In his 1829 letter to his nephew Hyrum, Uncle Jesse Smith
objected to Joseph Smith’s family calling Moroni an angel. “Devil it
should be,” he wrote.132 It seems almost inevitable that
someone would eventually go beyond demonizing Moroni to identifying him as
Satan himself. Former Ohio resident James A. Briggs did just that. In 1834,
Briggs heard Joseph publicly relate the story of Moroni and the plates. Briggs
must have remembered Joseph saying he had experienced a sensation of shock from
an “unseen power”—for this is the phrase that Briggs used when
recounting the story on three separate occasions.133
However, in an 1875 letter to journalist John Codman, Briggs recalled Joseph
explaining “how he was kicked by the Devil when he uncovered the plates
and stooped down to get them.”134 The Moroni of Joseph’s public 1834
recital was certainly an angel. How did Briggs change Moroni into the devil?
Earlier in the letter to Codman, Briggs had written, “I regret that I have
not been successful in obtaining for you a copy of ‘Mormonism Unvailed.'”
Briggs had helped Howe in his research for Mormonism Unvailed.135 The frontispiece of this book
contains an illustration of the devil kicking Joseph Smith (see fig. 3). A
glance at Howe’s frontispiece was apparently all it took for Briggs to change
an angel into the devil.
Actually, the frontispiece of Mormonism Unvailed did not depict the “shock” given by Moroni
to Joseph when he tried to take the plates in 1823. Rather, it illustrated a
story that Joseph was attacked by evil spirits in 1827 after Moroni gave him the plates.136 A
version of this story is also illustrated in the frontispiece to Pomoroy
Tucker’s Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (see p. 34 above). Demons
clamor in the foreground, waiting to attack Joseph after he leaves the
periphery of the angel’s glory. Briggs mistakenly superimposed the image from
the frontispiece of Mormonism Unvailed—depicting a story of the recovery of the plates in 1827—on
his memory of Joseph recounting the shocking sensation he had experienced in
1823. Coincidentally, Howe himself would duplicate this conflation in his
autobiography, which was published in 1878.137
The sources reviewed here present Moroni as a bleeding
Spanish ghost, a giant, a toad, a dwarf, and the devil. It seems that Moroni
makes a better chameleon than a salamander. Actually, these Moroni variants
mutually exclude one another. For example, there is no such thing as a giant
dwarf in any mythology, and the devil is not Spanish. Inconsistencies could be
further elaborated, but the point is sufficiently clear. For Moroni, as with
Jesus of Nazareth, “Many bare false witness against him, but their witness
agreed not together” (Mark 14:56). That these variants of the Moroni story
present inconsistent treasure guardians clearly demonstrates that their
narrators had strayed from an accurate representation of Joseph’s original
story. These accounts, which are so clearly inaccurate, constitute the primary
database used by the proponents of the treasure-guardian thesis.
Although these accounts contradict each other, they are
agreed in excluding an angelic interpretation of Moroni. In each case, the
narrators transformed Moroni into a specific nonangelic treasure
guardian—at times an evil treasure guardian. By casting Moroni as a
particular type of treasure guardian incompatible with an angelic messenger,
detractors solidified their treasure-seeking interpretations of the coming
forth of the Book of Mormon. By steering Moroni into specific guardian personas,
they could ridicule Joseph Smith with the tropes of treasure quest and thereby
dismiss the revelations he presented to the world.
Critics have reasonably argued that Joseph’s understanding
of his experiences with Moroni underwent some development through the years,
but this argument rests upon inference. In contrast, those who described a
treasure guardian clearly reconfigured the Moroni story. This folklore analysis
indicates that Joseph Smith’s accounts of the Moroni visitations are more
reliable than those of his detractors.
Returning to the historical record, we can summarize the
documentary evidence: (1) All firsthand accounts agree on Moroni’s
identity as an angel. (2) The earliest accounts say that Moroni is an
angel. (3) A contextual consideration indicates that Moroni made a better
angel than a treasure guardian. Moreover, a closer look at what the
treasure-guardian sources actually say clearly demonstrates that their source
is not Joseph Smith but rather run-of-the-mill treasure-lore superimposed upon
his story. In this case, it is not difficult to discern the direction in which
Moroni’s metamorphosis occurred. In conclusion, folklore analysis and the
ground rules of history support the thesis that Joseph Smith’s encounters with
Moroni are best understood as the visits of a heavenly messenger to a prayerful
The real story that emerges from these documents is not that
Joseph Smith transformed a treasure guardian into an angel but rather that
Moroni has been transformed from an angel into a treasure guardian by a set of
early critics and those historians who have relied on them. Although the
historical sources that cast Moroni as a treasure guardian tell us something
about Joseph’s initial understanding of his experiences, they tell us more
about the original need of his community and the current need of his critics to
provide an alternative explanation for his encounters with Moroni.
Two years after this article was originally published in Mormon
Historical Studies, Ronald V. Huggins
came to nearly opposite findings in an essay published in Dialogue: A
Journal of Mormon Thought.138
Huggins had set out to conduct “a careful study of the Traditionsgeschichte (tradition history) of the story of the initial
discovery of the plates.”139 At the end of his
study, his main conclusion was that the angel Moroni of Mormon tradition was
initially conceived of “as a type of murdered treasure-guardian ghost
particularly (though not exclusively) associated with the story of Captain
Kidd’s treasure.”140 Huggins also closes with a
suggestion for why Joseph Smith initially cast Moroni as this particular type
of treasure guardian. Among the various types of treasure guardians Moroni
might have been, “only the murdered treasure-guardian ghost was, as an
innocent victim, morally neutral—that is to say not necessarily
In responding to Huggins, I would like to begin by
addressing his concluding suggestion. Aware that others before him have argued
for Moroni as a treasure guardian, Huggins emphasizes that previous literature
has failed to recognize the importance of “the link between Moroni and
this particular type of treasure guardian.”142 He
explains that Moroni’s transition to an angel was less difficult having started
as a human ghost because, as he puts it, “treasure guardians were almost
always regarded as evil in the magic worldview, no matter what form they took.
. . . The one exception, and that by no means always, is the murdered
treasure-guardian ghost.”143 This statement is incorrect and
shows that Huggins’s attraction to the pirate stories has narrowed his
understanding of the full range of hunted treasures and their guardians. He is
apparently aware of only the following guardians, which he lists: the ghost of
a person, “an animal familiar spirit,” demons, and the devil.144
He is correct that the spirits of departed humans are the most common treasure
guardians and that they are often victims of whoever secreted the treasure in
the earth. He is also correct that demons or even the devil could guard
treasure. He is partly correct regarding animal guardians. The animals that
guarded treasure were not usually familiar spirits, but preternatural creatures
of a different class. There were other types of guardians as well—some
from the old European traditions and some from the New World.
American treasure seekers inherited four major classes of
treasure guardians from the Old World: gnomes (also sometimes called pygmies or
dwarves), magical animals and other creatures (such as toads and dragons), the
devil and his minions, and the ghosts of the departed dead. The devil and his
minions were by definition diabolical. Animal guardians, to my knowledge, were
always or almost always malevolent. Human ghosts were not always malevolent, as
Huggins acknowledges, but neither were gnomes. The gnomes were pre-Christian
nature spirits, neither divine nor diabolical. In some stories they were spun
as capricious or malevolent, but in others they could be friendly (consider the
tale of Snow White). Huggins does effectively argue against Quinn’s theory
associating Moroni with a salamander.145 I would add a
clarifying note that, of the four classical “elemental
spirits”—the gnomes in the earth, the sylphs in the air, the undines
in the water, and the salamanders in fire—it was the subterranean gnomes
who hoarded and guarded treasure, not salamanders. There were a host of minor
Old World guardians as well, which were not necessarily malevolent. As noted in
my essay, angels could guard treasure.
To this stock of Old World treasures and treasure guardians
was added a range of new American treasures and guardians. Often the New World
treasures were really the same treasure changing hands. In some stories, the
American treasures were initially made by ancient, even antediluvian,
aboriginals. And in some accounts, they were then seized by the conquering
invaders who displaced them and became the native Americans later encountered
by Europeans. The American treasure then changed hands to the Spanish invaders
who so famously plundered Aztecan and Incan gold and silver. Finally, the
American treasures bound for Europe on the Spanish galleons were seized by
British and French pirates. Ordinary Americans of European ancestry were also
said to haunt treasures they had left behind. Each of these groups of American
treasure hoarders might murder a hapless victim and bury him with the treasure
under a curse that his ghost must protect it. Assuming (as Huggins does) that
at the beginning Moroni was primarily understood as a treasure guardian, which
type was he? It is on the pirates and their victims that Huggins focuses his
Huggins points to two main sources as evidence that Moroni
was the ghost of a murdered human. These are (1) the joint secondhand
account of Joseph and Hiel Lewis, given fifty years after the fact, and
(2) the thirdhand account of Fayette Lapham, given forty years after the
fact.146 That Lapham and the Lewises hailed
from different regions should be acknowledged. For Huggins, the fact that both
include a murdered guardian points to a common thread in an early version of
the Moroni story. However, by his own admission, the murdered guardian was a
common motif.147 In fact, it was ubiquitous. Yet he
never considers the possibility that Lapham and the Lewises independently
superimposed this commonplace detail in their account of the Moroni story.
Huggins also points to the testimony of Smith’s treasure-seeking companion
Jonathan Thompson, as recorded in notes of Smith’s 1826 trial, in which
Thompson relates that Smith had once seen a vision of one Indian murdering
another and depositing the body with a recently interred treasure.148
The notes of Thompson’s testimony—which stand as the solitary piece of
credible evidence for Smith having ever claimed to have seen a treasure guardian—indicate
to Huggins that Smith had such a motif at his disposal when he invented the
Moroni story. He does not acknowledge, however, that the notes of Thompson’s
testimony constitute further evidence of the motif’s commonality. Huggins gives
credence to the Lewises by maintaining that they did not explain the motif
because they did not understand it.149 But this just doesn’t wash. There
are many treasure tales, some cited by Huggins himself, that assume common
knowledge of stock motifs.
