Skip to content

228: A Nuanced View to Joseph Smith’s Youth

To the Orthodox Believer who thinks that outside Joseph Smith’s leg surgery that we know very little.  This gets more complex than that.  We actually know a lot more about Joseph’s youth and some of his experiences.  We hope you enjoy this chance to better understand the early life of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Most of us know the basic story.  Joseph was born in Sharon Vermont on Dec 23, 1805.  His parents Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith Senior.  They were the parents of 11 children (two of the children died soon after birth), of which Joseph was the 5th.

We have all likely heard the story of Joseph Smith’s leg surgery.  Around the age of 8 Joseph contracted what he called Typhus Fever and a infection settled in the bone of his leg.  Several procedures were done by nearby physicians to relieve the pain and swelling but the infection continued to get worse and amputations seemed like the only recourse.  Through the tender mercies of God, the only physician capable of doing the procedure that cured young Joseph happened to be residing nearby.  a Doctor Nathan Smith who had been developing a new procedure to treat such bone afflictions was called upon and his procedure saved Joseph Smith’s leg and perhaps his life.  More can be read about the surgery HERE & HERE & HERE & HERE

That said there are many other experiences in the life of Joseph that we as members discuss very little that likely had a much bigger impact on his life and future role as Prophet of this dispensation.  Let go over some of these.

1.) The extreme likely hood that Joseph Smith Sr. and some of his boys were Water Witchers and knew the craft of using a diving rod.

Most readers of Church history will pick out that the Smith boys and their father were often called upon to dig wells.  We often never consider the gravity of this in a time long before the use of electronic equipment to reveal where various compunds and materials are underneath the earth.  To dig a well was hard work and took some time.  If one were to select the wrong place to dig, days would be wasted and energy spent in vain.  Hence it was crucial to know where that water was.  Those who dug wells in Joseph day often located water with the use of a diving rod.

We have four witness in the historical sources who say that Joseph was taught by his father how to use a divining rod around the age of 11.   Oliver Cowdery also appeared to have this gift and Joseph dictated a revelation to Oliver that discusses Olivers use of a Water Witching Rod. Please see LDS official source HERE.

Even today many farmers and well diggers still insist on using such a method to “divine” where water is located before digging.

2.) Joseph associated with “Scryers” in the palmyra area and becomes a scryer himself who expands beyond locating water.

A Scryer is defined one who uses divination to discover hidden knowledge, item, or percieves future events; especially by means of a crystal ball.  Surprisingly there were several scryers in the palmyra area.  One of those was Luman Walters.  Luman was born around 1789.  Perhaps as early as 1818 and certainly by the early 1820’s he is residing in Ontario County, NY just a mere 22 miles away from the Smith family.   Multiple witnesses tell of Luman’s Walters treasure digs in an effort to locate buried treasure beneath the earth.  It is believed by Mormon Scholar D. Michael Quinn that Luman Walters served in a sort of mentor role to Joseph Smith when it came to scrying and “treasure digging” or searching for buried treasure beneath the earth and several historical sources speak to this.  Joseph associated with other scryers as well, such as Sally Chase, Jack Belcher, Hiram Page, Chauncey Hart, William Stafford, Joshua Stafford, Samuel T Lawerence, and others.  Some of these individuals eventually joined the LDS Church and some played prominent roles in it’s history.

3.) Joseph gets his first Seer Stone in 1819, before the First Vision


Sally Chase who we have already mentioned was a scryer.  She had a green translucent seer stone and Joseph in an effort to find a seer stone for himself asked to use hers.  Looking into her green stone he was able to locate a seer stone 150 miles away buried near a tree.

Going to the place perceived in his mind and proceeding to dig, Joseph located his first seer stone, A whitish opaque stone which he used to in his early days as a “seer” hence the term “seer stone”.

4.) Joseph gets his second seer stone in 1822 before his first visit from Moroni.

Joseph came into possession of his second seer stone by locating it while digging a well with Willard Chase (Sally Chase’s brother).  Wilford Woodruff says Brigham Young shared with him and others how Joseph located this stone.

“Preside[n]t Young also said that the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained He got in an Iron kettle 25 feet under ground. He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had. He went right to the spot & dug & found it” (Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 5:382-83).

Willard Chase who was there also tells us

In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith …. We discovered a singularly appearing stone …. Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.  After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it …. I ordered the stone to be returned to me again. He had it in his possession about two years.  Some time in 1825, Hiram came to me, and wished to borrow the same stone …. I told him if he would pledge me his word and honor, that I should have it when called for, he might take it.

