excerpt – Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 3
This third volume of Early Mormon Documents follows volume two in gathering published and unpublished sources relating to Mormon origins in Palmyra and Manchester, New York. The previous volume included the major document collections of Philastus Hurlbut, William H. and Edmund L. Kelley, Chester C. Thorne, and Arthur B. Deming, as well as excerpts from Palmyra newspapers and interviews and statements of local residents Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and John H. Gilbert. This volume contains an assortment of documents arranged under the following headings: “Miscellaneous Early Sources” (pre-1844); “Miscellaneous Late Sources” (post-1844); “Miscellaneous Non-resident Sources”; and “Miscellaneous Documents.”
This collection groups together early sources that are not well known, even to Mormon historians. An excerpt from Eli Bruce’s diary, dated 5 November 1830, documents his interview with Joseph Smith, Sr., while both were incarcerated in Canandaigua’s jail (see 111.1.1, ELI BRUCE DIARY, 5 NOV 1830). Although published in 1861, this important diary entry has frequently been overlooked. The same is true of the 12 March 1831 letter from ten unnamed residents of Palmyra to Ohio publisher E. D. Howe, which includes a description of Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking and mentions “Walters the Magician” (see 111.1.3, PALMYRA RESIDENTS TO PAINESVILLE (OH) TELEGRAPH, 12 MAR 1831). Published for the first time in its entirety is a letter from six leading citizens of Canandaigua, dated January 1832, which contains information about Martin Harris and Joseph Smith that is found in no other source (see 111.1.4, NATHANIEL W. HOWELL AND OTHERS TO ANCIL BEACH, JAN 1832).
The late sources include the accounts of well-known non-Mormons Orsamus Turner and Pomeroy Tucker (see III.J.2, ORSAMUS TURNER ACCOUNT, 1851; and III.J.8, POMEROY TUCKER ACCOUNT, 1867), as well as the lesser known statement of Daniel Hendrix (see III.J.26, DANIEL HENDRIX REMINISCENCE, 1893). Hendrix’s document, although known to historians, is preceded by new information about Hendrix. While some of these documents have been previously published, many have resisted notice. Among the more important of these are: Robert Richards [pseud.], The Californian Crusoe (see III.J.3, DR. WILLIAMS ACCOUNT, 1854); Pomeroy Tucker, “Mormonism and Joe Smith” (see III.J.5, POMEROY TUCKER REMINISCENCE, 1858); Jared S. Nasmith, “Joseph Smith and Mormonism Which Started 100 Years Ago. Some Incidents Related About Smith By Professor Philetus B. Spear, D.D., a Man Born in Palmyra in 1811” (see III.J.9, PHILETUS B. SPEAR ACCOUNT, CIRCA 1873); and William Hyde Interview, in “Birth of Mormonism” (see III.J.23, WILLIAM HYDE INTERVIEWS, 1888). Previously unpublished documents composed after 1844 are the letters from E. E. Baldwin to W. O. Norrell, dated 3 August 1887, and from Philana A. Foster to E. W. Taylor, dated 16 July 1895 (see III.J.21, E. E. BALDWIN TO W. O. NORRELL, 3 AUG 1887; and III.J.27, PHILANA A. FOSTER TO E. W. TAYLOR, 16 JUL 1895); the statements of Carlos Osgood and Wallace Miner in M. Wilford Poulson’s “Notebook containing statements made by residents of Palmyra, N. Y., Manchester, N. Y., and other areas …” (see III.J.38. CARLOS OSGOOD STATEMENT, 1932; and III.J.37, WALLACE MINER REMINISCENCE, 1932); and the document entitled “Concerning Joseph Smith” (see III.J.41, PALMYRA RESIDENT REMINISCENCE, NO DATE).