Even if the Lapham and Lewis accounts were dependable, they
would not necessarily lead us into the context of pirate treasure. Huggins has
done a better job than anyone of laying out the evidence for the Smith family’s
interest in Captain Kidd’s treasure.150 However, the Smiths
were interested in other treasures as well. Joseph was reported to have dug for
a chest of dollars as well as for a box of gold watches—both recently
buried American treasures.151 The notes of Jonathan Thompson’s
testimony, which Huggins uses, report that Joseph had searched for a treasure
buried by American Indians. It is well-known that Joseph traveled to Harmony,
Pennsylvania, to dig for treasure left by Spanish explorers or conquistadors.
This is why the Lewises gave an account of Moroni as a murdered Spaniard. In
the stories of the Harmony treasure, the Spaniards had worked a gold or silver
mine in which they coined the precious metal found there. They apparently
murdered one of their own when they sealed their mine and moved on for a time. Pirates
never entered the stories of that particular Spanish treasure. I would argue
that the Moroni described by the Lewises was a victim of other Spaniards, not
of Captain Kidd or any other pirate. Similarly, while Lapham described Moroni
as a murdered guardian, he was not the victim of pirates. Lapham’s Moroni was
not even from that era. He was from an ancient aboriginal race of giants.
In fact, for all his talk of Captain Kidd’s treasure,
Huggins can actually marshal only two sources that could possibly identify
Moroni as the ghost of a human murdered by pirates. The first source is the
reported rumor of John Ahmanson, a Danish convert to Mormonism who became
disaffected and wrote an anti-Mormon exposâ‰¥ in his native tongue. He wrote,
“Joseph Smith found his [plates] while he was digging for treasure which
was supposed to have been buried by the notorious buccaneer Captain Kidd in the
western part of New York State.”152 However, as Ahmanson
had converted in 1850 and emigrated to Utah in 1857, he never knew Joseph Smith.
In his book, which was published half a century after Moroni’s appearances, it
is not clear if he was reporting a rumor, forwarding his own hypothesis, or
The second source that might point to Moroni as a pirate
victim is a newspaper story reporting Jared Nasmith’s rendition of Palmyra
native Philetus Spear’s reminiscences of stories told in the Palmyra area about
Joseph Smith. Nasmith’s writings were allegedly published around the early
1870s but are only extant in a 1923 newspaper story, which relates that Smith “claimed to find the
Gold Bible” while digging for Captain Kidd’s treasure.153
The Nasmith account also relates that the men searching for this treasure had
dug out a mine and had locked the entrance. The story further relates that
Smith had made up the golden plates story on a whim and had put a handful of
sand in his coat pocket to trick his family (clearly a poorly remembered or
passed-along version of the Peter Ingersoll statement published in Mormonism
The Nasmith account concludes with the then common but now discredited Spalding
theory of the origins of the Book of Mormon narrative.155
For comparison, I would like to quickly review the other
Moroni treasure tales. Lapham described the ghost of an ancient aboriginal
giant, while Abner Cole described a gnomelike spirit. Chase described the ghost
of an ancient aboriginal who could appear in the form of a toad, while the
Lewises described the ghost of a murdered Spaniard. The Abner Cole material,
printed as early as 1830, is relatively contemporaneous to the Moroni events.
But Cole only reported neighborhood rumor. The Willard Chase source is late,
not given until December 1833, several years after the fact. It is also
thirdhand information. The Lewises’ source is a secondhand account but is given
fifty years after the fact. Lapham is
weaker still, not only forty years after the fact but thirdhand. None of these
depicts a victim of pirates.
The accounts of Ahmanson and Nasmith, which do point to a
pirate context, were also given decades after the fact. And, they do not even
claim to be firsthand, secondhand, thirdhand, or otherwise traceable to Joseph
Smith. As problematic as the specific guardian sources are, the allegations of
the Ahmanson and Nasmith sources are far weaker. To my view, of all the alleged
treasure guardians Huggins might have argued for, his selection of the pirate
victim is the weakest possible candidate. Even if one assumes that Moroni was
initially understood primarily as a treasure guardian, he was not Captain Kidd’s
Huggins does make a number of contributions. He draws on
many sources illuminating the world of treasure seeking that have not
previously been utilized in Mormon studies. He supplies, especially, new
material on treasure guardians, including ghosts in general and pirate victims
in particular, and a handful of new toad sources. He neglects, however, all of
the firsthand accounts and most of the earliest sources that directly relate to
the Moroni appearances. The fundamental fallacy that invalidates Huggins’s work
is that he only uses those sources that confirm his preconceived conclusion
that Moroni was initially understood as a treasure guardian. He never seriously
considers the possibility that it is the antagonistic accounts that are
changing the story by utilizing the widespread motif of a murdered victim.
Moreover, Huggins uses sources in a manipulative fashion as he builds an
argument that is strained even with the biased selection of evidence he does
use. His prose may read to some as sophisticated source criticism, but there is
no rigorous method for analysis.
In a recent issue of the FARMS Review, Larry Morris assesses Huggins’s essay and indirectly
responds to some aspects of my own work.156 He
begins with a helpful analysis of the deeply problematic source material.157
Because he sees some wrinkles in what I consider early sources or what I
consider firsthand or secondhand, I will try to clarify my position here.
Because Joseph and Hiel Lewis claim that they heard their story from Joseph
Smith in 1828, many consider them an “early” source. But they did not
record their remembered story until 1879. Their account is a very late source.
Whether it accurately reports an early Moroni story is highly dubious. The same
should be said for any 1870s account, whether friendly or antagonistic. For me,
an early source is one that was written or printed early. This is the more
rigorous standard. In the matter of firsthand and secondhand classification, I
take the following view: Because Joseph Smith is the only person who claimed to
have seen Moroni on his early visits, only his accounts are firsthand. The
Lewises tell a story about hearing his story. This is secondhand. Chase and
Lapham tell stories about hearing Joseph Smith Sr. tell stories about the story
told by Joseph Smith Jr. These are thirdhand accounts. I would continue to
recommend the classification schema in my essay.
Morris brings to his study many sources that Huggins and I
had missed. His analysis of early sources, therefore, augments my own and in
many respects surpasses it. I was especially impressed with Morris’s testing of
Huggins’s timeline for how the story developed. He expertly shows that
Huggins’s analysis does not hold up.158 Morris also
surpasses my analysis in his consideration of corroboration as a criterion for
evaluating evidence.159 In addition, I was impressed with
Morris’s own reconstruction of the original story and how it developed.160
I would continue to recommend what I called the
“folklore analysis” segments of my essay, wherein I discussed the
various types of treasure guardians in general, in Smith’s own treasure
seeking, and in the Moroni stories. Morris seems to follow Huggins’s mistaken
tendency to see all treasure as Captain Kidd treasure.161 I
would also guard against the tendency manifested by Huggins and Morris to view
anything strange in the Moroni stories as treasure motifs. For example, both
cite Moroni’s requirement that Smith bring someone with him to the hill as a
treasure motif.162 I am not aware of any treasure-tale
motif of bringing a designated individual with you in order to secure a
treasure. Bringing Alvin or Emma to the hill can only be construed as a
treasure motif in the general sense that it is a requirement from a treasure
guardian. But angels can give commandments too.
I commend Morris (and the editors of the FARMS Review) for again acknowledging the influence of treasure
seeking on Smith and his views of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon—a
fact that is still discounted by many apologists. I likewise commend Morris for
recognizing the strong influence of Christian religion in Joseph Smith’s life
and for acknowledging that religion and magic were often blended in early
American folk belief. Unlike Huggins, who is bent on smearing Moroni with the
treasure tales, Morris offers a properly balanced view of magic and religion as
they mixed in early American folk culture, in Smith’s spiritual life, and in
his early perceptions of Moroni.163 In this respect,
Morris exemplifies the careful study and considered view of early Mormon
history that Walker had anticipated in the 1980s, when serious investigation of
the topic first began.164
Second Postscript: Dan Vogel on Moroni
In addition to extensively responding to Huggins in the FARMS
Review, Morris also wrote a letter to the
editor of Dialogue summarizing
some of his findings.165 Morris’s letter elicited another
letter from Dan Vogel, who agreed with him that Huggins “should have been
more critical of the sources.” At the same time, Vogel asserted that
Morris “did little to improve that situation.” In general, Vogel felt
that Morris had twisted historical standards into “apologetic devices
designed to dismiss out-of-hand undesirable testimony.”166
Those who have read both Morris and Vogel will have to decide whether this is a
The Willard Chase Statement
Vogel pointed to Morris’s treatment of the Willard Chase
account as the best example of his “misuse of historical
methodology.”167 Chase claimed that Joseph Smith Sr.
had told him that Moroni initially appeared to Smith on the Hill Cumorah as a
creature that looked “something like a toad, which soon assumed the
appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.”168
Because some species of reptiles and amphibians, and toads in particular, could
serve as treasure guardians, the Chase statement reinforces the portrayal of
Moroni as a treasure guardian. Vogel criticized Morris for questioning the
accuracy of the Chase statement, asserting that “Morris has no reason to
doubt [believe] otherwise.”169
There are, however, two basic reasons for doubting the
veracity of the Chase statement. First, as a representation of the early Moroni
visions, the statement is a thirdhand account. Chase recounts Joseph Smith
Sr.’s secondhand account of Joseph Smith Jr.’s firsthand account. In fact, one
might classify the Chase statement as a fourthhand account since it was
collected by Philastus Hurlbut and only appears as published in Howe’s
anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed.
Although Chase informed the text of the statement and apparently signed it, the
statement was made at the prompting of Hurlbut, who was digging for dirt on the
Smiths and is known to have prompted his witnesses.170
Moreover, the statement was probably inscribed by Hurlbut as a reconstruction
of his conversation with Chase based on notes taken at the time. Vogel himself
dismisses the many statements collected by Hurlbut that fabricate evidence for
the Spalding theory he championed.171
The second basic reason to doubt the historicity of the
Chase statement is dating. Hurlbut collected Chase’s statement in December
1833. Therefore, when narrating Moroni’s first appearance in September 1823,
Chase (via Hurlbut) is reporting events
a full decade after the fact. Vogel sweeps these basic grounds for suspicion
aside with the argument that Chase should only be doubted if he cannot be
corroborated.172 But given the third- or fourthhand
nature of the Chase account and the unreliability of distant memories, the
burden is not on Morris to challenge the Chase account but on Vogel to
demonstrate its reliability.
