Magical Artifacts and Book of Mormon Translation

snapJoseph Smith initially told the story of the golden plates in the language of folk-magic and treasure-digging culture.[1]

In the 1820s Joseph possessed at least three seer stones, which he used to locate buried treasures.[2] However, the treasures tended to be protected by guardian spirits. Joseph negotiated with these spirits or tried magical means to control them, usually without success.[3]

In 1823 the spirit of an ancient Nephite appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him about a set of golden plates buried in a nearby hill.[4] Joseph negotiated with the spirit for years, fulfilling magical requirements such as that he come to the hill on the autumnal equinox, wear all black, and bring a specific person with him. After four years and several failed attempts, Joseph finally obtained the plates in 1827.[5]

Later tellings of this story would transform the spirit into an angel and drop all references to magical requirements.[6] But originally, Joseph’s discovery of the gold plates fit seamlessly into his career as a treasure-seeker.

So did his translation of them.

In translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph used two devices: a pair of “spectacles” and a brown seer stone. He obtained both artifacts through folk magical treasure quests conducted jointly with his neighbors.

In 1822, Manchester neighbor Willard Chase hired Joseph and Alvin Smith to help him with a dig. Chase claimed in an 1833 affidavit that they digging a well, but that may have been a cover story. Embarrassed about his own treasure-seeking activities during the 1820s, Chase systematically concealed those activities in his affidavit. “They dug that hole for money,” neighbor Lorenzo Saunders later insisted. Regardless of whether Chase was looking for money or for water, he likely hired the Smith family seers to help him find it.[7]

Photographs of Willard Chase’s seer stone in a forthcoming volume from the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

According to Chase, about twenty feet beneath the surface he found  “a singularly appearing stone.” He “brought it to the top of the well” and showed it to Joseph and Alvin. Joseph “put it into his hat, and then put his face into the top of his hat” and discovered that he could see things in the stone. He asked Chase if he could have it. Chase told him he could borrow it. Joseph used it for two years, then returned it at Chase’s request. Hyrum borrowed the stone again in 1825, apparently on Joseph’s behalf. Chase again asked for it back in 1826, but this time Hyrum refused to return it. The Smiths felt they needed the stone in order to obtain and translate the plates. They never did return Chase’s stone, which now resides in the LDS Church’s First Presidency vault.[8]

Smith also used another magical device in translating the Book of Mormon: a pair of ancient “spectacles.” In September 1825 he brought fellow treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence to the hill and showed him where the plates were buried. Lawrence looked into his own seer stone and saw not only the plates but also “a large pair of specks” with them. This surprised Joseph, whose stone had never shown him anything buried with the plates before. He looked again, and sure enough “soon saw a large pair of spectacles.”[9]

When Joseph finally acquired the plates in 1827, he also acquired the spectacles. Like the plates, they were a sacred object that only Joseph was allowed to see and handle. According to Martin Harris, they consisted of two large white stones set in a silver bow. “The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round. . . . They were joined by a round bar of silver, . . . about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.”[10] The spectacles “were . . . altogether too large for the breadth of the human face,” as if sized for an antediluvian giant.[11]

The spirit guardian of the plates told Smith the spectacles had been prepared to aid in translation, so Smith used them for the initial portion of the work. As Martin Harris described the process, Smith “was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, . . . concealed from view.” The plates remained safely ensconced in a chest beneath the hearth. But “by placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it,” Smith was enabled to remotely view the characters on the plates and “fully to understand their meaning.” Harris sat on the other side of the curtain and transcribed Smith’s dictation.[12]

Smith did not long persist with this unwieldy method. Despite later legend that Smith used the spectacles for the duration of Martin Harris’s time as scribe, Harris remembered that Smith soon set aside the spectacles “and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”[13] Alva Hale heard Joseph say during these months “that he could translate just as well with the stone.”[14] In Joseph’s early magic worldview, the spectacles and seer stone were interchangeable magic artifacts. He referred to both stone and spectacles as “keys” and told neighbor William Stafford that the hills were full of such keys.[15] Although the spectacles had been buried with the plates specifically for use in translation, there was nothing the spectacles could do that the seer stone couldn’t.

In a follow-up post, I’ll examine the process by which Joseph and his followers transformed the translation story from treasure lore into Christian epic.