Later in Life Willard also disputes who was the rightful owner of the stone

In the fall of 1826, a friend called upon me and wished to see that stone …. On going to Smith’s, and asking him for the stone, he said, “you cannot have it;” I told him it belonged to me, repeated to him the promise he made me, at the time of obtaining the stone: upon which he faced me with a malignant look and said, “I don’t care who in the Devil it belongs to, you shall not have it.”

As late as 1830 Willard was still making attempts to get the stone into his possession.

It is this stone that is almost certainly the one Joseph used to translate most if not all of the Book of Mormon we have today.

5.)  Joseph Smith and his brothers became very involved in Treasure Digging

The Smith family practiced various types of scrying.  Water Witching, or the location of water using a diving rod.  Helping friends and neighbors locate lost items by putting a seer stone into a hat and burying one’s face into the hat to help locate the lost item.  But at some point the Smiths and others in the neighborhood also are involved in “Treasure Hunting” or “Treasure Digging”.  The practice involved the belief that there were treasures such as Spanish gold that were buried underground.   These treasures were often believed to have been protected by guardian spirits and that the spirits could move the treasure if the rituals were not practiced exactly as they were proscribed.   Often Joseph was the scryer on these digs meaning that he was the one telling the group where the treasure was buried.  He did this by placing his seer stone in a hat and burying his face in the hat to exclude all light.  We have several historical accounts of those involved in these treasure digs in Palmyra reporting that as they were digging for the treasure Joseph would tell them the treasure was slipping further into the earth.  These rituals at times included the drawing of magic circles, likely animal sacrifices including dogs, and guardian spirits.  We have accounts of those involved saying that Joseph remarked that there were spirits protecting the treasure and one account even describes the guardian spirit as a “throat slit Spaniard”.  Emma Smith’s cousin Hiel and Joseph Lewis reported

“He [Joe Smith] said that by a dream he was informed that at such a place in a certain hill, in an iron box, were some gold plates with curious engravings, which he must get and translate, and write a book; that the plates were to be kept concealed from every human being for a certain time, some two or three years; that he went to the place and dug till he came to the stone that covered the box, when he was knocked down; that he again attempted to remove the stone, and was again knocked down; this attempt was made the third time, and the third time he was knocked down. “Then he exclaimed, “Why can’t I get it?” or words to that effect; and then he saw a man standing over the spot, which to him appeared like a Spaniard, having a long beard coming down over his breast to about here, (Smith putting his hand to the pit of his stomach) with his (the ghost’s) throat cut from ear to ear, and the blood streaming down, who told him that he could not get it alone; that another person whom he, Smith, would know at first sight, must come with him, and then he could get it. And when Smith saw Miss Emma Hale, he knew that she was the person, and that after they were married, she went with him to near the place, and stood with her back toward him, while he dug up the box, which he rolled up in his frock” (Amboy Journal, Amboy, Illinois, 24, 30 Apr. 1879).

6.) There were several treasure dig sites including the hill Joseph called Cumorah where the plates were eventually revealed.

While Joseph tried to downplay his treasure digging activities even going so far as to say when asked about it

Was not Joseph Smith a money digger? Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it. (Joseph speaking in the third person) – Joseph Smith, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Kirtland, Ohio] 2 no. 3 (July 1838), 43. Also reproduced in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 120; History of the Church 3:29; Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 271.

Joseph seemed uncomfortable talking much about this part of his youth but the the depth and breadth of his being involved is much more than a few small endeavors.

Dan Vogel a well respected scholar of Mormon history has written a detailed article detailing what we know about the various treasure digging sites.  It appears that there may be approximately 18 sites, give or take.  Included is a photo listing the sites.

Treasure Sites

At least one of these digs appears to have taken place on the hill called “Cumorah” by Joseph in 1825.  And these digs were extensive as the photo from the Mormon Hill dig that follows depicts


7.)  Joseph was to take someone with him to retrieve the plates and that person was not originally Emma.

When Moroni spoke to Joseph, he informed him that he would need to bring someone with him to the Hill Cumorah to retrieve the plates.  Moroni even told him who that person was…. Joseph’s older brother Alvin.  The problem though is that Alvin’s dies before the date arrives.  Moroni again visits with Joseph and informs him that since Alvin has died the person he needs to bring is another Palmyra scryer Samuel T Lawrence.  But soon after Joseph changes his mind or is informed by Moroni that the actual right person to bring is Emma Hale.