This third volume also includes testimony from non-residents, meaning those who either lived in New York outside Wayne and Ontario counties or were visitors from other states. The earliest accounts here are usually excerpted from newspapers: Rochester Gem, Geauga (OH) Gazette, Wayne County (PA) Inquirer, Illinois Patriot, Broome County (NY) Courier, and Lockport (NY) Balance (see III.K.1; III.K.2; III.K.3; III.K.4; III.K.7; III.K.8; III.K.9). Accounts of Mormon converts, such as Parley P. Pratt and Thomas B. Marsh (see III.K.16, PARLEY P. PRATT AUTOBIOGRAPHY, CIRCA 1854; III.K.21, PARLEY P. PRATT REMINISCENCE, 1856; III.K.22, THOMAS B. MARSH AUTOBIOGRAPHY, 1857), have received some attention previously, while those of non-Mormons have been largely ignored. Among the most interesting in this latter group are David S. Burnett’s 1831 account (III.K.5); James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 account (III.K.6); John Barber and Henry Howe’s 1841 account (III.K.14); Thurlow Weed’s reminiscences of 1854, 1858, 1880, and 1884 (III.K.17); and Thomas Davies Burrall’s 1867 reminiscence (III.K.27). Even some well-known Mormon sources have received little scholarly attention, perhaps because they deal with Joseph Smith’s treasure seeking. See, for example, James Cohn Brewster’s 1843 account (III.K.15); Brigham Young’s 1855, 1857, and 1877 accounts (III.K.19 and III.K.30); and Elizabeth Kane’s 1872-73 interview with Brigham Young, Artemisia (Beaman) Snow, and Orrin Rockwell (III.K.37). Documents published here for the first time in their entirety include: William E. McLellin’s letter to Samuel McLellin, dated 4 August 1832 (III.K.10); Emer Harris’s 1856 account (III.K.20); Henry O’Reilly’s 1879 reminiscence (III.K.31); and Sara Melissa Ingersoll’s 1899 reminiscence (III .K.34).
The concluding section contains civil records (for example, road lists, a highway survey, census records, land deeds, tax rolls, merchant documents, and court records) dealing only incidentally with Smith family history, as well as records directly treating the topic of Mormon origins (such as the copyright to the Book of Mormon, the testimony of the Eight Witnesses, the preface to the Book of Mormon, the 1831 agreement between Joseph Smith, Sr., and Martin Harris, and the Missionaries Covenant).
WILLIAM W. PHELPS TO E. D. HOWE,
15 JANUARY 1831
William W. Phelps to E. D. Howe, l5 January 1831, E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: E. D. Howe, 1834), 273-74.
Eber D. Howe,1 publisher of the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph, wrote to William W. Phelps2 in Canandaigua, New York, on 11 January 1831, requesting information about Mormonism, which had recently gained numerous converts in nearby Mentor, Ohio. Howe, an anti-Mason, probably sought Phelps out because he was familiar with Phelps’s Ontario Phoenix, an anti-Masonic paper he began editing in 1828. But Howe was probably unaware that Phelps had already started investigating Mormonism and was a serious candidate for membership (subsequently being baptized on 16 June 1831). Phelps had received a copy of the Book of Mormon on 9 April 1830,and had met Joseph Smith on 24 December 1830 (see Deseret News, 11 April 1860). Howe was undoubtedly surprised by Phelps’s response, since in Howe’s mind anti-Masons would naturally reject a book published on a pro-Jackson press (see Vogel 1989). Howe’s disappointment is apparent in the short biography of Phelps he appended to the letter:
Before the rise of Mormonism, he [Phelps] was an avowed infidel; having a remarkable propensity for fame and eminence, he was supercilious, haughty and egotistical. His great ambition was to embark in some speculation where he could shine pre-eminent. He took an active part for several years in the political contests of New York, and made no little display as an editor of a partizan [sic] newspaper, and after being foiled in his desires to become a candidate for Lt. Governor of that state, his attention was suddenly diverted by the prospects which were held out to him in the Gold Bible speculation. … It will be [proved] by the foregoing letter, that he had already made up his mind to embrace Mormonism, but still wished to conceal his intentions. It was not till about six months after that he had made definite arrangements to join them (Howe 1834, 274-75).