This is where the criterion of corroboration comes into
play. Vogel holds that “a closer look reveals that it is a highly credible
account since many of its details are corroborated in other independent
sources.”173 Vogel relates several instances in
which Chase is corroborated by the early Mormon accounts of Lucy Mack Smith or
Joseph Knight, whereupon he claims that, “with such documentary support,
Morris would have a difficult time demonstrating that Chase’s account is not an
‘accurate reporting of primary testimony.'”174
Yet in his recent interpretive biography of Joseph Smith’s early life, Vogel is
critical in his use of the Chase statement. To be specific, he finds in the
statement instances of chronological error, questionable supposition,
concealing relevant detail, making an unconvincing claim, and the likelihood of
providing a deliberate false impression.175 Just as the
corroborated facts in the Chase account cause us to give it serious
consideration generally, the contradicted, unconvincing, and otherwise
problematic statements of fact should cause us to maintain some skepticism of
the account generally.176
More to the point, we must ask whether the Chase account can
be corroborated on the specific detail in question—the description of
Moroni as a treasure guardian who initially appeared on the Hill Cumorah in the
form of a toadlike creature. Entering into this area of inquiry, Vogel claims
the description is supported by the 1884 account of Benjamin Saunders, another former
Smith neighbor. Saunders recounted overhearing Joseph Smith say that when he
reached for the ancient record “there was something down near the box that
looked some like a toad that rose up into a man which forbid him to take the
plates.”177 Richard Lloyd Anderson has argued
that the Saunders account was probably based on the Chase statement.178
Vogel counters Anderson, however, by pointing out that, “rather than
hearing the story from Joseph Sr.,” as claimed by Chase, “Saunders
claimed he heard it directly from Joseph Jr.”179
Yet Vogel acknowledges in his recent biography of Smith that
“Saunders understood this to have occurred when Joseph took the plates
from the hill in September 1827,” not in 1823 as in the Chase statement.180
Vogel also states that this chronological problem was “probably due to
either faulty memory or method of reporting.”181 If
there is a chronological problem in the Saunders account, which was given over
half a century after the fact, might not the account also be mistaken as to
Joseph Smith being the source of this information?
Elsewhere in his biography of Smith, when discussing the
memories of golden plates’ witnesses Martin Harris and David Whitmer, Vogel
claims that “differences that might have originally existed between the
accounts [of Harris’s and Whitmer’s individual witness experiences] probably
became blurred over time as the details faded and general impressions remained.
The publication of Smith’s version in 1842 may have influenced Harris’s and
Whitmer’s own descriptions.”182 Recognizing that the Chase
statement had also been published years earlier and in a well-known book on the
topic, the same reasoning suggests that the Saunders account was influenced by
In another passage, Vogel questions the memory of Joseph
Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, because he thinks it might have been
influenced by her son’s “later emendations.”183 In
a similar vein, should we not also acknowledge that Benjamin Saunders’s memory
of an early conversation may have been influenced by the account of his
neighbor and brother-in-law Willard Chase? Vogel, in a footnote, seems to
acknowledge this possibility. He more cautiously writes that “similarities
may reflect the likelihood that they
both originated with Smith.”184
But are we to believe that Saunders’s “some like a
toad” and Chase’s “something like a toad” are independent
recollections of what Saunders heard Smith say and of what Chase heard Smith’s
father say? Vogel does not concede nearly enough. The prior publication of the
Chase statement, the Chase-Saunders relationship, the extreme lateness of the
Saunders recollection, and the similarity of the words used by both all point
to Saunders relying on Chase. The Saunders account simply does not constitute
substantial corroboration for the information in the Chase statement bearing on
Moroni’s identity as a treasure guardian. We are left with a healthy skepticism
of Chase’s version of the events.
Parallels to Treasure Hunting
Vogel emphasizes the general treasure-seeking interpretation
of the Moroni stories by noting similarities with several particular motifs,
such as the “thrice-repeated dreams” by which treasures were said to
be located.185 And, in his recent biography of
Smith, Vogel notes that “locating treasures through dreams was not uncommon
in Smith’s day, and thrice-repeated dreams were especially significant.”186
But dreams and visions were also well-known as gifts of the spirit in Christian
belief. Moreover, there is numerology in the Bible
just as there is in treasure-seeking lore. Either a thrice-repeated
vision—like the apostle Peter’s vision of the unclean animals—or a
thrice-repeated dream may have been just as significant to a primitivist
Christian as to a treasure seeker.187 I am not at all
excluding the possibility that Smith viewed his three nocturnal visions of
Moroni in a treasure-seeking context. I am only attempting to bring balance to
the issue by pointing out that Smith may also have viewed them in a biblical
Vogel also emphasizes a general treasure-seeking context by
noting “the need to follow instructions precisely” in both the Moroni
story and treasure lore. His primary example is the instruction that Joseph be accompanied by his older brother Alvin to
recover the plates in 1824.188 In his recent biography of Smith,
Vogel similarly notes that Lucy Mack Smith’s narration, “with its emphasis
on following the treasure guardian’s instructions precisely, captures more
fulsomely the folk-magic context of the story.”189
Morris had acknowledged this parallel to the world of treasure seeking, but he
also recognized that precise instructions from an otherworldly being have a
parallel in the Bible—as when Moses was instructed by the Lord to be accompanied by his older brother Aaron.190
There are numerous examples of angels giving precise instructions in both the
Old and New Testaments.191 I am not excluding here the
possibility that Smith viewed precise instructions from Moroni in a
treasure-seeking context. I am only pointing out that Smith may well also have
viewed precise instructions much like biblical commandments given by the Lord
and his angels. If we draw parallels to the world of treasure hunting only, our
analysis becomes a form of assuming the hypothesis instead of testing it.
Noting the precise instruction to bring Alvin and the
dilemma brought about by Alvin’s subsequent death, Vogel writes: “Smith’s
inability to get the plates in 1824 because Alvin had died seems more like the
trick of a treasure guardian spirit than what Smith’s contemporaries would have
expected of an angel.”192 Similarly, in his recent biography
of Smith, Vogel insists that this requirement “fit within the tricks and
other antics for which guardian spirits were known.”193
Aside, however, from the plat-eyes of South Carolina and the will-o’-the-wisps
of the greater American South—which attempted to lead treasure hunters
away from treasure—I am not aware of any guardian behavior that could be
viewed as tricky.194 Treasure guardians attempted either
to scare the hunters away from the treasure or to move the treasure away from
the hunters. Folklorists do not classify treasure guardians as tricksters.195
The guardian as trickster was invented by Mark Hofmann, the infamous creator of
forged Mormon documents. In his well-known salamander letter, Moroni directs
Smith to look in his seer stone in order to see whom to bring instead of Alvin
but then shows him nothing and says, “I tricked you again.”196
Vogel also bolsters the treasure-hunting interpretation of
Moroni’s first visits by placing them in close chronological proximity with an
actual treasure hunt. He writes that “earlier that evening, according to
what Martin Harris later told Palmyra minister John A. Clark, Joseph had acted
as seer for a local treasure-seeking expedition.”197
More accurately, Palmyra minister John A. Clark claimed that Martin Harris had stated that Smith had
participated in a treasure-hunting expedition that evening.198
As noted earlier, even if Clark correctly remembered Harris saying this, we do
not know from whom Harris would have learned this. Presumably it would have
been from a member of the Smith family. However, while neither Clark nor Harris
was in the Smith home, Lucy was, and she related that the family had stayed up
late this night engaged in religious discussion. In Vogel’s reconstruction, Joseph
Smith participated in both the treasure-hunting excursion and then the intense
religious discussion. This is a possibility that I had not previously
considered. However, in addition to generally doubting the Clark reminiscence,
which constitutes a thirdhand account at best, I question whether Smith had
time that night for both a treasure-hunting excursion and the long religious
discussion noted in Lucy’s eyewitness account.
To bolster the reality of a treasure hunt, as mentioned in
the Clark account, Vogel notes that this night was “an especially
propitious night for treasure hunting” because “the moon was full and
the evening marked the autumnal equinox.”199 However,
on this point Vogel is citing Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World
View.200 While it seems more than mere
coincidence that Moroni’s first visits happened on the autumnal equinox, Quinn’s
evidences for the auspiciousness of spirit conjuration (not treasure digging
specifically) on this night are among his generally insubstantial astrological
parallels. And while Quinn furnishes sources that recommend digging under a
full moon,201 there are various sources
recommending various times of the day or the night or other phases of the moon
for digging.202 Which of these times or seasons, if
any, did Joseph Smith prefer?
William Stafford, who had actually dug for treasure with the
Smiths, recounted their opinions on when to hunt for treasure: “At certain
times, these treasures could be obtained very easily; at others, the obtaining
of them was difficult. The facility of approaching them, depended in a great
measure on the state of the moon. New moon and good Friday, I believe, were
regarded as the most favorable times for obtaining these treasures.”203
Of course, the Stafford statement, like the Chase statement, is subject to
question. Still, on the issue of when the Smiths may have thought it best to
dig, the Stafford statement seems as reliable or even more so than the
miscellaneous sources cited by Quinn. The new moon appears only as a small
crescent or is completely invisible—just the opposite of the full moon
discussed by Quinn and Vogel. The Smiths may have preferred to dig without
moonlight for the same reason that treasure diggers generally preferred digging
without sunlight. Working under the cover of darkness not only concealed the
location of the hidden wealth they sought but spared them from the ridicule of
genteel onlookers.204 The presence of a nearly full moon
on the night of 21 September 1823 is probably evidence against the Clark account of a treasure excursion that
night, not for it.205
For Vogel, the part of the Moroni story “that more than
anything pointed nineteenth-century minds toward treasure lore” was
“the claim that the plates were protected by the ‘spirit’ of a dead
mortal.”206 This is a point that I did not
adequately address in my original essay. As Vogel explains, even if Smith
thought of Moroni as an angel, his contemporaries probably would not have used
the word angel to describe a messenger
returning from the dead—even if the messenger had been an ancient
prophet.207 The influence of the Bible and
biblical literalism in Smith’s day may have helped some see past this issue.