[1] D. Michael Quinn chronicled the plates’ folk-magical origins in his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 136–77. The Smiths’ treasure tales blended magical and religious elements, but several neighbors explicitly remembered the treasure quest rather than religion as the primary frame of Joseph’s early stories about the plates. See Joseph Capron, Roswell Nichols, Lorenzo Saunders, Hiel Lewis, and James Gordon Bennett testimonies in Dan Vogel, comp. and ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:25, 149, 3:282–84, 4:321.

[2] Quinn, Magic World View, 42–44.

[3] Ibid., 60–64.

[4] Ibid., 137–39, 142–45, 147–52; Joseph and Hiel Lewis Statement, April 30, 1879, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:304; Joseph Smith Sr. Interview, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:458. Joseph described the spirit as “a little old man with a long beard” and variously identified him as either Nephi or Moroni. See Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), Kindle ed., Chapter 4; Quinn, Magic World View, 199.

[5] Quinn, Magic World View, 146–48, 158–69.

[6] Quinn, Magic World View, 138–40, 146, 169. In a June 1830 satire of the Book of Mormon, Palmyra newspaperman Abner Cole snarked that “Jo. Made league with the spirit, who afterwards turned out to be an angel.” See Abner Cole, “The Book of Pukei,” Palmyra Reflector, June 12, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:234.

[7] Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, and Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:64–65, 153.

[8] Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:66–73.

[9] Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:68. Lorenzo Saunders and Joseph Knight Sr. offered partial corroboration for this story. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:132, 4:14–15.

[10] Martin Harris Interview, 1859, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:300.

[11] Martin Harris, quoted in Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, February 17, 1834, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:378–79.

[12] Ibid.; Martin Harris Interviews, 1827 and 1828, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:265–66, 273.

[13] Martin Harris Testimony, September 4, 1870, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:320.

[14] Hiel Lewis to James T. Cobb, September 29, 1879, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:320. Smith dictated the Book of Lehi to Martin Harris in April, May, and June.

[15] Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 92, 106; Testimony of William Stafford, 8 December 1833, in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: Or, a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 237.

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Magical Artifacts and Book of Mormon Translation — 44 Comments

  1. I notice that practically all of your sources for this are from D. Michael Quinn’s “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View” (a highly questionable collection of theses), and Dan Vogel. I find the lack of diversity in scholarship a bit concerning.

  2. Seth and David,

    I’m aware of Mark’s work, of course, and have discussed it with him in the past. I didn’t get into it here because my purpose in this piece was to present my own findings, not to rebut Mark. But here, basically is my answer to Mark’s article:

    1) There’s a methodological problem with the way Mark prioritizes his sources. For example, Mark uses Jesse Smith’s 1828 letter as the best indication of Joseph Smith’s early views. But this letter can only tell us what Smith was saying in 1828, which was fairly late in the process of getting the plates. Why should we prioritize this letter over later affidavits that describe the events of 1822-1827, especially when much of the information in those affidavits is multiply attested? (Mark half-conceded this point when I discussed it with him, but then just shrugged and said we can’t know what happened in the early period because there are no sources dating from that time. I have to disagree. There’s lots of good evidence describing that period. And unless we’re going to assume that the Smiths’ neighbors were all liars who conspired to corroborate each others’s stories, we have to take that evidence very seriously.)

    2) Mark takes for granted that Joseph must have had only one version of the Moroni story at any given stage of the story’s evolution. The testimonies of Joseph’s neighbors argue, to the contrary, that the Smiths told the stories differently on different occasions, and often contradicted themselves. My impression is that Joseph tailored the story to different audiences, stressing Christian elements when speaking to respectable Protestants, and folk religious elements when speaking to money-diggers and magic-believers.

    3) Mark downplays the extent to which Joseph later denied his involvement in magic and money-digging. Joseph may have admitted to digging with Stowell, but he didn’t admit having been hired by Stowell in his capacity as a seer. Joseph also falsely implied that this expedition was his only involvement in such endeavors.

    I did get Mark to concede that in challenging Quinn and Huggins, he had probably gone too far in the opposite direction. I also got him to agree that Moroni evolved from a being who was both an angel and a treasure guardian to a being who was only an angel. I suspect D. Michael Quinn would agree with that, and I’m not opposed to the idea either. Even in the early period when he was telling the story through the lens of treasure lore, Smith used the phrase “gold Bible” and spoke of the guardian as the spirit of an ancient “saint.” So as I said in footnote #1, I think the tales blended magical and religious elements from the outset even though the treasure quest was the primary narrative frame.