Howe also states that he is publishing Phelps’s letter in order to “show what was taught him [Phelpsl while a pupil under [Joseph] Smith and [Sidney] Rigdon, and that the story about Mr. [Charles] Anthon’s declarations, was one upon which they placed great reliance” (Howe 1834, 273). Phelps’s letter contains important insight into early Mormonism from the point of view of an investigator.
Canandaigua, Jan. 15, 1831.
Dear Sir—Yours of the 11th, is before me, but to give you a satisfactory answer, is out of my power. To be sure, I am acquainted with a number of the persons concerned in the publication, called the “Book of Mormon.”— Joseph Smith is a person of very limited abilities in common learning—but his knowledge of divine things, since the appearance of his book, has astonished many. Mr. Harris,3 whose name is in the book, is a wealthy farmer, but of small literary acquirements; he is honest, and sincerely declares upon his soul’s salvation that the book is true, and was interpreted by Joseph Smith, through a pair of silver spectacles, found with the plates. The places where they dug for the plates, in Manchester, are to be seen.4 When the plates were said to have been found, a copy of one or two lines of the characters,5 were taken by Mr. Harris to Utica, Albany and New York; at New York, they were shown to Dr. Mitchell,6 and he referred to professor Anthon7 who translated and declared them to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian.8 So much is true. The family of Smiths is poor, and generally ignorant in common learning.
I have read the book, and many others have, but we have nothing by which we can positively detect it as an imposi[p. 273]tion, nor have we any thing more than what I have stated and the book itself to show its genuineness. We doubt—supposing, if it is false, it will fall, and if of God, God will sustain it.
I had ten hours discourse with a man from your state, named Sidney Rigdon,9 a convert to its doctrines, and he declared it was true, and he knew it by the power of the Holy Ghost, which was again given to man in preparation for the millennium: he appeared to be a man of talents, and sincere in his profession. Should any new light be shed on the subject, I will apprise you.
W. W. PHELPS.
E. D. HOWE, ESQ.
1. On E. D. Howe (1798-?), see “Introduction to Philastus Huribut Collection.”
2. On William W. Phelps (1792-1872), see introduction to III.G.6, OLIVER COWDERY TO W. W. PHELPS, 7 SEP 1834.
3. On Martin Harris (1783-1875), see “Introduction to Martin Harris Collection.”
4. Phelps’s use of the plural “they” and “places” may refer to the digging of Joseph Smith and company at several locations, including Miner’s Hill and the excavation on the east side of the Hill Cumorah mentioned by Lorenzo Saunders and others (see III.J.20, LORENZO SAUNDERS TO THOMAS GREGG, 28 JAN 1885; III.J.8, POMEROY TUCKER ACCOUNT, 1867, 34; and III.K.32, EDWARD STEVENSON REMINISCENCE, 1893, 12-13).
5. See V. E.2, BOOK OF MORMON CHARACTERS, DEC 1827-FEB 1828.
6. On Samuel L. Mitchell (1764-1831), see I. A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, n. 45.
7. On Charles Anthon (1797-1867), see introduction to V. D.2, CHARLES ANTHON TO E. D. HOWE, 17 FEB 1834.
8. Regarding Harris’s visit to Anthon, see discussion in “Introduction to Martin Harris Collection.”
9. Phelps probably spoke with Rigdon at the same time he met Joseph Smith on 24 December 1830 (111.1.9, W. W. PHELPS TO OLIVER COWDERY, 21 FEB 1835; see also VI. F.5, SIDNEY RIGDON REMINISCENCE, 1844, 522). On Sidney Rigdon (1793-1876), see introduction to I.A.13, SIDNEY RIGDON ACCOUNT, CIRCA 1836.
EBER D. HOWE ACCOUNT, 1834
E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: E. D. Howe, 1834), 11-13, 17-18, 19, 275-76.
