Well, some of the temptations and the company that Joseph hung around with, that maybe weren’t the best, likely had to do with his treasure-searching activities—looking for treasure, looking for buried things. I mean, a lot of these people in rural America, they’re digging in the earth. They’re on the earth. The earth is growing, and they’re surviving off it. They’re hearing tales of wonderful people who inhabited this land before them, and it was not uncommon for them to look for a lost or buried treasure. It’s maybe even likely that you’ve looked for lost and buried treasure before.
I love the author Mark Twain, who is a contemporary author and Joseph’s growing up in roughly the same time in Missouri. Mark Twain writes in his Adventures of Tom Sawyer: ‘There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.’ This is rather the 1825 Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra, a newspaper. There, they reported that buried treasure had been found ‘by the help of a mineral stone which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and light excluded from the face of him who looks into it.’ So, a little different than you and I might think of metal detectors or digging things up, which, back then, they would look into seer stones and try to see if people could see things through stones to aid them in revelation to find what was hidden in the earth.
And although accounts vary, this was not uncommon in rural America. There were some in Joseph’s local town who used seer stones or mineral stones. The Chase family, who were next door, had a daughter named Sally Chase that apparently had a green stone she looked into. She looked into it, and when Joseph was roughly 16 years old, although accounts somewhat vary, Joseph seems to have found his own seer stone when digging a well on the Willard Chase property. This is a painting that I did trying to show that scene of Joseph finding likely his brown stone when digging this well. Willard Chase himself remembers in 1833, when he was giving a reminiscence, that Joseph and his brother came to dig a well on their family property, and that Willard Chase claims he found the stone, by the way, and Willard Chase then handed it to Joseph who, quote, ‘placed the stone in a hat and quickly discovered that it was a seer stone.’ And Joseph kept it. Willard Chase, by the way, was upset over that. He felt like it was his, that he should have hung on to this. This is a second-hand late-reminiscent source, so bear that in mind. But James Wiley recalls that Eliza R. Snow—who was one of Joseph’s plural wives—said quote, ‘This is an 1881 reminiscence. The prophet Joseph Smith had a peep stone called in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants ‘Gazelem’ that he got by digging in a lady’s garden 25 feet down in the ground. The Lord revealed to Joseph that such a stone was 25 feet down in the ground, but he, Joseph Smith, did not know how to get it. He went to the lady there who owned the garden and asked if she wished to have a well dug in her garden, and she said yes. The prophet found the peep stone 25 feet down.’ Now again, second-hand late reminiscence, but these stories seem to be similar in that they were probably digging a well when they found this seer stone.
I do think it’s interesting in that second source that Eliza Snow felt like the Lord led him to that, and that word ‘Gazelem,’ likely comes out of Alma 37 where the Lord says, ‘I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone which shall shine forth.’ That’s usually the name either associated with Joseph or associated with a stone that’s given to it later. The Joseph Smith Papers, a few years ago, published photographs of that stone, Joseph’s brown stone. That brown stone was likely given to Oliver Cowdery. Oliver Cowdery kept it until he died. Oliver Cowdery’s widow then gave it to Brigham Young’s brother Phineas. Phineas gave it to Brigham Young, and it’s been in the possession of the Church ever since. And we’re grateful to the Church and the Joseph Smith Papers for photographing that stone and letting the church see that relic. Some people, this is new information to them, which all of us have to discover information for the first time ourselves. It’s not new information to a lot of scholars and other researchers of the Church. As a matter of fact, this idea that Joseph had this brown stone was actually in our earliest Church’s history when B.H. Roberts published the 1930 Comprehensive History of the Church. So a hundred years ago, nearly, he writes, quote, ‘The seer stones referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the prophet found while digging a well and company with his brother Hyrum. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it, as described above, as well as by means of the interpreters found at the Nephi record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraved on the plates.’ And we’ll talk about where this brown stone comes into translation as well. But there’s a source from nearly a hundred years ago in the History of the Church, but the problem is, nobody read it, but it’s been there for a hundred years.
Because of that, we’re also grateful to the modern Church today for giving us maybe a more readable history of the Church, their narrative history of Saints. And in Volume 1 of Saints, they also talk about this. From Saints Volume 1, on page 21: ‘Like many people in the area, including his father, Joseph believed that God could reveal knowledge through objects like rods and stones, as He had done with Moses, Aaron, and others in the Bible. One day, while Joseph was helping a neighbor dig a well, he came across a small stone buried deep in the earth.’ Aware that some people use special stones to search for lost objects or hidden treasure, Joseph wondered if he had found such a stone. Looking into it, he saw things invisible to the natural eye. Joseph’s gift for using the stone impressed family members, who saw it as a sign of divine favor. But even though he had the gift of a seer, Joseph was still unsure if God was pleased with him.’ That’s a great line from Saints there. And we’ll talk about why Joseph thinks that maybe God wasn’t pleased with him.
So, encouraged by Joseph’s own father, Joseph Smith Sr., and other neighbors, Joseph did use his gift. He used his stone to be a seer, to try to find lost and hidden things, including valuable treasures. He was accompanied by people like Willard Chase and also his friend Samuel Lawrence. They almost set up a treasure-hunting group. I don’t want you to think they were doing this every day, but it does seem to be something they engaged in from time to time. So much so that Joseph’s reputation as a seer and one who could see hidden things made it all the way down to Southern New York and Northern Pennsylvania.
And a man named Josiah Stoll, who has a large property down on the border of Pennsylvania and New York, thinks that there’s an abandoned old Spanish silver mine somewhere. He needs to find it and doesn’t know where it’s at. So, he hears of this boy up in New York and Palmyra, Manchester area. Lucy Mack Smith remembers, quote, ‘A short time before the house was completed, that was the frame house the Smiths were building, a man by the name of Josiah Stoll came from Shenango County, New York, to get Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine. He came for Joseph, having heard that he was in possession of certain means, that would be his seer stone, by which he could discern things which could not be seen by the natural eye. Joseph endeavored to divert him from his vain project, but he was inflexible and offered high wages to those who would dig for him.’ And let me make a pause, by the way, the Smith family had made some terrible financial errors here and likely could not pay for the mortgage that their farm was on. They were in desperate need of money, so Joseph is going to take this job to go dig. He offers back the quote, ‘Joseph went to work for him; consequently, he returned with the old gentleman and several others who were picked in the neighborhood and commenced digging. After laboring about a month without success, Joseph prevailed on his employer to cease his operations. It was from this circumstance, namely, working by the month at digging for a silver mine, that the very prevalent story arose of his having been a money-digger.’ Now, Joseph himself acknowledges this in an 1838 question and answer session with himself, by the way, in the Elders’ Journal. Joseph says, ‘Question: Was not Joseph Smith a money-digger?’ And he answers, ‘Yes, but it was not a very profitable job for him as he only got $14 a month for it.’ Joseph never seems to obey that this was an activity that he did.
So when Joseph goes down to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to dig for Josiah Stoll, he goes down in roughly November, right before the winter in 1825. And this is an illustration that I did showing Joseph—you can see him holding in his left hand there that chocolate seer stones—trying to find and dig for this buried Spanish treasure, which they never do. Joseph looks and says he never sees anything there for them to find.
By Dr. Anthony Sweat, Source Expert
Dr. Anthony Sweat serves as a prominent expert on the subject of “What Do Mormons Believe.” He earned a BFA in painting and drawing from the University of Utah and completed his MEd and PhD in curriculum and instruction at Utah State University. Prior to his role in the religion faculty at BYU, he garnered thirteen years of experience working with Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. Dr. Sweat is a prolific author with numerous publications focusing on the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His research primarily delves into the factors influencing effective religious education. Anthony and his spouse, Cindy, take pride in being parents to seven children and call Springville, Utah, their home.
Fact checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert
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