The Epistle to the Hebrews classified angels as “ministering
spirits”; the angel appearing to John in his apocalypse stated, “I am
thy fellow servant, and among thy brethren the prophets”; and the prophet
Elijah had appeared as just such a ministering spirit on the Mount of
Transfiguration.208 However, the free-thinking Abner
Cole probably held to the traditional notion of angels as entirely otherworldly
creatures. In his biography of Smith, Vogel emphasizes that “the earliest
accounts identify the heavenly messenger as a ‘spirit.'”209
But this is simply not true. As I demonstrated above, the earliest account uses
the word angel. As evidence for the
(subsequent) use of the term spirit,
Vogel invokes Abner Cole. “Obviously, for Cole angels were distinct beings
from ghosts, or the spirits of dead mortals.”210 In
the biography, Vogel summons another newspaper source using the word spirit. Vogel writes, “Martin Harris told people in
Rochester that Joseph had been ‘visited by the spirit of the Almighty in a
dream, and informed that in a certain hill . . . was deposited a
Golden Bible.'”211 More accurately, Martin Harris was
reported to have talked about this
“spirit of the Almighty” to some people in Rochester. While Vogel
emphasizes the word spirit, I
would emphasize the phrase of the Almighty, which indicates that this “spirit” was a
heavenly messenger whether or not Harris had used or would have used the word angel to describe Moroni at this time.
In relation to the “spirit” vs. “angel”
issue, Vogel challenges the work done by me and by Morris as flawed from the
By assuming that Joseph Smith and his non-Mormon critics shared the same
definition of “angel,” I believe Morris and Ashurst-McGee have been
led to ask the wrong questions, which in turn has led them to make the overly
simplistic conclusion that the “early witnesses described an angel who
appeared in a religious context” and “later witnesses ‘defrocked’
Moroni.” The question to answer is not: Did Joseph Smith transform a
treasure guardian into an angel? But rather: Did Joseph Smith expand his definition
of angel to include a particular treasure guardian?212
Morris and I have addressed the question as it had been
formulated historiographically, and I would maintain that the analysis that
followed is stable. Vogel’s framing of the issue is valid. I agree that it does
not really matter that Cole would not have categorized the returning prophet
Moroni (whether embodied or not) as an angel. And neither Morris nor I argued
that Joseph Smith’s religious terminology fell within the parameters of
traditional Christian orthodoxy. The Mormon definition of angel remains unorthodox today.
I submit that the central issues can best be clarified in
this way: The primary question is whether Joseph Smith originally viewed Moroni
as merely a profane treasure guardian, devoid of any angelic or otherwise
divine status, or if he saw him as both a treasure guardian and a divine
messenger. The secondary question is this: If Smith originally viewed Moroni as
both a treasure guardian and a divine messenger, which view was more meaningful
to him at that time? The tertiary issue is whether Smith would have used the
word angel to describe the heavenly
messenger as early as 1823.
As to the primary issue, while Vogel emphasizes Moroni as a
treasure guardian he nevertheless acknowledges that “Lucy and other
[Smith] family members make it clear that God was involved from the
start.”213 To my view, this is the most
important point of the entire dialogue.
On the secondary issue, Vogel and I disagree. Vogel’s
position, if I read him correctly, is this: While Smith’s fabricated Moroni
stories included a divine element from the very beginning, Moroni was primarily
conceived of as a ghost treasure guardian, and the divine messenger aspect of
his character was not preeminent until later. Though overstating his case,
Vogel has effectively compiled the evidence for Smith dropping treasure motifs
from his story and adding religious details 214—evidence that
I acknowledged only briefly in my original essay.215
But, by the basic counting rules of arithmetic, it does not necessarily follow
from the fact that Smith was dropping treasure-seeking elements or even adding
religious ones that in his original conception the treasure-seeking elements
outnumbered the religious—in other words, that Moroni was more of a
treasure guardian than a heavenly messenger.
In order to bolster his case, Vogel again turns to Palmyra
tabloid editor Abner Cole. Vogel maintains that “there is an element of
truth in Cole’s statement” and emphasizes that “Cole prefaced his
statement with ‘it is well known,’ so Morris’s fabrication-for-the-sake-of-revenge
thesis is highly unlikely.”216 Nonetheless, while Cole’s
indisputable antagonism toward Smith justifies questioning him on these
grounds, the main problem with Cole is his reliance on neighborhood rumors,
which cannot be disentangled from their June 1830 setting. Palmyra was the
scene of a minor religious uproar, which was based more on Smith’s new book of
scripture and also his new church than on his treasure-hunting past.217
I agree with Vogel that there is an element of truth in the
Cole statement but not because of what Cole himself wrote. What persuades me is
the letter written by Joseph Smith’s uncle Jesse Smith to Joseph’s brother
Hyrum Smith. As a source, the Jesse Smith letter is vastly superior to Cole.
Whereas the June 1830 issue of Cole’s tabloid may be reporting the most
sensational of Palmyra’s gossip, Jesse Smith’s letter of June 1829 is written
in response to, and apparently quotes from, an 1828 letter from a member of the
Smith family. In fact, Jesse seems to be quoting a letter from Joseph Smith.218
He writes that the Angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures
of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which has lain in the bowels
of the earth for thousands of years [and] is at last made known to him, he
says he has eyes to see things that are not and then has the audacity to say
they are; and the Angel of the Lord (Devil it should be) has put me in possession
of great wealth, gold and silver and precious stones so that I shall have
the dominion in all the land of Palmyra.219
Jesse’s letter reflects a Smith family understanding of
Moroni as both a treasure guardian and as an angel, but primarily as an angel.
This is by far the best window into Joseph’s early understanding of Moroni, and
to me the most accurate. I find it probable that his earliest understanding of
the Moroni experiences was influenced to some extent by his exposure to the
early American treasure-hunting subculture and even more likely by his
involvement in Bible reading, family worship, recent revivalism, and early
American Christian culture generally. I do not find either possibility
exclusive of the other.
As for the tertiary issue of the appropriateness of the word
angel, Vogel comments: “I think
it’s best to regard the word ‘angel’ (as we do the term ‘Urim and Thummim’) as
anachronistic to the 1823 setting.”220
This term Urim and Thummim has been
questioned for two reasons, which are related: Mormon usage of the term Urim
and Thummim has not been documented prior
to 1833.221 Conversely, it does not show up in
places where one might expect to find it. For example, Smith’s 1832 history
mentions only that “The Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the
Book.”222 By the same reasoning, should we
regard the word angel as anachronistic
to the 1823 setting? No. The word angel does appear in the earliest sources. Using the same standard, we have
more reason to regard the treasure-guardian motif as anachronistic.
“Given the obvious shift away from ‘folk [magic]
culture’ in Joseph Smith’s account,” Vogel concludes, “why is it so
hard for Morris and Ashurst-McGee to believe that the luminous ‘angel Moroni’
was once a nameless, bearded treasure-guardian ‘spirit’?”223 I
would like to begin answering Vogel by clearing away some of the less relevant
baggage loaded into this crucial question. Whether Smith knew Moroni by that
name in 1823 or if he remained “nameless” to Smith for some time is a
minor point. The problem of the name Moroni
is acknowledged at the beginning of my original essay.224
Whether Moroni was bearded—as described by Cole and by the
Lewises—is another red herring. I am unaware of any descriptions of
either biblical angels or Moroni as being clean-shaven, and I don’t know why
they should be. As for early descriptions of Moroni as a “spirit,” I
feel that whether or not Moroni seemed to Joseph to have had a tangible body is
less important than whether or not he was a messenger “of the
Almighty.” I view the question of whether Moroni was “luminous”
in the same light.225
Having cleared these issues out of the way, I am ready to
revisit Vogel’s question: Given the obvious shift away from treasure-seeking
elements in Joseph Smith’s account, why is it so hard for me to believe that
the angel Moroni was once a treasure-guardian? I cannot answer the question because
it is not difficult for me to conceive
that the young Joseph originally understood Moroni as a treasure guardian. At
the same time, one must acknowledge the obvious shift toward profane
treasure-guardian motifs in the accounts of Smith’s antagonists.226
Therefore it is not difficult for me to conceive that Joseph originally
understood Moroni as a divine messenger. An unbiased approach requires being
open to both possibilities, and this is precisely where my original essay
After carefully assessing the sources, I found that all the
eyewitness accounts of the Moroni visitations portray him as an angel. This is
not a matter of interpretation but an indisputable fact. Morris and I have also
demonstrated that, in the earliest sources, either Moroni is called an
“angel” or his status as a heavenly messenger is implied. Again, this
is not a matter of interpretation. It is a fact that Vogel must concede. In
proceeding to issues of corroboration and contextualization, we move into
interpretation. Here I am not at all implying that the debate is over or that
the contextual analysis conducted by Vogel (or by myself or Morris) is
irrelevant. But any analysis of this depth should begin with rigorous source
criticism. Exploring further into issues of corroboration and context led
Morris and me to acknowledge the relevance of the treasure-seeking context of
the Moroni visitations and the possibility that Joseph viewed Moroni as a
treasure guardian. However, our investigations did not negate the possibility
that he also understood Moroni as a divine messenger. Rather, they supported
the view that he understood Moroni as a divine messenger—and primarily
so—from the very beginning.
I presented an early version of this paper in 1999 at
Halstead, Pennsylvania, as part of the BYU Department of Church History and
Doctrine Summer 1999 New York Faculty Symposium. The paper was later published
as “Moroni: Angel or Treasure Guardian?” in Mormon Historical
Studies 2/2 (2001): 39-75. Its
findings on the topic were almost diametrically opposed to those published two
years later in an essay by Ronald V. Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s
Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue 3/4 (2003): 17-42, which was reviewed in a
recent issue of the FARMS Review
by Larry E. Morris, “‘I Should Have an Eye Single to the Glory of God':
Joseph Smith’s Account of the Angel and the Plates,” FARMS
Review 17/1 (2005): 11-81. My
original article appears here, courtesy of Mormon Historical Studies, with a few minor revisions. A postscript responding
to recent work by Huggins and Morris is appended.
1. W. J. Robinson, “Replace Moroni?” Salt
Lake Tribune, 12 May 1985, A18.
Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery
Murders, with a new afterword, 2nd ed.
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989); Richard E. Turley Jr., Victims:
The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).
3. Robert D.
Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Psychobiography and the Book of
Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,
4. Ronald W.
Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer,” BYU Studies 24/4 (1984): 463.
“Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer,” 470-71.
Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer,” 463-64, emphasis
William Mulder, preface to Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence
and a New History, ed. John Phillip Walker (Salt Lake City: Signature
Books, 1986), 1-21; Richard Saunders, “‘The Strange Mixture of
Emotion and Intellect': A Social History of Dale L. Morgan, 1933-42,”
Dialogue 28/4 (1995): 39-58.