In his 1834 book, Mormonism Unvailed, Eber D. Howe1 of Painesville, Ohio, summarized what he had learned about Joseph Smith’s history in New York and Vermont. His sources were Hurlbut’s affidavits, “various verbal accounts,” and his own correspondence with readers of Abner Cole’s Palmyra Reflector, if not Cole himself. Howe’s account of the plates being hidden in a barrel of beans, supported in later Mormon accounts, is perhaps an indication of the reliability of some, if not all, of his personal investigations. Chapter headings have been omitted.
With the exception of their natural and peculiar habits of life, there is nothing in the character of the Smith family worthy of being recorded, previous to the time of their plot to impose upon the world by a pretended discovery of a new Bible, in the bowels of the earth. They emigrated from the town of Royalton, in the State of Vermont, about the year 1820, when Joseph, Jun. was, it is supposed, about 16 years of age.2 We find them in the town of Manchester, Ontario County, N. Y. which was the principal scene of their operations, till the year 1830. All who became intimate with them during this period, unite in representing the general character of old Joseph and wife, the parents of the pretended Prophet, as lazy, indolent, ignorant and superstitious—having a firm belief in ghosts and witches; the telling of fortunes; pretending to believe that the earth was filled with hidden treasures, buried there by [Captain] Kid[d] or the Spaniards. Being miserably poor, and not much disposed to obtain an honest livelihood by labor, the energies of their minds seemed to be mostly directed towards finding where these treasures were concealed, and the best mode of acquiring their posses[p. 11]sion. Joseph, Jun. in the mean time, had become very expert in the arts of necromancy, jug[g]ling, the use of the divining rod, and looking into what they termed a “peep-stone,” by which means he soon collected about him a gang of idle, credulous young men, to perform the labor of digging into the hills and mountains, and other lonely places, in that vicinity, in search of gold. In process of time many pits were dug in the neighborhood, which were afterwards pointed out as the place from whence the plates were excavated. But we do not learn that the young impostor ever entered these excavations for the purpose of assisting his sturdy dupes in their labors. His business was to point out the locations of the treasures, which he did by looking at a stone placed in a hat. Whenever the diggers became dissatisfied at not finding the object oftheir desires, his inventive and fertile genius would generally contrive a story to satisfy them. For instance, he would tell them that the treasure was removed by a spirit just before they came to it, or that it sunk [sic] down deeper into the earth.
The extreme ignorance and apparent stupidity of this modern prophet, were, by his early followers, looked upon as his greatest merit, and as furnishing the most incontestible proof of his divine mission. These have ever been the ward-robe of impostors. They were even thrown upon the shoulders of the great prince of deceivers, Mohammed, in order to carry in his train the host of ignorant and superstitious of his time; although he afterwards became a ruler of Nations. That the common advantages of education were denied to our prophet, or that they were much neglected, we believe to be a fact. His followers have told us, that he could not at the time he was “chosen of the Lord,” even write his own name. But it is obvious that all those deficiencies are fully supplied by a natural genius, strong inventive powers of mind, a deep study, and an unusually correct esti[p. 12]mate of the human passions and feelings. In short, he is now endowed with all the requisite traits of character to pursue most successfully the humbug which he has introduced. His address is easy, rather fascinating and winning, of a mild and sober deportment, when not irritated. But he frequently becomes boisterous by the impertinence or curiosity of the skeptical, and assumes the bravado, instead of adhering to the meekness which he professes. His followers, of course, can discover in his very countenance all the certain indications of a divine mission.