  3. Generally speaking Chris, I’d be inclined to take more seriously the actual contemporary accounts than the affidavits gathered in the 1830s for polemical purposes. The stuff about magic circles and sacrificed dogs smells strongly of overblown polemic to me. Mark is quite right to favor the 1828 account.

    You don’t even have to call Smith’s neighbors “liars” to get that result either. Just sensationalist gossips and exaggerators would be plenty – especially considering the headlines Smith was making and how his old acquaintances would have been eager for a piece of the action, while downplaying any credence they may have personally given him at the time.

    As for Mark’s views on Moroni, he’s been stating that in writing since 2006. So unless you forced the concession out of him prior to that…

  4. Something else to keep in mind – the 1829 article in the Palmyra Freeman (our next earliest source) is also free of any magical elements.

  5. Seth,

    I wouldn’t call it a “confession.” Just scholars coming to some accord. Anyway, I had my conversation with him on July 21, 2011. The text in my above comment is largely copied from my journal entry for that day.

    The problem with relying on contemporary sources is that we don’t have many contemporary sources from the mid-1820s. However, the 1826 trial record makes no reference to religion. It appears to portray Smith as straightforwardly a treasure seer. It gives the later accounts a lot of credibility, IMO.

    In 1830 Joseph Smith Sr. was still describing Moroni’s clothes as “bloody,” if Fayette Lapham’s notes are to be believed. That corroborates the Lewis brothers’ claim that Smith described Moroni as having his throat cut. References by Chase and Benjamin Saunders to Moroni appearing as a toad are somewhat later, but Abner Cole referred to this in 1830. These 1830 accounts are pretty early.

    As for magic circles and sacrificed sheep, these things again are attested in multiple sources. I’d be more inclined to agree with you that these claims smelled fishy if Smith hadn’t later practiced animal sacrifice in the Kirtland temple and in Nauvoo.

  6. Here are some point-by-point responses to Chris’s answer to my article as given in comment #5 above:

    1) Yes, there’s a obviously a methodological problem with the way I prioritize the sources, but there is as much or more of a methodological problem using later sources, for all the obvious reasons. Chris writes that there’s “lots of good evidence describing that period [1822-1827].” Yep, we definitely disagree there. Yeah, I’m still shrugging. And no, you don’t otherwise have to assume that “the Smiths’ neighbors were all liars who conspired to corroborate each other’s stories.” I learned that early on in my folklore studies at USU. This is the natural product of a socialization of knowledge, and evidently aided somewhat by Hurlbut as well.

    2) No, I don’t take for granted that “Joseph must have had only one version of the Moroni story at any given stage of the story’s evolution.” Yes, I am aware that “the testimonies of Joseph’s neighbors argue, to the contrary, that the Smiths told the stories differently on different occasions, and often contradicted themselves.” Chris has the “impression is that Joseph tailored the story to different audiences, stressing Christian elements when speaking to respectable Protestants, and folk religious elements when speaking to money-diggers and magic-believers.” That sounds very reasonable. And it is also reasonable that the different neighbors are telling the stories to each other differently and that second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand, and . . . nth-hand stories reported by the neighbors are veering off in different directions. In fact, that explanation is even more reasonable and parsimonious in explaining the variety of treasure guardians that people came up with (dwarf, giant, toad-like creature, Spaniard ghost, &c).

    3) We can always wish that Joseph Smith had told us more about working for Stowell, and about other digs, and about his visions of Moroni, and about so many other things that he briefly passes by in his history. This doesn’t make them all false implications.

    Chris writes that he got me “to concede that in challenging Quinn and Huggins, he had probably gone too far in the opposite direction.” This was a comment I made related to a specific quotation taken from my article that may be a little rhetorically pushy, but it is making the basic point that Quinn and Huggins had gone to far in the direction they had gone, which I stand by. Chris also writes that he got me to “agree that Moroni evolved from a being who was both an angel and a treasure guardian to a being who was [for many LDS] only an angel.” This doesn’t even make sense. As Seth has already pointed out, that was explicit in my writing several years prior to this conversation. It also needs to be said that Moroni evolved from a being who was both an angel and a treasure guardian to a being who was [for many antagonists] only a treasure guardian. It was interesting to read here about what I had conceded to and agreed to. It was not entirely unlike what Mormons and non-Mormons have done with the Moroni stories.