8. D. Michael
Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998); Quinn, “On
Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath),” in Faithful
History: Essays on Writing Mormon History,
ed. George D. Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 69-111.
9. H. Michael
Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the
Historical Record (San Francisco: Smith
Research Associates, 1994), 63-115. For examples of Marquardt’s previous
publications, see The Use of the Bible in the Book of Mormon and
Early Nineteenth Century Events Reflected in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1979);
and The Book of Abraham Revisited
(Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1983). For examples of Walter’s
previous publications, see “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra
Revival,” Dialogue 4/1
(1969): 60-81; “From Occult to Cult with Joseph Smith, Jr.” Journal
of Pastoral Practice 1/2 (1977):
121-37; “Mormon Origins: A Tale of Spirits and Salamanders,” Presbyterian
Journal 44/7 (1985): 7-10; The
Human Origins of the Book of Mormon
(Clearwater, FL: Ex-Mormons for Jesus Ministries, 1979).
10. Walker, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism, 266-75; Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View, 136-77,
especially 138-40; Marquardt and Walters, Inventing Mormonism, 89-115, especially 105. See also Rodger I.
Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 46-47;
William D. Morain, The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith, Jr. and the
Dissociated Mind (Washington, DC: American
Psychiatric Press, 1998), 58-64; R. D. Anderson, Inside
the Mind of Joseph Smith, 40, 72-73.
11. Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, 167.
12. And see the recent work
of Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 45.
13. As some accounts
identify the messenger as Nephi, some may wish to quibble over the angel/guardian’s
proper name. On the name of Joseph’s visitor, see Dean C. Jessee, ed., The
Papers of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City:
Deseret Book, 1989), 1:277 n. 1. In this essay, I use “Moroni” to
refer to Joseph Smith’s visitor to abstain from calling him either an angel or
a treasure guardian.
14. Most historians of
Mormonism, whether believing Latter-day Saints or otherwise, agree that Smith
was sincere. That is, they agree that whether or not a preternatural being
actually appeared to him, Smith believed that this did occur. Even Mark Thomas,
who asserts that Smith dishonestly reworked the Moroni story over time, argues
that Smith did in fact experience some kind of sensory perception in which he
thought he saw “a spirit or angel.” For Thomas, however, this was quite
possibly a case of abnormal psychology, not necessarily actual revelation.
Thomas, “Was Joseph Smith for Real? How He Lied, Perhaps Even to
Himself,” Free Inquiry 20/1 (1999):
37-39; Thomas, “Form Criticism of Joseph Smith’s 1823 Vision of the
Angel Moroni,” Dialogue 35/3
15. On the treasure-seeking
tradition, see William R. Jones, “‘Hill-Diggers’ and ‘Hell-Raisers':
Treasure Hunting and the Supernatural in Old and New England,” in Wonders
of the Invisible World: 1600-1900, ed.
Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Press, 1995), 97-106; Wayland D.
Hand, “The Quest for Buried Treasure: A Chapter in American Folk
Legendry,” in Folklore on Two Continents: Essays in Honor of
Linda Dégh, ed. Nikolai Burlakoff and Carl
Lindahl (Bloomington, IN: Trickster, 1980), 112-19; Alan Taylor,
“The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the
American Northeast, 1780-1830,” American Quarterly 38/1 (1986): 6-34; Ronald W. Walker, “The
Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” BYU Studies 24/4 (1984): 429-59; Gerard T. Hurley,
“Buried Treasure Tales in America,” Western Folklore 10/3 (1951): 197-216. See also Byrd H. Granger,
A Motif Index for Lost Mines and Treasures Applied to Redaction of
Arizona Legends, and to Lost Mine and Treasure Legends Exterior to Arizona (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1977).
16. Cf. History of the
Church, 1:17; and History of the Church,
Book A-1 Collection, Family and Church History Department Archives, The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter Church Archives), 8; quoted in
Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:282.
17. Lucy Smith, Biographical
Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations
(Liverpool: Richards, 1853), 91-92.
18. “That of which I
spoke, which Joseph termed a key, was indeed, nothing more nor less than the
Urim and Thummim.” Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, 106. See also 101, 104, 126, 135, where Lucy used the
term Urim and Thummim to refer to
the seer stones.
19. Wilford Woodruff’s
Journal: 1833-1898 Typescript, ed.
Scott G. Kenney (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983), 2:144.
20. “History of Brigham Young,” Millennial
Star 26 (1864): 118-19. See also
Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of
Seeing,'” Dialogue 15/2
(1982): 49-68; Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View,
57, 174-75, 243-45, 250.
21. Van Wagoner and Walker,
“Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing,'” 49-68; Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, 174-75.
22. People of State of
New York v. Joseph Smith, 20 March
1826, Bainbridge, New York, in “A Document Discovered,” Salt
Lake City Utah Christian Advocate, January
II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859,
24. For a variety of
perspectives on the Smith family’s involvement with treasure seeking, see
Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984, 1988),
64-76; Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Palmyra Seer,” 461-72;
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure
Searching,” BYU Studies 24/4
(1984): 489-560; Richard L. Bushman, “Treasure-Seeking Then and
Now,” Sunstone, September
1987, 5-6; Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View; Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s
Family Background,” in The Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life
and Mission of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry C.
Porter and Susan Easton Black (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 1-18;
R. I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined; Dan Vogel, “The Locations of Joseph Smith’s
Early Treasure Quests,” Dialogue 27/3 (1994): 197-231; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph
Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York City:
Knopf, 2005), 41-52.
25. See Bushman, Joseph
Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism,
83-84; and Andrew H. Hedges, “‘All My Endeavors to Preserve
Them': Protecting the Plates in Palmyra, 22 September-December
1827,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 14-23.
26. Richard L. Bushman,
“Just the Facts Please,” review of Inventing Mormonism: Tradition
and the Historical Record, by Marquardt and
Walters, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/2 (1994): 132.
27. Taylor, “Early
Republic’s Supernatural Economy,” 25-27.
28. Charles R. Beard, The
Romance of Treasure Trove (London: Sampson
Low, Marston, 1933), 15.
29. Hurley, “Buried
Treasure Tales in America,” 200-201.
30. B. A. Botkin, ed., A
Treasury of New England Folklore: Stories, Ballads, and Traditions of the
Yankee People (New York: Crown, 1947),
533-34; Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own
Land (1896; repr., Detroit: Singing Tree,
1969), 2:268-69; Sara Puryear Rodes, “Washington Irving’s Use of
Traditional Folklore,” New York Folklore Quarterly 13/1 (1957): 5; Henry Buxton, Assignment
Down East (Brattleboro, VT: Daye, 1938),
169-70; and Harold W. Thompson, Body, Boots and Britches (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1940), 22. This practice
served a double function: Killing the spade man meant that there was now one
less person who knew where the booty lay buried.
31. For headless guardians
in general, see Granger, Motif Index for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124.
32. Ernest W. Baughman, Type
and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America (The Hague: Mouton, 1966), N571; Granger, Motif
Index for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 3.4.
33. Eduard Hoffmann-Krayer,
ed., Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (Berlin: de Gruyter,
1936), s.v. “Schatz,” 7:1004. I thank H. Brandon Spencer for
help with this and other German sources.
34. Hurley, “Buried
Treasure Tales in America,” 203.
Discovery,” Palmyra (NY) Wayne Sentinel, 27 December 1825, 2.
36. Hurley, “Buried
Treasure Tales in America,” 201-2; Granger, Motif Index for Lost
Mines and Treasures, motif g:
“Guardians of Mine or Treasure”; Baughman, Type and
Motif-Index, N571.2; Wayland Hand
Collection of Superstition and Popular Belief, Fife Folklore Archives, Special
Collections and Archives, Milton R. Merrill Library, Utah State University,
Logan, Utah, s.v. “treasure.”
37. Granger, Motif Index
for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 2.2.
38. Handwörterbuch des
deutschen Aberglaubens, s.v. “Kröte”
and “Schatz”; “Exempla of Odo of Cheriton,” c.
1250-1300, no. 122; cited in J. A. Herbert, Catalogue of
Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: Printed by order of the Trustees, 1910),
39. Julia Hull Winner,
“The Money Diggers of Niagara County,” New York Folklore Quarterly
16/3 (1960): 224.
40. Granger, Motif Index
for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 2.5;
Jonathan D. Evans, “The Dragon,” in Mythical and Fabulous
Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide, ed.
Malcolm South (New York: Greenwood, 1987), 27-58; see especially 29 and
xxxii, s.v. “dragon.”
41. J. R. R. Tolkien, The
Hobbit, or There and Back Again, rev. ed.
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 215-25.
42. Handwörterbuch des
deutschen Aberglaubens, s.v.
“Schatz,” 7:1005; Carol Rose, Spirits, Fairies, Gnomes, and
Goblins: An Encyclopedia of the Little People (Santa
Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1996), s.v. “dwarf”; Granger, Motif
Index for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 3.6,
3.7; Geo[rge] H. Harris, “Myths of Onanda, or Treasure Hunters of the
Genesee,” “the first manuscript,” 1886, Local History Division,
Rochester Public Library, Rochester, New York, 6-7.
Snow-White,” in The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (New York: Random House, 1944), 249-58.
44. Beard, Romance of
Treasure Trove, 67; Rose, Spirits,
Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins, s.v.
45. Harris, “Myths of
Onanda, or Treasure Hunters of the Genesee.” Harris uses the term pygmie. Pygmie and
gnome are the two proper names
for earth elementals.
46. Lewis Spence, The Fairy Tradition in
Britain (New York: Rider, 1948), 25;
Thompson, Body, Boots and Britches, 22;
also HandwË˜rterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, s.v. “Schatz,” 7:1010.
47. Janis L. Pallister,
“Giants,” in Mythical and Fabulous Creatures, 320-21.
II,” 165. See also Frederic G. Mather, “The Early Days of
Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine, August
49. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index
of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales,
Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books and
Local Legends, rev. and enl. (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1957), N583; see also N536. See also Granger, Motif
Index for Lost Mines and Treasures, g 5.2.
50. Rose, Spirits,
Fairies, Gnomes, and Goblins, 356.
