- Historic Sites
The Farm Boy And The Angel
Of sensitive, mystical Joseph Smith, of a heavenly visitor and a buried scripture, and of the founding of a new religion destined to enlist many followers and carve from the desert a new Zion
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
Such a talisman was not a new concept among Pennsylvania and New York settlers at this time. James Fenimore Cooper in his novel The Pioneers , which depicted Cooperstown as it was in 1793, wrote that one of his characters (Jotham) “acknowledged before he died that his reasons for believing in a mine were extracted from the lips of a sybil who, by looking in a magic glass, was enabled to discover the hidden treasures of the earth.” The author then added the explanatory note, “Such superstition was frequent in the new settlements.” These sentences were written during 1823, a Year when Joseph was especially active in “glass looking” (the popular phrase for the use of seeing-stones), and would seem to indicate that when Joseph beheld Belcher’s purchase, such aids to psychic vision had been in popular use in America for at least a generation. There is the possibility at least that reports of Joseph’s “money-digging” on the Susquehanna just south of the New York border at the very time Cooper was writing his book at the river’s source had brought clairvoyance to the writer’s attention.
Belcher let it be known that his green and brown treasure was for sale. He added, as proof of its value, that when he had brought it back to his Pennsylvania home and covered it with his hat, his little boy, who had been first to peep into the darkness under the brim, had seen it glowing like a lighted candle. Upon looking a second time, said the father, his son exclaimed, “I’ve found my hatchet,” and ran to the spot where that article had been lying lost for two years. After that the boy had been asked by many neighbors to look into the stone and tell them where to find things they had misplaced, and he had “succeeded marvellously,” even in tracing the wanderings of a lost child, who, when found, was dead from starvation.
That this prize would excite in a boy of Joseph’s temperament a desire for possessing it was inevitable. He bought the stone, wrote Mr. Buck, though he did not say how much of the young lumberman’s hard-earned and scanty wages was exchanged for it. Joseph at once tested it and reported that he saw treasures in the earth near Red Rock—where the likeness of a giant chief, painted by a prehistoric Indian artist, decorated a perpendicular stone surface beside the Susquehanna.
Disappointment in the project was attributed not to the inefficacy of the stone but to the diggers’ failure to maintain strict silence while at work—one of the primary rules of the then-current, orally transmitted manual of treasure-digging. Mr. Buck said Joseph claimed that because of this error “the enchantment removed the deposits.”
If Mr. Buck’s reminiscences are trustworthy, and they have the ring of truth, Joseph seems to have bought his first seeing-stone only a short time before he beheld, according to his own testimony, the vision which first revealed his appointment to his divine mission. He had hardly returned from the Susquehanna’s wooded banks when a wild religious revival, a sort of spiritual forest fire, swept into Palmyra from the eastern coastal states, where it had been raging for months. Ardent, ambitious Jesse Townsend, a recent graduate of Yale, began it with the intensity and fervor of youth; and success brought to his side a fellow Presbyterian, Preacher Stockton from East Palmyra. At once, and at the invitation of these evangelists, the Baptist minister joined in and so did Methodist Preacher McLane. Soon, however, what had seemed an inspired alliance of the three denominations in the cause of Protestant Christianity, turned into strife.
Fourteen-year-old Joseph found himself in an agonizing quandary. His mother Lucy, his brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison, and his sister Sophronia were all, as he wrote later in 1838, “proselyted to the Presbyterian faith.” Nevertheless, he had been so moved by the strenuous appeals of the Methodist spellbinders that, as one of his boyhood schoolmates remarked years later, “after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.”
The bitter animosity which each of the sects directed toward the others gave the boy no peace.
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, ‘What is to be done?’ ” A chance reading of the Epistle of James, 1:5, gave him the answer: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”