  7. Hi Mark,

    I think you read my comments more antagonistically than they were intended. I’m not sure why you’re taking issue with my description of what you “agreed” to, which your comment appears to confirm is accurate statement of your views. Perhaps you’re objecting to my implication that this represented a concession or a change of mind on your part. Well, the conclusion of your article says “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. . . . 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.” Perhaps your statements earlier in the article were more nuanced, but the rather forceful conclusion was what I understood to be your view at the start of our conversation.

    Anyway, looking back on your article and setting aside its concluding statements, I suppose our main disagreement centers on your assertion that the “treasure guardian” meaning was secondary for Joseph. Even if you’re prepared to dismiss the complementary accounts of New York and Pennsylvania neighbors (only a few of which were collected by Hurlbut) as incestuous “gossip,” the Joseph Knight recollection surely cannot be explained this way. Yet Knight tells the story of getting the plates largely in terms of treasure lore, complete with slippery treasures and magical requirements. The guardian in Knight’s telling is “the personage” rather than “the angel.” Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but Knight’s language suggests perhaps an early uncertainty as to the guardian’s identity. Likewise, Quinn finds a record that the Smiths purchased “lamp black” just a few days before Smith allegedly went to the hill dressed all in black. This isn’t just rumor. So why did the personage require this? Perhaps because it was primarily a treasure guardian rather than an angel.

    Regarding false implications, Smith said that in 1825 Stowell hired him as one of his “hands” to “dig” for a silver mine: “Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” That’s not how the story arose, and Smith wasn’t hired as just as a “hand” to wield a shovel. I think calling this a false implication as opposed to a lie is fairly generous.

    Anyway, I’d be curious to know whether there’s anything in my post you explicitly disagree with, or whether you simply think I misplaced my emphasis?

  8. “Knight’s language suggests perhaps an early uncertainty as to the guardian’s identity.” Right, maybe/maybe not. “the Smiths purchased ‘lamp black’ just a few days before Smith allegedly went to the hill dressed all in black.” Right, allegedly: this is coming from Chase. “So why did the angel require this?” Here you have made a leap in assuming this was a requirement from the angel. Even if Chase is right that Smith wore black, this may have simply been for the same reason for going at night, to avoid being seen by others. Treasure seekers often worked at night. This was not because treasure guardians told them to. It was simply to avoid onlookers. Even if you are right in your conjecture that the angel/guardian required it (or that JS said so), this doesn’t necessarily make that being more of a guardian than an angel. You have to take all of the elements into account. You look at all the evidence and see more of a guardian than an angel. I don’t see it that way, for all the reasons outlined in my article.

  9. The reference to Joseph Smith Sr. purchasing lamp black “for [his] son” appears in the Gain Robinson account book under the date 18 Sep. 1827. Your explanation that this was to avoid being seen makes sense, especially in light of Joseph’s paranoia about his old money-digging crew trying to steal the plates.

    What about coming to the hill on the equinox and having to bring Alvin/Emma? These seem like requirements more characteristic of a treasure guardian than an angel.

    Knight’s use of the phrase “the personage” and his slippery treasure imagery are interesting precisely because of the “sociology of knowledge” you mentioned. We would expect his account to mirror standard Mormon tellings of the story, but it doesn’t. Instead it conforms to treasure lore.

    Anyway, it seems we’ll just have to disagree about this. I don’t think the neighbors’ claims and the Fayette Lapham interview with Joseph Smith Sr. can be so easily dismissed, incestuous gossip notwithstanding. They are too specific to have been making up stories; too direct in their attributions of alleged statements to have only been repeating vague gossip; too different to have been closely coached by Hurlbut; too consonant to have been badly mistaken; too intimate with the Smiths to have been ill-informed. Granted, they are biased and likely don’t reflect the whole picture. But on the whole, I find them credible.

  10. You claim these differences in tone are not big differences Chris, but a lot of people seem to think they are. It’s all about spin.

    Can you spin the language to make Joseph Smith look like some sort of culty kook or not? Tone means everything in that situation, and a good deal of the most visceral emotional aversions to Mormonism come from nothing more than mild changes in tone. So claiming that it means nothing or is de-minimis is something I’m going to view with skepticism.

    Honestly, as far as Quinn’s work is concerned. He cut his teeth during the Salamander Letter incident, and it seems a lot of the persuasive strength of his conclusions hinged on the Salamander Letter being authentic. When Hoffman’s documents turned out to be forgeries, it was rather devastating for Quinn’s thesis and left him with a mere shell of his thesis – though he’s been trying to salvage the persuasive punch of that argument ever since.

  11. Oh, and animal sacrifices in the Nauvoo Temple? That’s a new one to me, and I’ve been around the block a couple times.

  12. I think the details we’re arguing over are largely irrelevant for whether Joseph can be portrayed as “culty.” I don’t think Mark would dispute (though he can correct me if I’m wrong) that Joseph used the same stone for treasure-seeking as he did for translating the Book of Mormon, which provides more than enough ammunition for those who see magic as spiritually dangerous. The extent to which Moroni was a treasure guardian as opposed to angel does make some difference to how “kooky” Joseph looks, but this is largely a matter of social conditioning. Treasure guardians only seem sillier than angels because we stand outside the magic culture and inside a Christian culture. If we could step outside both cultures, they would probably look equally strange.

    Quinn’s thesis is well-supported regardless of the Salamander Letter, though once the letter was proven to be a forgery he should have eliminated references to salamanders from the second edition rather than insisting on the continued relevance of salamander lore.

  13. Animal sacrifice in the Kirtland Temple is indicated by Wandle Mace. ( Animal sacrifices were also performed in Nauvoo according to John C. Bennett, and seem to be referenced in D&C 132. The Journal of Wilford Woodruff indicates that Brigham Young proposed including a room for animal sacrifices under the pulpit at the west end of the Salt Lake Temple.

  14. John C. Bennett is such a hopelessly compromised source that I wouldn’t rely on him for much of anything. As for D&C 132 – you’ll have to be specific, because I’m certainly not seeing it.

    As for the report on what Brigham Young said, are you sure that wasn’t just Brigham Young idly musing on what should be done to prepare for the “Restoration of All Things” that is supposed to happen at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ?

    I have heard the idea before that animal sacrifice will be reintroduced for one last time at the Second Coming to seal up the dispensation. I’ve heard that idea, but I’ve never heard of Mormons actually doing it either now or in the past. It seems to me, if Woodruff’s recollection is accurately portrayed here, that Brigham Young was just planning ahead and had no intention of performing animal sacrifice in the Salt Lake Temple at any time in the foreseeable future.

    Certainly it doesn’t do anything to bolster the idea that it took place in Nauvoo.

  15. Unlike John C. Bennett, Wandle Mace is a sympathetic, faithful Mormon source. And even Bennett has turned out to be mostly accurate, despite the understandable suspicion and scrutiny to which historians have subjected him. Bennett also taught animal sacrifice to James Strang, which suggests this was more than just scandal-mongering for him.

    D&C 132:60: “Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God.”

  16. Bennett did a lot of things that mattered a lot to him, but don’t really reflect on Mormon belief. I’m not sure what Mance’s status in the LDS faith is supposed to mean to me. I run into opinions I disagree with all the time at church among guys who consistently get their Home Teaching done every month.

    D&C 132:60 is so vague I don’t know how you can imply animal sacrifice in there with any degree of confidence. Unless you are going to start saying that any use of the word “sacrifice” at all in the scriptures implies animal sacrifice.

  17. There may also be a hint in D&C 124:39 that sacrifices were being performed:

    “Therefore, verily I say unto you, that your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead, and your solemn assemblies, and your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi, and for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations, and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion, and for the glory, honor, and endowment of all her municipals, are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house, which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name.”

    Brigam Young also once said, “When we see a temple built right, there will be a place for the priests to enter and put on their robes, and offer up sacrifices, first for themselves, and then for the people.” (Heber C. Kimball Journal, January 2, 1846. Cited in BYU Studies, Vol. 16, no. 3 [Sp 1976], p. 384.)

    It’s interesting that Joshua Stafford describes the Smiths eating the sacrificed sheep, because Joseph explicitly preached on this subject:

    “It is a very prevalent opinion that in the sacrifices of sacrifices which were offered were entirely consumed, this was not the case if you read Leviticus [2] Chap [2-3] verses you will observe that the priests took a part as a memorial and offered it up before the Lord, while the remainder was kept for the benefit maintenance of the priests. So that the offerings and sacrifices are not all consumed upon the Alter, but the blood is sprinkled and the fat and certain other portions are consumed” (Joseph Smith, sermon, October 5, 1840, manuscript in handwriting of Robert B. Thompson, LDS Church Archives).

