Memories of Joe Smith - 1869
Moore’s Rural New Yorker – January 2, 1869
Pen and Pencil Sketches Illustrating their Early History. I.
BY A. W. COWLES, D. D.
MORMON HILL OR HILL CAMORA, MANCHESTER, ONTARIO CO., N. Y.
Here Joe Smith claimed that the Golden Bible was found. The above is taken
from the road a little to the North of the "Big Tree," called "Joe Smith's Willow."
THE rise of a new religion
in the midst of the nineteenth century, under the very eyes of our most
intelligent civilization and in the very center of one of the most highly
favored districts of Western New York, is an event that may well excite the
attention and interest of every thoughtful mind. The birth of a new faith, the
promulgation of a new revelation, is far more rare and strange than the
beginning of a new nation. Yet many of the first organizers of the Mormon Church
are still alive. The first preacher still lives. Many still remember the first
prophet and seer, who gravely asserted his divine commission to discover and
translate a new volume of the word of GOD, and to introduce a new and complete
dispensation of doctrines, prophecies and miracles, with new promises of earthly
prosperity and new securities for eternal salvation.
It is exceedingly desirable to gather up and record in some reliable form all the authentic information that can be obtained concerning this strange movement which has had such wonderful success, and which, in less than forty years has grown into one of the most compact, efficient, ecclesiastical organizations for self-defense, self- perpetuation, and extensive propogation. It may have in it the seeds of its own speedy dissolution, but these do not yet appear. The locomotive may plow through its barriers and dissipate its strange forces, but so far as we now see its numbers and wealth, its superstitious bigotry and fanaticism are all increasing with astonishing and alarming rapidity. Probably one million converts and their children have given their assent to the divine authority of the Mormon creed. Flourishing missions are established in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Italy, France, Malta, India, China, Australia, South America and the Sandwich Islands. The Mormon Bible has been translated into German, French, Italian, Danish and Welsh languages. Adriot, energetic missionaries -- easy, unscrupulous and Jesuitical -- go everywhere, among the poor, ignorant, and discontented masses of the old world and promise them a home and land of their own, with an easy religion, with sanctified indulgences suited to every taste and passion, all covered with the garb of both respectability and piety. All this has grown out of the efforts of a family of shiftless, lazy, dreamy, superstitious SMITHS, to get a living without work.
The Smith family, from its great numbers, must be acknowledged to be an ancient, prolific, industrious and therefore unquestionably honorable family, and like all ancient and honorable families, have some branches that are decayed and worthless.
Yet many Smiths have forged out worthy deeds and noble names, and deserve to have a sledge and an anvil for their armorial device. Many have made their mark in the world; some have cut their marks so deep and broad as to turn them into the very currents of history.
None of the world-renowned Smiths have made the family name more notorious, famous, or infamous than the first apostle, prophet and seer of the Mormons, JOSEPH SMITH, JR., generally and less respectfully called Joe Smith. It is not yet clear whether his renown is owing to his genius, his impudent imposture, his adroit shrewdness, or to a more lucky strike into a rich vein of superstitious credulity and ignorance which runs underneath even the highest civilization. Perhaps we shall not be far from the truth if we say that his success was owing to all these combined, except the first. Joe Smith was not a genius. He was the lazy son of a superstitious, visionary father -- an ignorant Vermonter, who came to Western New York, and settled in the village of Palmyra, Wayne county. He gained a scanty living by chance jobs of well-digging, gardening, hiring out to farmers, and sometime after added the trafficin gingerbread, root beer and candies. In his well-digging, he professed the most implicit confidence in the witch-hazel wand. With a solemn air of profound mystery he would obey the magic twig, and point out the very spot where water would surely be found. His confidence in this also extended to other things besides water hid in the bowels of the earth. He soon professed to discern silver mines or buried coin in the banks and hills of the farms around the village, and many a night he superintended excavations, with laborious digging and with large promises of treasure which would speedily enrich them all. It is said that he nearly or quite ruined several of his credulous neighbors through those schemes of money-digging. It is also stated that when his credit as a seer was well nigh exhausted, he buried a few silver coins to keep up the hopes of his victims. He found it expedient to remove from his old neighbors to a rough, neglected wood lot of about eight acres, in the edge of the town of Manchester, Ontario Co., N. Y.
Joe was now about fifteen years of age and a "chip of [sic] the old block," inheriting a disposition to see and hear all sorts of mysterious things -- dreamy, taciturn, lazy, and fully expecting to get rich without work -- as the height of his earthly hopes. He became, also, expert in the use of the hazel wand, and his visions of mysterious treasure even went beyond those of his father. All this delighted his father, who often boasted of his wonderful powers. A new impulse was given to the superstitious visions of father and son, by finding a piece of semi-transparent quartz in digging a well for a Mr. Chase, of Palmyra. Smith, senior, and the elder sons were digging the well and the lazy Joe looking on. The diggers threw out a curious looking white stone which Joe at once appropriated. This stone he professed to use as a wonderful revealer of lost or stolen goods or of buried treasure, and the digging was renewed with greater enthusiasm then ever before. This was chiefly at night. The day was spent in lounging, drinking whisky, reading novels and stories about Captain Kidd and his buried booty. His taste for reading increased and at length took a serious turn. He read the Bible, especially its historical narratives and prophecies. He once made some profession of special interest in religion and thought of joining the Methodist class. He, however, held strange and conceited views of Scripture, and begun to dispute all the commonly received notions of religion. From some source he adopted the theory that a former race of high civilization and wealth inhabited this country. This again gave additional plausibility to his wonderful promises of buried treasure, but this could not last long with the uniform failure of all the divining and digging. His credit was at stake. Something must be done -- something new must turn up. About this time a stranger was seen to visit the home of the Smiths. It has been asserted that this mysterious stranger must have been SIDNEY RIGDON, to whom has been very generally attributed the furnishing of the manuscript from which the Mormon Bible was printed. Rigdon, who is now living, and with whom the writer recently had a personal interview, positively denies all knowledge of the Book of Mormon until after it was printed. If Rigdon's denial be admitted, this stranger remains unknown; and whoever he was, unquestionably aided in placing the fabulous romance in the hands of the arch impostor.
Joe Smith began now with his magic white stone to utter prophecies of a buried revelation, which, when discovered and interpreted, would tell the history of the ancients races and usher in a new dispensation. He employed men to dig in solemn silence, he holding the hazel wand and pointing where the spade should strike. He asserted that on two occasions they had just reached the buried chest, or coffer, and an unlucky word broke the charm and the chest moved itself away from their reach. He averred that he himself seized hold of the mysterious box and by the wiles of the devil, it was violently snatched away. He then declared that a sacrifice would be necessary to drive away the infernal powers, whose malicious wrath knew no bounds in prospect of a new religion so much superior to all the old religions of all past ages, and so much more damaging to the kingdom of Satan. A sacrifice was offered; a fine, fat, black sheep was contributed by a farmer, and yet the digging was unsuccessful, although the Smith family shared the greater part of the fat mutton for their own table.
At length, when alone on the sacred hill, called in the language of the Mormon Bible, Camora, Smith succeeded, as he affirms, in seizing and holding the refractory chest. He had before been fully informed of its sacred contents and had been directed how to proceed. His efforts were crowned with complete success and the golden plates of the Mormon were in his hands.
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