51. W. H. McIntosh, History
of Wayne County, New York; with Illustrations Descriptive of Its Scenery,
Palatial Residences, Public Buildings, Fine Blocks, and Important
Manufactories, from Original Sketches by Artists of the Highest Ability, 1789-1877 (Philadelphia: Everts, Ensign & Everts, 1877),
52. Wilford Woodruff’s
53. Brigham Young, in Journal
of Discourses, 19:36-37.
54. P. Wilhelm Poulson,
Ogden, to the editors, Deseret News,
Salt Lake City, 13 August 1878; in Deseret Evening News, 16 August 1878. Poulson had interviewed Whitmer
at Whitmer’s home in Richmond, Missouri
, in Dan
Vogel, comp. and ed., Early Mormon Documents
Lake City: Signature Books, 2003
55. Obediah Dogberry
[pseudonym for Abner Cole], “The Book of Pukei,” Palmyra
Reflector, 12 June 1830, 37, emphasis
56. Obediah Dogberry [Cole],
“Gold Bible, No. 4,” Palmyra Reflector, 14 February 1831, 101, emphasis in original.
57. Dogberry [Cole],
“Gold Bible, No. 5,” Palmyra Reflector, 28 February 1831, 109, emphasis in original.
58. For Morgan’s acceptance
of Cole, see Walker, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism, 266. On Quinn’s basic acceptance of Cole, see Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, 140.
59. Statements of Joseph and
Hiel Lewis, in “Mormon History,” Amboy Journal (Amboy, Illinois), 30 April 1879, 1, emphasis
removed, in Early Mormon Documents, 4:305.
60. Orlando Saunders,
interviewed by William H. and Edmund L. Kelley, Palmyra, New York, 6 March
1881; quoted in W[illia]m H. Kelley, “The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of
Mormon,” Saints’ Herald 28
(1 June 1881): 165.
61. See “The Testimony
of Three Witnesses,” appended to The Book of Mormon: An Account Written
by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi (Palmyra, NY: Grandin, 1830). For other firsthand
accounts of the angel by Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, see Vogel, Early
Mormon Documents, 2:336, 499. For other
firsthand accounts of the angel by David Whitmer, see A Witness to the Divine
Authenticity of the Book of Mormon [David Whitmer], An Address to All
Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: Whitmer,
1887), 7, 12, 13, 29, 32, 43-44; Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David
Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness,
ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 245-47. Numerous
secondhand accounts of their eyewitness experiences with the angel can be given
for each of these three men (for Harris and Cowdery, see Early Mormon
Documents, 2: Part III, F-G; for
Whitmer, see Cook, David Whitmer Interviews).
62. Statements of Joseph and
Hiel Lewis, “Mormon History,” 1.
63. It is unclear whether
this messenger was Moroni, Nephi, or one of the three Nephites. Cook, David
Whitmer Interviews, 13, 28, 33, 50, 182,
214, 216, 217, 218; Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of
Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 1981), 30-32.
64. Fayette Lapham,
“The Mormons,” Historical Magazine 7, 2nd series (May 1870): 305-9; Willard Chase statement,
Manchester, New York, 1833; quoted in E[ber] D. Howe, Mormonism
Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from
Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville,
OH: By the author, 1834), 240-48.
65. Oliver Cowdery,
“Letter VIII,” Messenger and Advocate 2/1 (October 1835): 199.
Testimony,” Deseret Evening News, 20 January
67. Orson Pratt, An
Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of
Ancient American Records (Edinburgh:
Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840; repr., Liverpool: James, 1848), 13.
68. Manuscript History of
the Church, Book A-1, p. 8; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:284.
69. Dogberry [Cole],
“Gold Bible,” Palmyra Reflector, 6 January
70. Dogberry [Cole],
“Gold Bible, No. 4,” 101, emphasis in original.
71. Abigail Harris
statement, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 253;
Henry Harris statement, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252.
72. Joseph Smith, Letterbook
1, Joseph Smith Collection, Church Archives, 4; quoted in Jessee, Papers of
Joseph Smith, 1:8.
73. This document had been
composed by 9 June 1830 when it was read in the first conference of the
Church, held in Fayette, New York. The Articles and Covenants were first
printed in “The Mormon Creed,” Painesville Telegraph, 19 April 1831, 4; cf. A Book of
Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized According to
Law, on the 6th of April, 1830, 24:7.
74. [no author], [no title],
Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio PhÃ?nix, 2 June 1830, 1, reprinted from Wayne
County Inquirer (PA), in Early
Mormon Documents, 3:274.
Bible,” Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, 31 August 1829, 2. This is a reprint from the Palmyra
Freeman, circa 1829. A week later the Rochester Gem identified the source of the Palmyra
Freeman article as Martin Harris and added
further detail concerning “the same spirit.” Quinn takes this to mean
a spirit guardian of treasure, but the same spirit is the previously mentioned “spirit of
the Almighty“—a messenger from
God, not a treasure guardian. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic
World View, 114-19.
76. Lorenzo Saunders, who
lived just over the hill from the Smith family farm, stated that on one
occasion “the angel touched him [Smith] on the
shoulders”—imputing tangible corporeality to Moroni (Saunders,
interviewed by William H. Kelley, 17 September 1884, E. L. Kelley
Papers, Community of Christ [RLDS Church] Library-Archives, Independence,
Missouri, 9, in Early Mormon Documents, 2:131).
Accounts given by Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Mary
Musselman Whitmer, which speak of Moroni holding the golden plates and turning
them leaf by leaf, also imply his tangible corporeality. On Martin Harris and
Oliver Cowdery, see Early Mormon Documents, 2:325, 355, 358, 364, 367, 375, 377-78, 380,
391, 510. On David and Mary Whitmer, see Cook, David Whitmer
Interviews, 10, 11, 13, 20-21, 218;
and Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 30-32.
77. “The Book of
Mormon,” Palmyra (NY) Wayne Sentinel,
26 March 1830, 3.
78. The Book of Mormon:
An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, upon Plates Taken from the Plates of
Nephi, appended; cf. The
Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon,
ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001), 977.
79. “The Book of Mormon,” Wayne
Sentinel, 26 June 1829, 3.
80. Jesse Smith, Stockholm,
New York, to Hyrum Smith, Palmyra, New York, 17 June 1829; transcribed in
Joseph Smith Letterbook, 1837-43, Joseph Smith Papers, Church Archives,
81. See the editorial note
to this document in Early Mormon Documents, 1:551.
82. Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, 139.
83. My analysis of early
sources was surpassed by Larry Morris in a recent issue of the FARMS Review; see
Morris, “Joseph Smith’s Account,” 11-81.
84. For example, Quinn
writes that the “earliest Mormon accounts stated that Smith’s 1823
epiphany was the nocturnal visit of a spirit” (Early Mormonism and the
Magic World View, 138). As evidence for
this assertion, Quinn cites Abigail Harris, the Palmyra Freeman, the Rochester Gem, Joseph and Hiel Lewis, and Fayette Lapham (Quinn, Early
Mormonism and the Magic World View, 138,
see also 140). Taken as a whole, though, these sources are neither early nor
Mormon. The Lapham and Lewis accounts are anything but early; they gave their
accounts decades after the fact. Abigail Harris made her statement in 1833. She
identified Moroni as neither an angel nor a treasure guardian but as “the
spirit of one of the Saints that was on this continent” (Harris statement,
in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed,
253). Henry Harris, possibly a relative of Martin Harris, made a statement at
the same time that Abigail Harris did. He identified Moroni as an
“angel” (Henry Harris statement, in Howe, Mormonism
Unvailed, 252). The newspaper articles
Quinn cites are indeed early, but the Jesse Smith letter and the testimony of
the Three Witnesses—which predate these articles—call Moroni an
angel. Quinn calls the sources he marshals “Mormon,” although none is
directly so. It could be argued that these sources are indirectly
Mormon—that they came from people who spoke with Mormons or recorded
their words—but every
source that claims to say something historical about Moroni must trace itself
back to the Mormons who claimed to have seen him. The truly “Mormon”
accounts—those produced by early Latter-day Saints—say nothing of
spirits or treasure guardians.
In Inventing Mormonism, Marquardt and Walters write, “The earliest versions [of the
Moroni story] linked . . . obtaining the plates with magical rituals
traditionally associated with winning treasure from its guardian spirits”
(p. 89). They cite Willard Chase, Joseph Knight, Fayette Lapham, Joseph
and Hiel Lewis, and Lucy Mack Smith. Willard Chase and Joseph Knight did not
give their accounts before 1833. Lapham and the Lewises did not give their
accounts until decades later. Lucy Mack Smith called the plates a
“treasure” but called Moroni “the angel.” She gave her
narrative in 1845. None of these sources is particularly early. The earliest
versions of the Moroni story linked obtaining the plates with the required
obedience traditionally associated with commandments given by God and his
In defense of the treasure-guardian thesis, Dale
Morgan cited Abner Cole’s account of 1831, Fayette Lapham’s account of 1870,
the Joseph and Hiel Lewis account of 1879, and the Abigail Harris account of
1833. Morgan seems to have taken Cole’s dwarf and Lapham’s giant as early
versions of the treasure guardian. Then, Joseph opted for something less
strange—a human guardian—the Spaniard with a gashed throat as
described by the Lewises. Next, Joseph decided this guardian ghost was actually
an ancient American Christian, as described by Abigail Harris. Finally,
“not long after, so far from being a mere spirit, he was recognized to be
an actual angel of the Lord” (Walker, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism, 266). Cole claimed that the Smiths were talking about
a dwarf just after finding or getting the plates. Abigail Harris spoke with
Father and Mother Smith between December 1827 and February 1828. See Early
Mormon Documents, 2:31 n. 2. The
Lewises claimed that Joseph Smith Jr. told them about the bleeding human ghost
in April 1828. Fayette Lapham spoke with Joseph Smith Sr. in 1830. As Harris
gained her information before Lapham and the Lewises, the evolution that Morgan
seems to sketch is highly unlikely.
More recently, Robert D. Anderson has rejected the
angel described in the 1834-35 church history in favor of the treasure
guardian described in “earlier versions.” R. D. Anderson, Inside
the Mind of Joseph Smith, 72. He cites
Abner Cole, Abigail Harris, Fayette Lapham, and Joseph and Hiel Lewis. As
noted, however, the Lapham and Lewis accounts are not earlier versions. The
thirdhand account given by Harris and the neighborhood rumor reported by Cole
predate the 1834-35 church history by one year and four years
respectively. However, as shown above, Joseph’s 1832 history and all of the
accounts that predate Cole’s first treasure-guardian story identify Moroni as
85. Statements of Joseph and
Hiel Lewis, in “Mormon History,” 1.