    Smith of course went on to preach in the same sermon that since sacrifice was practiced “prior [to] Moses’s day”, it needed to be restored in order for the “restitution of all things” to be accomplished. After the building of the temple and the “purification” of the Aaronic priesthood, he told the audience, animal sacrifices would be “fully restored.”

  18. Wandle Mace wasn’t reporting his “opinion”.

    “Brigham Young was set apart as President of the Twelve at the house of his brother-in-law, John P. Green. Upon this occasion I was present and with much interest I sat listening to Joseph as he walked the floor talking to those present. There was in the room besides myself, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and I think, John Taylor (but I am not quite certain).

    “The Quorum of the Twelve had been filled, but of the number selected one–Willard Richards–was in England and Joseph was instructing those present of that Quorum how they must proceed to prepare themselves, that they might ordain Willard Richards to the Apostleship when they should reach that country. Joseph told them to go to Kirtland and cleanse and purify a certain room in the temple, that they must kill a lamb and offer a sacrifice unto the Lord which should prepare them to ordain Willard Richard a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    “Sidney made some remarks, when Joseph spoke with great power and spirit, said he, ‘I know the law.’ To a remark made by Heber C. Kimball he said, ‘It will be the sweetest smelling savor you ever smelled.'”

  19. Chris, out of all of those, the Kirtland Temple reference is the only one that seems to be talking about Joseph carrying out actual animal sacrifice.

    The rest of them are just as easily interpreted as referring to the Second Coming. The reference to the “Sons of Levi” is a specific reference to something that will happen during the events of the Second Coming.

  20. In theory, the Joseph Smith and Brigham Young quotes could be talking about the Second Coming. But Wandle Mace, John C. Bennett, and Joshua Stafford all testified quite independently of each other that Smith ordered sacrifices be performed. In the Bennett case, the sacrifice was explicitly an act of atonement for polygamy-related transgression, which is the context of D&C 132:60. As for D&C 124:39, it’s hard to know what “your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi” would be if not a reference to animal sacrifice. The evidence could be stronger, but the most parsimonious explanation is that Joseph did, in fact, restore animal sacrifice on a very limited basis.

  21. I think there are many who would strongly dispute that Bennett “has turned out to be mostly accurate”.

    For example Brian Hales deals with this extensively in his most recent article in the “Journal on Mormon History” on Bennett.

  22. And so far, I’ve only seen one source from you that actually mentions contemporary animal sacrifice.

    As for your scripture reading – the offering of the Sons of Levi is often thought to be animal sacrifice as in days of old.

    The question is when it shall happen. And none of your scripture quotes demand a contemporary practice. The D&C Student Manual states:

    “D&C 13:1. What Is Meant by the Sons of Levi Offering an Offering of Righteousness unto the Lord?

    The Prophet Joseph Smith commented as follows on this scripture:

    “It is generally supposed that sacrifice was entirely done away when the Great Sacrifice [i.e.,] the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was offered up, and that there will be no necessity for the ordinance of sacrifice in the future; but those who assert this are certainly not acquainted with the duties, privileges and authority of the Priesthood, or with the Prophets.

    “The offering of sacrifice has ever been connected and forms a part of the duties of the Priesthood. It began with the Priesthood, and will be continued until after the coming of Christ, from generation to generation. …

    “These sacrifices, as well as every ordinance belonging to the Priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings. This ever did and ever will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest; else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that the law of Moses will be established again with all its rites and variety of ceremonies; this has never been spoken of by the prophets; but those things which existed prior to Moses’ day, namely, sacrifice, will be continued.” (Teachings, pp. 172–73.)

    President Joseph Fielding Smith further explained that “we are living in the dispensation of the fulness of times into which all things are to be gathered, and all things are to be restored since the beginning. Even this earth is to be restored to the condition which prevailed before Adam’s transgression. Now in the nature of things, the law of sacrifice will have to be restored, or all things which were decreed by the Lord would not be restored. It will be necessary, therefore, for the sons of Levi, who offered the blood sacrifices anciently in Israel, to offer such a sacrifice again to round out and complete this ordinance in this dispensation. Sacrifice by the shedding of blood was instituted in the days of Adam and of necessity will have to be restored.

    “The sacrifice of animals will be done to complete the restoration when the temple spoken of is built; at the beginning of the millennium, or in the restoration, blood sacrifices will be performed long enough to complete the fulness of the restoration in this dispensation. Afterwards sacrifice will be of some other character.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:94.)”