8.) Many of Palmyra’s scryers were working against Joseph to try and get the plates from him

On the night Joseph got the plates from the hill on September 21st 1827, Joseph Smith Sr. was sent to spy on Samuel Lawrence’s house until dark. Joseph recovers plates with Emma at midnight. Ten to twelve money diggers are working with Willard Chase. Chase sends for his own conjurer (Samuel Lawrence) to determine where the plates are hidden. Conjurers, including Sally Chase with her green glass and another diviner brought in from sixty miles away (Samuel Lawrence according to Lucy Mack Smith), tried to locate the plates by the stone. To elude Chase and Lawrence, Joseph moved the plates from the hearth to the cooper’s shop in the yard where Joseph Smith, Sr. carried on his trade. He buried the box under a floorboard and hid the plates themselves in a pile of flax in the shop loft. That night, Willard Chase and his sister, Sally Chase (with her green glass), came with their friends to search. They rummaged around outside but did not come in. Lucy learned later that Sally Chase told the men the plates were in the coopering shop. The next morning, the Smiths found the floor torn up and the box smashed. To their relief, the plates were safely buried in the flax.  – Richard L. Bushman,Rough Stone Rolling

9.) While the critics want to paint Joseph as a fraud, Joseph’s reputation as a successful scryer is evidence that something more was going on.

One simply needs to ask how Joseph Smith met Emma Hale?  The fact is that that Emma lived in Harmony PA and Joseph residing in Palmyra was almost 300 miles away.  The reason these two meet is that Josiah Stowell hires Joseph to head up a treasure dig in Harmony PA and Joseph stays with the Hales while employed by Stowell.  So why does Josiah Stowell travel 300 miles to hire Joseph Smith?  Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother says that Josiah Stowell came all the way from Pennsylvania to see her son

on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.

Below are instances where there seems to be some credibility to Joseph’s ability as a “seer”

In the first place, he told me of this stone, and proposed to bind it on his eyes, and run a race with me in the woods. A few days after this, I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth, and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, ‘Take your stone.’ I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat– the old white hat–and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin. – Martin Harris

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them. – Martin Harris

Josiah Stowel sworn: says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months; had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt spring; and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and did ‘possess the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone; that he found the [word illegible] at Bend and Monument Hill as prisoner represented it; that prisoner had looked through said stone for Deacon Attleton for a mine, did not exactly find it, but got a p— [word unfinished] of ore which resembled gold, he thinks; that prisoner had told by means of this stone where a Mr. Bacon had buried money; that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner had said it was in a certain root of a stump five feet from surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather; that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a tail feather, but money was gone; that he supposed the money moved down. That prisoner did offer his services; that he never deceived him; that prisoner looked through stone and described Josiah Stowel’s house and outhouses, while at Palmyra at Simpson Stowel’s, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree, with a man’s head painted upon it, by means of said stone. That he had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner’s skill. – Josiah Stowel

10.) Joseph had at least three seer stones during his life and likely had others as well.

He got his third known seer stone, a green stone, by Jack Belcher in Susquehanna Valley.  –  The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 page 151-152

In fact Brigham Young said Joseph had told him and others


“Every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make evil use of it.” (Brigham Young’s journal, as quoted in Latter-day Millennial Star, 26:118,119)

Once one knows the history of Joseph youth one can see that Joseph family were very involved with the mystical and “frontier magic”.  These ideas and beliefs were full of parallels to Moroni and the gold plates and likely played strongly into Joseph’s framework and perspective.  Even later after he has the plates and is translating using the Urim & Thummim, he eventually abandons those divine instruments instead returning to the seer stone in the hat that he had used comfortably for years to complete his translation of the Book of Mormon.  We are left to to discern where Joseph Frontier Magic ends and his Prophethood begins.  For the faithful we should see that Hoseph’s childhood is much more complex than we had been taught, none the less it plays a huge role in our having the Book of Mormon as seen by Emma Hale Smith’s quote which I leave you with

“In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us” – (Emma Bidamon Smith interview, 1879, available in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, Volume 1, p. 541)





3 thoughts on “228: A Nuanced View to Joseph Smith’s Youth”

  1. It’s sad to see you go down a path in my opinion out of the church. I think you are on the same ride that John Dehlin is on.
    With each post you make its not about building faith but creating doubt and mistrust with the leadership doctrines and beliefs of the church.

    At times I found some of your very very old stuff intriguing or even faith building but now it has all changed.

    Your to antagonistic on the same level of anti’s. I don’t know if I can continue to follow your website anymore. The ex Mormons might like it but it’s not for me.
    You might as well post your views on ex Mormon websites unless of course you want to disguise your website as a faith building website or in your case call it mistakingly leading with faith.

    1. Would you prefer we ignore the messiness in order to protect our comfortable beliefs? Or would you prefer we search for truth no matter what it does to our comfortable beliefs? Or are you suggesting I was dishonest or shared False data as “facts”? If so please help me see where I was inaccurate? Also still waiting on your effort to schedule our recorded discussion.

  2. Will their be a part two that discusses Joseph Smith participation in local churches even after 1820 and his creativity as a story teller?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *