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Richard Bushman and The Sorcerer's Stone

I used to think that Joseph Smith apologetics was a respectable way to spend one's time. Even one's career. Big names like Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and Margaret Barker were doing it, so there must be something there. Then I realized that Joseph Smith's early truth claims are as bogus as those of your local psychic. I'm not kidding.

Yesterday I was listening to a symposium that took place in 2005 at the Library of Congress to commemorate the 200th birthday of "The Prophet." Nothing would make me happier than to link to this symposium here, but it seems to have been stripped. I have the audio and I will upload it to You Tube as soon as I can. The three academic heavy weights mentioned above were participants, along with many others whose credentials demand respect. Bushman was the first speaker. He made some terrific points about the malleability of history and the degree to which one’s starting context matters. I expected him to provide nuanced and new interpretations that would give any skeptic pause. Here was a man in his intellectual prime performing before the most public and eminent of fora. Then, I came across this sentence:

"Two years later [than the “First Vision”], in 1822, another marvel was thrust upon him. He discovered he had the ability to look into a stone and see things otherwise invisible to natural eyes" (Bushman 2006, 14). That's the entire quote. He discovered that? It was not a throwaway moment either. This "discovery" of Joseph's will become Bushman's solution for the symposium to Jan Shipps' "prophet puzzle". Over the course of his lecture, Bushman proposes the following arc to explain Joseph's early years: Joseph discovers his ability as an adept scryer, he uses it to find lost treasure with his dad, he and his dad regret that this gift is being used for such a low purpose, Joseph meets Jesus and The Father, he doesn't know what to make of that, Moroni helps him find the plates, Charles Anthon helps Joseph see that Isaiah prophesied of his own life, he uses his scrying ability to translate The Book of Mormon, he learns there that scrying for God is legitimate, he lives prophetically ever after. Seriously.

I'm just going to state something you know already without argument: scrying is bull shit. No one has the ability to look into a stone and locate lost objects. Suppose Bushman was talking about this man instead. Suppose in his paper on him he wrote the phrase "Around the age of 14, he discovered that he had the ability to move paper with his mind," and then proceeded to take telekinesis seriously for another 5 pages. Would you expect that to be the expert opinion of a Bancroft Prize winning historian?

I'm not going to write anything to try to convince anyone that scrying is not a legitimate practice. I just want you to know that if you want to take Joseph Smith seriously, you need to be the kind of person who takes psychic powers seriously.

And it gets worse.

Take this instance. It is 1826 and Joseph Smith’s boss at the time Josiah Stowell is testifying before Justice Neely. He is testifying on Joseph's behalf, because Joseph is on trial for being a disorderly person which is to say, in New York judicial terms, a con man (he will be found guilty). Stowell says that Joseph saw in a stone “where a Mr. Bacon had buried money – that he and prisoner [Smith] had been in search of it; that prisoner said that it was on a certain root of a stump 5 feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather, but the money was gone, that he supposed that money moved down” (Stowell 1826). So, Joseph looked into his stone, saw buried treasure that was buried with a feather beneath a tree, and told Stowell to dig it up. Stowell finds the tree, digs, finds the feather, but not the treasure. Why? Because the treasure slipped, magically, through the crust of the earth to get away from Stowell.

So what happened there? Did Joseph use his legitimate scrying ability to locate a cursed treasure beneath an uncursed feather? Or was there never any treasure? Again, you can trust Joseph here, that's fine. Just know that by doing so you are acknowledging the existence of psychic powers, actual curses, and buried treasures. But, what about the feather? If Joseph did not "remote view" the feather, how did he know it was there? He either had psychic powers, or he planted it there. Like a con man would do.

And it gets worse.

There are exactly two places where you can learn about the kind of slippery treasures that elude detection by sliding through the earth. One is the study of folk magic, which will quickly bring you to the early nineteenth century in America, and to the most famous commenter on slippery treasures: Joseph Smith. The second is The Book of Mormon. What are the odds, right? Think about that story of Joseph, Josiah, and the feather. There are countless other folk magic stories of bleeding ghosts and slippery treasures in Joseph Smith’s early years, but we will just keep to the one already cited. Now read this:

“And it shall come to pass, saith the Lord of Hosts . . . that whoso shall hide up treasures in the earth shall find them again no more because of the great curse of the land, save he be a righteous man and shall hide it up unto the Lord” (Smith 2009, Helaman 13:18).

What are the odds there? Here is the proposition on deck to accept Joseph’s narrative:

So, I can totally find lost treasures using a stone. Now, I have never once actually FOUND a treasure, except for this one book made out of gold plates. Yeah, it is the same book where it says that there are totally tons of treasures buried in the ground around these parts, but they are cursed!!!! Except for ones that are laid up unto the Lord by a righteous man. You know, like these plates I found, for instance.

Dan Vogel summarizes it well, with a bit less snark than myself: “Considering the treasure-seeking context of Smith’s 1826 encounter with the law, it can be no accident that Nephi also confronts corrupt judges (Hel. 8-9), followed immediately by an account of Samuel’s prophecy regarding cursed, slippery treasures. Through Samuel, Smith revisits his failure as a treasure seeker and his success at getting the gold plates. As far as Smith is concerned he had been the victim of a gross injustice: his stone worked, but the treasures had been unobtainable because of God’s curse on them; the gold plates, on the other hand, had been hidden up ‘unto the Lord.' Thus, Smith would not renounce his treasure-seeking activities as fraudulent or delusional, but as futile” (Vogel 2004, 284)

Works Cited

Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2006. "Joseph Smith's Many Histories." In The Worlds of Joseph Smith - A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, edited by John W Welch, 3-20. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press.
Shipps, Jan. 1985. Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Smith, Joseph. 2009. "Helaman." In The Book of Mormon - The Earliest Edition, by Joseph Smith, edited by Royal Skousen, 13:18. West Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Stowell, Josiah. 1826. In Court Testimony People Versus Joseph Smith 1826. Vol. 4, in Early Mormon Documents, edited by Dan Vogel, 252. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books.
Vogel, Dan. 2004. Joseph Smith The Making of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Signature Books.

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