For further illustrations of the character of the Smith family, the reader is referred to the numerous depositions and certificates attached to this work.3 … [p. 13] …4
The various verbal accounts, all contradictory, vague, and inconsistent, which were given out by the Smith family respecting the finding of certain Gold or brazen plates,5 will be hereafter presented in numerous depositions which have been taken in the neighborhood of the plot.—Since the publication of the book they have been generally more uniform in their relations respecting it. They say that some two years previous to the event taking place, Joseph, Jun. began his interviews with Angels, or spirits, who informed him of the wonderful plates, and the manner and time of obtaining them. This was to be done in the presence of his wife and first child, which was to be a son.6 In the month of September, 1827, Joseph got possession of the plates, after a considerable struggle with a spirit. The remarkable event was soon noised abroad, and the Smith family commenced making proselytes among the credulous, and lovers of the marvellous, to the belief that Joseph had found a record of the first settlers of America. Many profound calculations were made about the amount of their profits on the sale of such a book. A religious speculation does not seem to have seriously entered into their heads at that time. The plates in the mean time were concealed from human view, the prophet declaring that no man could look upon them and live. They at the same time gave out that, along with the plates, was found a huge pair of silver spectacles, altogether too large for the present race of men, but which were to be used, nevertheless, in translating the plates. [p 17]
The translation finally commenced. They were found to contain a language not now known upon the earth, which they termed “reformed Egyptian characters.” The plates, therefore, which had been so much talked of, were found to be of no manner of use. After all, the Lord showed and communicated to him every word and letter of the Book. Instead of looking at the characters inscribed upon the plates, the prophet was obliged to resort to the old “peep stone,” which he formerly used in money-digging. This he placed in a hat, or box, into which he also thrust his face. Through the stone he could then discover a single word at a time, which he repeated aloud to his amanuensis, who committed it to paper, when another word would immediately appear, and thus the performance continued to the end of the book.
Another account they give of the transaction, is, that it was performed with the big spectacles before mentioned, and which were in fact, the identical Urim and Thumim mentioned in Exodus 28-30, and were brought away from Jerusalem by the heroes of the book, handed down from one generation to another, and finally buried up in Ontario County, some fifteen centuries since, to enable Smith to translate the plates without looking at them!7
Before the work was completed, under the pretence [sic] that some persons were endeavoring to destroy the plates and the prophet, they relate that the Lord commanded them to depart into Pennsylvania, where they could proceed unmolested. Smith, accordingly, removed his family thither; but it appears that it was at the request of his father-in-law, instead of the command of the Lord. A box, which he said contained the plates, was conveyed in a barrel of beans, while on the journey.8 … [p. 18]
The Golden Bible was finally got ready for the press, and issued in the summer of 1830, nearly three years from the time of its being dug up. … [p. 19]
The reader will already have observed, that a great variety of contradictory stories were related by the Smith family, before they had any fixed plan of operation, respecting the finding of the plates, from which their book was translated. One is, that after the plates were taken from [p. 275] their hiding place by Jo, he again laid them down, looked into the hole, where he saw a toad, which immediately transformed itself into a spirit, and gave him a tremendous blow.9 Another is, that after he had got the plates, a spirit assaulted him with the intention of getting them from his possession, and actually jerked them out of his hands—Jo, nothing daunted, in return seized them again, and started to run, when his Satanic Majesty, (or the spirit) applied his foot to the prophet’s seat of honor, which raised him three or four feet from the ground. … That the prophet has related a story of this kind, to some of his “weak saints,” we have no manner of doubt.10 … [p. 276]
1. On Eber D. Howe (1798-?), see “Introduction to Philastus Hurlbut Collection.”
2. This statement is inaccurate. The Smiths emigrated from Norwich, Vermont, probably in 1816-17, when Joseph Jr. was about ten or eleven years old. Howe probably followed the statements of several Manchester residents who said they had first become acquainted with the Smiths in 1820 (see III.A.13, WILLIAM STAFFORD STATEMENT, 8 DEC 1833, 237; III.A.14, WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 240; III.A.2, BARTON STAFFORD STATEMENT, 3 NOV 1833, 250; III.A.15, HENRY HARRIS STATEMENT, CIRCA 1833; and III.A.4, JOSHUA STAFFORD STATEMENT, 25 NOV 1833, 258). Howe evidently assumed 1820 was the date of the Smiths’ arrival in New York unaware that they had lived about four years in the village of Palmyra previous to their move to Stafford Road.
3. This refers to the statements collected by Philastus Huribut (see “Philastus Hurlbut Collection”).
4. Then follows brief sketches of the three witnesses (pp. 13-16; see III.F.6, EBER D. HOWE ON MARTIN HARRIS, 1834; VI.A.1, EBER D. HOWE ON DAVID WHITMER, 1834).