86. J[ohn] A. C[lark],
“Gleanings by the Way, No. VI,” Fairfield, 24 August, 1840, Philadelphia
Episcopal Recorder, 5 September 1840,
94. Harris himself recalled that in early October 1827, Palmyra village was
buzzing with talk about Joseph’s discovery of the record. One man exclaimed,
“Damn him! angels appear to
men in this enlightened age! Damn him, he ought to be tarred and feathered for
telling such a damned lie!” “Mormonism—No. II,” 168,
87. Willard Chase statement,
in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 242.
88. Joseph Knight Jr.,
Autobiographical Sketch, n.d., Church Archives. Knight states that Joseph Smith
at this time was “about 21 years of age. I think it was in November he
made known to my father and I.” This suggests November of 1827, but Joseph
worked for the Knight family in the fall and winter of 1826.
89. Dogberry [Cole],
“Gold Bible, No. 4,” 101, emphasis in original.
90. Smith, Biographical
Sketches of Joseph Smith, 82. On William
Smith, see Early Mormon Documents,
1:496, cf. 504.
91. History of the Church,
Book A-1, Church Archives, p. 7; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:281.
92. History of the Church,
Book A-1, Church Archives, p. 5; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:276.
93. See, for example, Quinn,
Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 139;
Marquardt and Walters, Inventing Mormonism, 101; Vogel, Joseph Smith, 43-44.
94. Clark, “Gleanings
by the Way, No. VI,” 94, emphasis added.
95. Lucy Smith,
“Preliminary Manuscript,” Church Archives, 40, in Early Mormon
96. Regarding the date of
Clark’s conversation with Harris, see Early Mormon Documents, 2:260-61, 261 n. 4. However, Clark’s
letters were stimulated by a recent visit to the Palmyra area and his
conversations about Mormonism with people in the area. His memory may have been
infected by these conversations. Of course, Lucy’s memory may also have been
contaminated by later conversations.
97. Early Mormon
98. History of the Church,
Book A-1, Church Archives, 6-7; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph
99. History of the Church,
Book A-1, Church Archives, 7; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:280-81.
100. Joseph Smith, Letterbook 1,
Joseph Smith Papers, Church Archives, 5; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph
101. Cowdery, “Letter
VIII,” 197, emphasis added.
102. “The Golden
Tablets,” Chicago Times, 7 August
1875, 1, emphasis added, in Early Mormon Documents, 5:17.
103. Truman Coe, [Kirtland,
Ohio?], to “Mr. Editor” [of the Ohio Observer], [Hudson, Ohio], n.d.; in “Mormonism,” Ohio
Observer, 11 August 1836, 1, 6;
reprinted with editorial comment in Milton V. Backman Jr., “Truman Coe’s
1836 Description of Mormonism,” BYU Studies 17/3 (1977): 350-51, emphasis added.
104. Smith, Biographical
Sketches of Joseph Smith, 85. She conflates
this visit to Cumorah with Joseph’s second trip to the hill in 1824 and
identifies the other contents of the stone box as the treasure Joseph sought,
“which would be of some pecuniary advantage to him.”
105. Cowdery, “Letter
VIII,” 198, emphasis in original.
106. Other early Mormons who used
treasure-tale motifs to tell the story of the coming forth of the Book of
Mormon were Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, and Brigham Young.
See Marvin S. Hill, “Money-Digging Folklore and the Beginnings of
Mormonism: An Interpretive Suggestion,” BYU Studies 24/4 (1984): 473-88.
107. Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View, 147-48.
108. Smith, Biographical
Sketches of Joseph Smith, 107, 81.
109. See Vogel’s editorial
comments in Early Mormon Documents, 2:416-17.
110. Eugene England, “On
Finding Truth and God: From Hope to Knowledge to Skepticism to Faith,” in A
Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, comp. and ed. Philip L. Barlow (Centerville, UT:
Canon, 1986), 80.
111. Quinn points to a number of
other treasure-seeking parallels in “Visions and the Coming Forth of the Book
of Mormon,” in Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic
World View, 136-77. I have addressed
what I consider to be the most historically robust evidence for a
112. Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View, 136-77.
113. Stephen D. Ricks and Daniel
C. Peterson carefully review historical and anthropological definitions of
magic in “Joseph Smith and ‘Magic': Methodological Reflections on the Use
of a Term,” in “To Be Learned Is Good If . . . ,” ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City:
Bookcraft, 1987), 129-47. See also Douglas J. Davies, “Magic
and Mormon Religion,” in Mormon Identities in Transition, ed. Douglas J. Davies (London: Cassell, 1996),
114. On Mormonism in a millenarian
context, see Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). On
biblicism, see Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The
Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). On evangelicalism, see
Gordon S. Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New
York History 61/4 (1980): 359-86. On
seekerism, see Dan Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of
Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,
1988). On primitivism, see Marvin S. Hill, “The Shaping of the Mormon
Mind in New England and New York,” BYU Studies 9/3 (1969): 351-72. On restorationism, see
Mario S. De Pillis, “The Quest for Religious Authority and the
Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue 1/1
(1966): 68-88. On dispensationalism, see John L. Brooke, The
Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
115. Statements of Joseph and Hiel
Lewis, in “Mormon History,” 1.
116. History of the Church, Book
A-1, Church Archives, 8; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:282; Vogel, “The Locations of Joseph Smith’s
Early Treasure Quests,” 213-19.
117. History of the Church, Book
A-1, Church Archives, 8; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:282-83; Cowdery, “Letter VIII,”
118. Mather, “Early Days of
Mormonism,” 200. Mather had conducted his interviews in July 1880.
119. Lapham, “II.—The
Mormons,” 306. Giants are often from older or less-civilized societies
(Pallister, “Giants,” 293-324).
120. Cowdery, “Letter
IV,” to W. W. Phelps, Messenger and Advocate (February 1835): 79.
121. David Whitmer, interview with
Edward Stevenson, 22-23 December 1877, Richmond, Missouri, in
Stevenson Diary, Church Archives; quoted in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 13.
122. History of the Church, Book
A-1, Church Archives, 121; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:127. This account was given when Robert Matthews
(under the alias Joshua the Jewish minister) visited Joseph Smith in 1835.
Joseph’s 1832 history recorded that the angel “came and stood before
me” (Joseph Smith, Letterbook 1, Joseph Smith Papers, Church Archives, 4;
quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:8). His 1839 history records that Moroni appeared “at my bedside
standing in the air for his feet did not touch the floor” (History of the
Church, Book A-1, Church Archives, 5; quoted in Jessee, Papers of
Joseph Smith, 1:276). In 1848, early Mormon
William I. Appleby recorded an 1839 discourse by Orson Pratt wherein Pratt
reported that Joseph “saw a personage about the ordinary size of man in
the middle of the room before him.” William I. Appleby, “Biography
and Journal of William I. Appleby, Elder in the Church of Latter Day
Saints,” Church Archives, 31.
123. Dale L. Berge,
“Archaeological Work at the Smith Log House,” Ensign, August 1985, 24-26; see also Berge, Archaeology
at the Boyhood Home of Joseph Smith, Jr., Palmyra, New York (Provo, UT: BYU Museum of Peoples and Cultures,
124. Joseph remembered Moroni
wearing “a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness” (History of the
Church, Book A-1, Church Archives, 5; quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith,
1:276). However, I suppose it is possible
that Moroni was dressed in an ancient suit of clothes because I keep hearing
stories of Nephite soldiers guarding temples, the MTC, and sister missionaries
(modern Mormons participate in folklore too).
125. Willard Chase statement, in
Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 242.
126. Benjamin Saunders,
interviewed by William H. Kelley, ca. September 1884, in
“Miscellany,” Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence,
Missouri, 23; quoted in Early Mormon Documents, 2:137.
127. “Mormon Leaders at Their
Mecca,” New York Herald, 25 June
1893, 12. Quinn draws on this account to reassert the salamander thesis in
Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 153.
128. Dogberry [Cole], “Gold
Bible, No. 3,” Palmyra Reflector, 1 February
1831, 92, emphasis in original.
129. Thompson, Motif-Index of
G303.3.1.5, and G303.3.2.3; Baughman, Type and Motif-Index, G303.3.2.3.
130. Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View, 152.
132. Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith,
17 June 1829.
133. Compare the accounts as given
in Early Mormon Documents, 1:205-6.
134. James A. Briggs, Brooklyn,
New York, to John Codman, March 1875; as reproduced in Codman,
“Mormonism,” International Review 11 (September 1881): 222.
135. Early Mormon Documents, 2:13, 13 n. 2.
136. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 276.
137. Eber D. Howe, Autobiography
and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer: Together with Sketches of the War of
1812 on the Niagara Frontier (Painesville,
OH: Telegraph Steam Printing House, 1878), 44.
“Changing Dramatis Personae,”
139. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
140. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
141. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
142. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
143. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
144. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
145. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
146. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
147. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
148. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
Personae,” 42; “A Document
149. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
150. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
151. “A Document Discovered,”
1; Joshua Stafford and Joseph Capron statements in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 258-60.
152. John Ahmanson, Secret History: A
Translation of Vor Tids Muhamed, trans. Gleason L. Archer (Chicago: Moody, 1984
), 90; quoted in Huggins, “Changing Dramatis Personae,” 39.
153. Early Mormon Documents, 3:131; quoted in Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
Personae,” 40 n. 106.
154. Peter Ingersoll statement, Palmyra,
New York, 2 December 1833, quoted in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 232-36.
155. “Joseph Smith and Mormonism
Which Started 100 Years Ago,” Marion Enterprise (Newark, New York), 28 September 1923, 1; as
transcribed in Early Mormon Documents, 3:129-31.
156. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
157. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
158. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
159. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
160. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
Account,” 20, 33; see also appendix C, 60-77.
161. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
Account,” 31, also 33.
162. Huggins, “Changing Dramatis
Personae,” 21-26; Morris,
“Joseph Smith’s Account,” 21, 33.
163. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
Account,”15-17, 41, 43.
164. Walker, “Joseph Smith:
The Palmyra Seer,” 463.