  23. We appear to be coming from very different places on this, Seth, so I’ll just leave it there.

  24. The Mace source is not as straightforward as it has been presented here. On the face of it, it is an account of a discourse given by Joseph Smith in Commerce ca. May 1839, telling Brigham Young to stop in Kirtland on the way to England and perform an animal sacrifice in the temple. That’s not proof that it actually happened, only that Smith told Young to do it. You’d need to find another source to determine whether Young actually did so when he stopped in Kirtland later that year.

    From a source criticism perspective, it’s important to note that this comes from Mace’s autobiography, written sometime later. While there are places in the auto that appear to have been based on a contemporary diary, Mace’s description of the ca. May 1839 meeting reads like he’s recalling from memory, not reproducing a diary text. None of this is to say that Young didn’t sacrifice an animal in 1839 in the Kirtland Temple, only that based on the Mace account alone, we can’t say that definitively.

  25. David G. However, the mere fact that he would even mention such a thing, even at a later date, is not without interest.

  26. David, whether or not Young actually did it isn’t really the issue, since it’s Smith’s and not Young’s practices that are under discussion here, but you’re right that we have no confirmation Young followed through.

    The account is probably retrospective, but I see no reason to doubt Mace’s memory. It would be an odd thing to misremember.

  27. I wouldn’t find it odd at all. And it’s worth pointing out that a one time sacrifice doesn’t exactly get us to “regularly sacrificing animals in the temple.” And nor does animal sacrifice (a solidly Biblical practice) get us in any way shape or form – to magic.

    Lot’s of tenuous connections going on here.

  28. Chris, the point of my comment was simply that basing a claim that Smith practiced animal sacrifice in the Kirtland temple solely on the Mace autobiography is highly problematic. As to whether Mace would misremember something like that, people misremember and conflate things all the time in retrospective accounts, so it doesn’t seem that odd to me. If you find anything that corroborates Mace’s recollection, let me know.

  29. I think rejecting the account solely because people sometimes misremember things is highly problematic, especially given the Bennett/Stafford accounts and Smith’s and Young’s comments as already quoted. The most parsimonious reading of the sources is that the meeting probably happened as Mace said it did. But I think partly what may be happening here is a clash between a probabilistic approach to sources on the one hand and a courtroom-style call for proof on the other. I’m not setting out to convict Smith of animal sacrifice before a jury; just to use our best available evidence to figure out what probably happened, assuming that the same methodological standards apply here as to any other historical figure. As a historian talking about dead people, I don’t feel obligated to give benefit of the doubt the way I would if I were a juror judging a living person.

  30. And by the way, I’m not using the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard here. I just don’t consider your conclusion to be the most parsimonious at the moment.

  31. Again, I’m not rejecting the account out of hand, I’m just saying that it’s a weak source to base a case that Smith “later practiced animal sacrifice in the Kirtland temple” which was your initial claim (I’m bracketing the question of whether it happened in Nauvoo because I haven’t looked into it). Mace himself doesn’t even claim that Smith practiced animal sacrifice in the Kirtland temple, only that he said in a discourse that it should happen.

  32. David, sorry; I thought I had made it clear that I agree that my wording there was careless. Smith apparently instructed that animal sacrifice be performed in the temple, but did not perform it himself, and it’s unclear whether his instructions were ever carried out. But we started this line of questioning to determine whether the Joshua Stafford animal sacrifice story was credible. For the purposes of corroborating that story, whether Young actually followed Smith’s instructions is not relevant.

  33. My apologies–I missed where you made that point earlier, but I agree with your more careful here wording re: whether sacrifices were actually carried out.

  34. Pingback: How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time | Worlds Without End

  35. With regard to the exchange above about “lamp black” and seeking treasure at night, there is an abundance of evidence that it was not just to avoid detection.

    From “The Key of Solomon the King,” that describe magic circles:

    “At night, when the magician goes to enter the circle, he must be properly attired and must suspend a lamp…”

    “much better to perform these experiments at night, seeing that it is more easy to the Spirits to appear in the peaceful silence of night than during the day”

    “When thou shalt be desirous to make thine interrogations, choose the night of full or of new moon, and from midnight until daybreak. Thou shalt transport thyself unto the appointed spot if it be for the purpose of discovering a treasure; if not, any place will serve provided it be clean and pure.”