5. Certainly Howe was aware that several of Hurlbut’s witnesses mention Joseph Smith’s claim to have found “gold plates” (e.g., III.A.7, LUCY HARRIS STATEMENT, 29 NOV 1833, 254, 255; III.A.9, PETER INGERSOLL STATEMENT, 2 DEC 1833, 234, 236; III.A.13, WILLIAM STAFFORD STATEMENT, 8 DEC 1833, 239; III.A.14, WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 242, 245, 246, 247), as well as the Palmyra Reflector‘s repeated references to the “Gold Bible” (see III.E.3, PALMYRA REFLECTOR, 1829-1831, especially under 19 March 1831, 126, from which Howe borrowed his description of the plates [VI.A.1, EBER D. HOWE ON DAVID WHITMER, 1834]; see also Howe’s use of the term on pages 37, 39, 100, 103). So why does Howe equivocate on the metallic composition of the plates and later make reference to Nephi’s “plates of brass” (e.g., 23)? Perhaps he is simply following Alexander Campbell’s lead, who in his 1831 review of the Book of Mormon said, “Nephi made brazen plates soon after his arrival in America.” Then, in discussing the Testimony of Eight Witnesses, he says, “these ‘men handled as many of the brazen or golden leaves as the said Smith translated'” (“The Mormonites,” Millennial Harbinger 2 [Feb. 1831]: 87, 95). This statement is apparently a play on the Testimony’s statement that the plates have the “appearance of gold” and “as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated, we did handle with our hands.” I would suggest that Campbell and Howe were reflecting an early Mormon apologetic that attempted to reconcile Smith’s statements that the plates were made of gold and estimates that they only weighed between forty and sixty pounds (e.g., I.D.4, WILLIAM SMITH, ON MORMONISM, 1883, 12; III.F.10, MARTIN HARRIS INTERVIEW WITH JOEL TIFFANY, 1859). From the beginning, this was a problem for the skeptics (llI.E.3, PALMYRA REFLECTOR, 1829-1831, under 19 Mar. 1831, 126). A block of solid tin measuring 6 x 8 x 6 inches (the measurements Smith gave for the plates), or 288 cubic inches, would weigh 74.67 pounds. If one allows for a 30 percent reduction due to the unevenness and space between the plates, the package would then weigh 52.27 pounds. Using the same calculations, plates of gold would weigh 140.5 pounds. The obvious disparity between the weight of the plates and gold may have prompted some early Mormons to equivocate on the plates’ material makeup. Much as the Testimony of Eight Witnesses had emphasized “appearance of gold,” Cole, in the same article cited above, reports David Whitmer describing the plates as being constructed of “metal of a whitish yellow color.” Possibly Smith was aware of the discrepancy much earlier and opened the way for equivocation by not having the Book of Mormon commit itself on the material used to make the plates, only that Nephi “did make plates of ore” (1 Ne. 19:1). This is in contradistinction to the book’s specific mention of “brass plates” brought by Nephi to the New World (e.g., 1 Ne. 5:10, 18) and “plates of pure gold” discovered by Limhi’s people (Mos. 8:9).
6. Apparently a distortion of V.B.1, JOSHUA MCKUNE STATEMENT, 1834; and V.A.5, SOPHIA LEWIS STATEMENT, 1834.
7. This is incorrect. Smith claimed to have possessed the “Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face” (D&C 17:1; Ether 3:23-28, 4:5). The introduction of the term Urim and Thummim about 1832, and the intentional comparison with the Old Testament instrument mentioned in Exodus 28:30, have caused some understandable confusion (see I.A.14, JOSEPH SMITH ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS, 8 MAY 1838, n. 1).
8. See, e.g., I.A.17, ORSON PRATT ACCOUNT, 1840, 13-14.
9. Compare III.A.14, WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 242.
10. See “Joseph Smith Addendum,” under “7. James A. Briggs Account, late March 1834 (Painesville, Ohio).