165. Larry Morris, “Folklore
Rebutted,” letter to the editor, Dialogue 38/3 (2005): vi-x.
166. Dan Vogel, “Treasure
Lore Revisited,” letter to the editor, Dialogue 39/2 (2006): vii.
167. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
168. Willard Chase statement, in
Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 242.
169. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
170. Richard Lloyd Anderson
pointed to parallel phraseology in the statements collected by Hurlbut as one
of several evidences of Hurlbut’s ghostwriting (R. L. Anderson,
“Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” BYU Studies 10/3 : 286-90). Rodger I. Anderson
responded to Richard Anderson’s charges of ghostwriting with the hypothesis
that similarities in the statements “may only mean that Hurlbut submitted
the same questions to some of the parties involved”
(R. I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation
Reexamined, 28-29). Richard Lloyd
Anderson, in a rejoinder to Rodger I. Anderson, made the point that even
this hypothesis leaves Hurlbut guilty of prompting the witness (Richard Lloyd
Anderson, review of Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, by Rodger I. Anderson, Review of Books on
the Book of Mormon 3 : 59-62).
The statements of Roswell Nichols and William Stafford furnish an example of
this problem. According to Nichols, “he [Joseph Smith Sr.] had often said,
that the hills in our neighborhood were nearly all erected by human
hands.” William Stafford, interviewed a week later, was reported to have
stated, “They [Joseph Smith Sr. and his family] would say, also, that nearly
all the hills in this part of New York, were thrown up by human hands”
(Roswell Nichols statement, Manchester, New York, 1 December 1833, as
transcribed in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 257-58; William Stafford statement, Manchester, New York,
8 December 1833, as transcribed in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 237). According to Rodger I. Anderson’s hypothesis,
Hurlbut’s question to William Stafford would be reconstructed as something like
“Did Joseph Smith Sr. say that nearly all the hills in this part of New York
were thrown up by human hands?”
171. Vogel finds that these
statements “shed no light on Mormon origins.” Early Mormon
172. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
173. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
174. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
175. For chronological error,
Vogel, Joseph Smith, 598 n. 46;
questionable supposition, 66; concealing relevant detail, 39; making an
unconvincing claim, 39; likelihood of intentionally giving a false impression,
176. In my master’s thesis, I used
the Chase account extensively but with a more critical view (Mark
Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith as Rodsman, Village
Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet” [master’s thesis, Utah State
University, 2000], especially 248-61). I will take this opportunity to
respond to Vogel’s assessment of my thesis in his recent biography of Joseph
Smith’s early life. I argued that Smith had used his first seer stone to find
an even better seer stone, then obtained the ultimate divinatory device (the
Urim and Thummim spectacles), and ultimately moved on to unmediated revelation.
Vogel classes my thesis with other works that “not only imply that Smith
saw objectively real treasures in his stone but embrace as fact a magical world
view, including the bleeding ghosts and enchanted treasures that moved through
the earth” (Vogel, Joseph Smith,
xvi). I find this generalization unfair given the statement of historical
methodology in the thesis introduction, which explicitly counters this
criticism (Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 29-40).
Vogel writes that my thesis “fails to explain how one stone might be
better than another or what quality a superior stone might have” (Vogel, Joseph
Smith, 570 n. 43). However, chapter 4
of the thesis describes seer-stone qualities in detail (Ashurst-McGee,
“Pathway to Prophethood,” especially 157-82). Vogel also writes
that my thesis “ignores the fact that Smith quickly abandoned the urim and
thummim and returned to using his seer stone and that the entire Book of Mormon
was dictated using the latter rather than the former” (Vogel, Joseph
Smith, 570 n. 43). However, chapter 5
of the thesis explicitly acknowledges these facts and incorporates them into the
larger argument (Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” especially
320-30). Finally, Vogel maintains that my thesis fails to explain how
seer-stone revelations could lead Smith to receiving unmediated revelations
(Vogel, Joseph Smith, 570
n. 43). But chapters 4 and 5 of my thesis sketch how this development may
have occurred (Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” especially
177. Benjamin Saunders,
interviewed by William H. Kelley, ca. September 1884, in
“Miscellany,” Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence,
Missouri, 23; quoted in Early Mormon Documents, 2:137.
178. Richard Lloyd Anderson,
“The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, August 1987, 62-63, 71 n. 19.
179. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
180. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 49.
181. Early Mormon Documents, 2:138 n. 10.
182. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 447.
183. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 47.
184. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 586 n. 74, emphasis added.
185. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
186. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 45.
187. See Acts 10:10-17; Walker,
“Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,” 455 n. 60.
188. Vogel, “Treasure Lore Revisited,”
189. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 47; see also 49.
190. Morris, “Joseph Smith’s
191. See Genesis 16:9-11;
22:11-12; Numbers 22:34-35; Judges 6:11-20; 13:3-4;
2 Kings 1:3; 1 Chronicles 21:18; Matthew 1:20-21; 2:13,
19-20; 28:5-7; Luke 1:26-31; Acts 5:19-20; 8:26;
10:3-6; 12:7-8; and the book of Revelation, in which an angel gives
John precise instructions on what to write to the churches in Asia. Thanks to
John Tvedtnes for these references.
192. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
193. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 50.
194. Hurley, “Buried Treasure
Tales in America,” 201, 202.
195. Wayland D. Hand, “The
Quest for Buried Treasure: A Chapter in American Folk Legendry,” in Folklore
on Two Continents: Essays in Honor of Linda Dâ‰¥gh, ed. Nikolai Burlakoff and Carl Lindahl (Bloomington, IN: Trickster,
1980), 112-19; Hurley, “Buried Treasure Tales in America,”
200-202; also Walker, “Persisting Idea of American Treasure
Hunting,” 443-44. See also Baughman and Granger motif indexes
(Baughman, Type and Motif-Index,
N500-599; Granger, Motif Index for Lost Mines and Treasures, motif class g; which are devoid of trickster
196. Dean C. Jessee, “New
Documents and Mormon Beginnings,” BYU Studies 24/4 (1984): 403.
197. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 43.
198. According to Clark, “Jo
used to be usually their guide, putting
into a hat a peculiar stone he had through which he looked to decide where they
should begin to dig” (Clark, “Gleanings by the Way, No. VI,” 94,
emphasis added). Clark, therefore, was not necessarily implying that Smith had
used his seer stone that night but only that he had been out with the digging
199. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 43.
200. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 43; quoting Quinn, Early Mormonism and the
Magic World View, 141-44.
201. Quinn, Early Mormonism and
the Magic World View, 144-45; see
also Walker, “Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting,”
202. See Granger, Motif Index
for Lost Mines and Treasures, motif
h 1, especially h 1.6-h 1.6.2.
203. William Stafford statement,
in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 238.
204. On the Smiths’ hunting for
treasure at night in order to conceal the locations of their digging, see Clark,
“Gleanings by the Way, No. VI,” 94. Alan Taylor writes that
“contempt for treasure seeking became universal among the genteel by the
early nineteenth [century] as part of their wider criticism of the common folk
for inadequate ambition, lackluster work discipline, labor, and attachment to
tradition” (Taylor, “Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy,”
16). Such a concern for keeping secrecy by working under the cover of darkness
may shed some light on Willard Chase’s claim that Smith went to the Hill
Cumorah wearing black clothes and riding a black horse (Willard Chase
statement, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 242).
205. For whatever the Clark
account is worth, one should recognize that it describes Moroni as an “angel
of God . . . clad in celestial splendour” and as a “divine
messenger” who spoke of the purposes of “the Most High God.” Clark,
“Gleanings by the Way, No. VI,” 94.
206. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
207. Revelation 22:8-9 is
sometimes cited to show that angels may be dead mortals.
208. See Hebrews 1:13-14;
Revelation 22:6-9; and Matthew 17:3-4. My thanks to Matt Roper for
209. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 45.
210. Vogel adds, “Because he
failed to note this distinction, Mark Ashurst-McGee’s references to ‘angels’
guarding treasures are irrelevant.” Vogel, “Treasure Lore
Revisited,” x. It is true that they are basically irrelevant to Cole’s
understanding of Moroni’s status but not necessarily to Smith’s (the real
211. Vogel, Joseph Smith, 45, quoting “Golden Bible,” Rochester
(NY) Gem, 5 September 1829, 70, in Early
Mormon Documents, 2:272.
212. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
213. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
214. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
Revisited,” x-xi; also Vogel, Joseph Smith, 44.
215. Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni:
Angel or Treasure Guardian?” especially 65-66.
216. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
217. See Early Mormon
218. See the editorial note to
this document in Early Mormon Documents, 1:551.
219. Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith, 17 June
1829, in Early Mormon Documents,
220. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
Revisited,” x. See also Vogel, Joseph Smith, 44.
221. Van Wagoner and Walker,
“Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing,'” 53.
222. This is my edited version of
Joseph’s 1832 history: “the Lord had prepared
for to read the Book” (Joseph Smith, “A History of the Life of Joseph
Smith Jr.,” in Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, MS, Joseph Smith Papers, LDS
Church Archives, p. 5, quoted in Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:9). The issues surrounding the term Urim
and Thummim are actually more complex. See
Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 311-16.
223. Vogel, “Treasure Lore
Revisited,” xi. See also Vogel, Joseph Smith, 44.
224. Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni:
Angel or Treasure Guardian?” 67 n. 11.
225. Similarly, in his biography
of Smith, Vogel writes, “The wingless angel with long flowing robe that
Smith later named ‘Moroni,’ one of the ancient authors of the Book of Mormon,
is absent from the earliest accounts” (Vogel, Joseph Smith, 46). But a winged angel is also absent in the
earliest accounts. Neither are there any late accounts of a winged angel—unless one counts
the frontispiece to Pomeroy Tucker’s 1867 work of anti-Mormonism, which depicts
a winged, bare-breasted female (see p. 34 above). The only description of
Moroni’s clothing predating Smith’s and Cowdery’s descriptions of a white robe
is the ridiculous costume described in Cole’s “Book of Pukei” parody
of the Book of Mormon (Book of Pukei 2:4, in Palmyra Reflector, 7 July 1830; compare Joseph Smith,
“History, 1838,” in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, rev. ed. [Salt Lake City: Deseret
Book, 2002], 233; Cowdery, “Letter IV,” to Phelps, February 1835).
226. Ashurst-McGee, “Moroni:
Angel or Treasure Guardian?” especially 61-65.