    Barrett’s “The Magus” says:
    “you must observe the Moon. . .for you shall do nothing without the assistance of the Moon.”


    “let [the book] be brought, in a clear and fair night, to a circle prepared in a crossway, according to the art which we have before delivered; and there, in the first place, the book is to be opened, and to be consecrated according to the rites and ways which we have before delivered concerning consecration. . .then let the book be wrapped up in a clean linen cloth…”

    In Sibly’s “Occult Sciences: “…specifies that a black priest’s
    robe be worn over the white linen and that the magician have a magic parchment of virgin paper on which are drawn certain seals attached to his clothes…”

    Also, William Stafford stated: “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. I at length accepted of their invitations, to join them in their nocturnal excursions.”

    So there is good reason to believe that Joseph needed to be properly attired, at night, with the right moon, to obtain the “treasure.” To say that they performed digs at night just to avoid detection may have some truth but is certainly not the primary reason for doing so.

  36. All kidding aside, the story of Smith’s moneydigging was prevalent in Palmyra in 1830/31, as stranger James Gordon Bennett, then a young reporter wrote in his diary entries while researching an article on the Mormons,

    Geneva, August 7, 1831: Mormonism. Old Smith [Joseph Smith, Sr.] was a healer — a grand story teller — very glib — was a vender [?] — made gingerbread and buttermints &c&c — Young Smith [Joseph Smith, Jr.] was careless, idle, indolent fellow — 22 years old — brought up to live by his wits–which means a broker of small wants — Harris [Martin] was a hardy industrious farmer of Palmyra — with some money — could speak off the Bible by heart — Henry [Sidney] Rigdon — a parson in general — smart fellow — he is the author of the Bible — they dig first for money — a great many hills–the Golden Bible Hill [Cumorah] where there is a hole 30 or forty feet into the side — 6 feet diameter dug among and the chest fled his approach — turned into a religious plot and gave out the golden plates — the Hill a long narrow hill which spreads out broad to the South — covered with Beech, Maple, Basswood and White Wood–the north end quite naked — the trees cut off in the road from Canandaigua to Palmyra between Manchester & Palmyra — several fine orchards on the east — and fine farms on the west — here the ground is hilly — but small hills — very uneven — the [Lake Canandaigua] outlet runs past part of it — Mormonites went to Ohio because the people here would not pay any attention to them — Smith’s wife [Emma] looked into a hole and the chest fled into a trunk and he lost several of them — [William W.] Phelps of the Phoenix was converted to Mormonism and is now a teacher or elder —

    August 8, 1831: Mormonism — C[harles]. Butler saw Harris they wanted to borrow money to print the Book — he told him he carried the engravings from the plates to New York–showed them to Professor Anthon who said that he did not know what language they were — told him to carry them to Dr. Mitchell — Doctor Mitchell examined them — and compared them with other hieroglyphics — thought them very curious — and they were the characters of a nation now extinct which he named — Harris returned to Anthon who put some questions to him and got angry with Harris

    [[3 Professor Richard L. Anderson of Brigham Young University states that among the Charles Butler Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress is a folder containing correspondence for 1842. One four-page statement dictated by Mr. Butler relates to the Butler-Bennett interview. Butler stated that sometime after Harris’ application for a loan, “as he was walking in the street at Geneva he [Butler] was accosted by a young man who shewed him a letter asking if he knew where he cd find the person to whom it was addressed. The letter was to Mr. B [Butler] from Jas Watson Webb then editor of the N Y Inquirer introducing the bearer James Gordon Bennett who was sent to get information about the discovery of the Mormon Bible.” See also Francis H. Stoddard, The Life and Letters of Charles Butler (New York, 1903), pp. 125-128. end3]]

    BYU Studies, Number 3, Spring 1970, James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on “The Mormonites”, by Leonard J. Arrington

    Bennett’s diary notes show that the stories of Smith being a moneydigger were prevalent in Palmyra in 1831, and that the moneydigging scheme was turned into a “religious plot”, long before Hurlbut got there.

  37. I found it interesting that Joseph wrote his brother in May 1838 and said,

    …verily thus saith the lord unto hyram smith if he will come strateaway to far west and inquire of his brother it shall be shown him how that he may be freed from debt and obtain a grate treasure in the earth even so amen. (Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, page 358)

    I don’t believe Joseph ever stopped using peepstones.