Joe Smith Almost Walked on Water - 1901

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle September 25, 1901


A Correspondent Recalls a Comical Ending to Joe Smith's Attempt
to Demonstrate That He Possessed Supernatural Powers -- The
Memory of a Long Time Dead Professor of Languages in
Columbia College Defended From Mormon Aspersions --
An Effort at Imposture Which Failed.

The Mormon effort to make converts in Japan seems to have met with a discouraging set-back, recent advices from that country being to the effect that Heber J. Grant, the rich missionary from Salt Lake City, was informed by the Japanese authorities that they had no use for his religion. The Latter-Day Saints are cheered, however, by the reports which come into them from Maine, for they are steadily gaining fresh accessions to their ranks in that state. On one day last week thirty Maine converts to Mormonism, "mostly spinsters," so the dispatch states, left their late homes under the charge of a Mormon elder, bound for Salt Lake City. It is proposed to erect a Mormon temple in the East. Boston having the call for the ediface. In New Hampshire there is a lively rivalry between the Mormon elders and the apostles of Christian Science. In Brooklyn the Mormons are looking about for a permanent place to worship.

The following letter from a Connecticut clergyman will prove of interest to those who have read the Mormon leaflets concerning Joseph Smith which have been liberally circulated in this community:

To the Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle:

The readers of the Eagle have been deeply interested by the articles of your correspondent, "Mul" about the Mormon. He has shown up this false system almost as thoroughly as he did the delusions of Christian Science. We have no doubt he will be the firts to welcome any correction in a matter of detail, or any further information about Joseph Smith.

In "Mul's" second article, in your issue of June [13], he adopts, though he does not mention, the Mormon version of the visit to Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia College, N. Y., as follows:

"At Harmony Joseph copied some of the characters from the golden record and wrote below them the translation he had made by the aid of the angelic spectacles, Urim and Thummim. In February, 1828, Martin Harris took a copy of the characters and translation to New York City.

He showed them first to Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia College. Mr Anthin examined them carefully and said that the translation was correct and the best he had ever seen of Egyptian characters. He wrote a certificate to this effect and gave it to Martin. He asked how the young man [happened to] find the plates, ad when Martin said that an angel had shown him where the lay, he asked for the certificate again. Martin returned it and Mr. Anthon tore it to shreds, saying that there was no such thing as the ministering of angels.

Although Mr. Anthon was too cowardly to let his name go before the public connected with what an angel was said to have revealed, yet he would have liked to obtain worldly praise for translating the record himself, and asked Martin to bring it to him. When told that this could not be done and that part of it was sealed, he replied, "I cannot read a sealed book."

Now, Professor Anthon used to tell the story of this visit of Martin Harris to his classes. If my memory is correct, after the lapse of more than fifty years, it was this -- Harris sgowed him a lot of written characters, and asked the professor what language it was. That great master of languages saw at a glance that these disconnected characters could be no langauge whatever. The man said he had the golden plates in a trunk and Professor Anthon asked him to show them to him. He replied "he dared not open the trunk as the curse of God would rest upon him if he did so," but he added "If any man will tell me to open it, the curse would fall upon him."

Professor Anthon replied, "Yes go and open it and I will take the risk of the curse."

The professor plainly saw he was dealing with an ignorant man who was under some delusion. As for Joseph Smith, he was well known in his earlier days, in the valley of the upper Susquehanna, as a sort of vagrant who persuaded people to dig for treasure.

My wife's father was justice of the peace in the village of South Bainbridge (now Afton), New York. On one occasion Smith offered to walk on the water of the river. It was discovered, however, that he had adroitly placed boards under the surface and was [about] accomplishing his miracle by this fraud. He was brought up before the justice's court and found guilty. If such a fellow was indeed a prophet of the God of truth and righteousness, he must have experienced a very genuine and thorough conversion, but there is no record of it.   W. A. J.
Middletown, Conn., September 23, 1901.

In an old history of Chenango County, N. Y., there appears the following reference to one of the incidents to which "W. A. J." directs attention:

"To convince the unbelievers that he did possess supernatural powers he (josepj Smith) announced that he would walk upon the water. The performance was to take place in the evening, and to the astonishment of unbelievers, he did walk upon the water where it was known to be several feet deep, only sinking a few inches below the surface.

"This proving a success, a second trial was announced which bid fair to be as successful as the first, but when he had proceeded some distance into the river he suddenly went down, greatly to the disgust of himself and proselytes, but to the great amusement of the unbelievers."

"It appeared on examination that planks were laid in the river a few inches below the surface, and some wicked boys had removed a plank which caused the prophet to go down like any other mortal.

"After pretending to heal the sick, cast out devils, etc. Smith gained quite a number of followers, but at length came to grief by being prosecuted as an impostor. He was tried before Joseph P. Chamberlain, a justice of the peace. Two pettifoggers, by the name of John S. Reed and James Davidson, volunteered to defend him. Three witnesses were examined on the occasion, all of whom testified that they had seen him cast out devils.

"They saw a devil as large as a woodchuck leave the man and run across the floor; one of them saw a devil leave the man and run off like a yellow dog."

As all of the up-to-date Mormon literature misrepresents Professor Charles Anthon's real views concerning the characters brought to him for translation, justice to the memory of this long time dead master of langauges and teacher in Columbia College warrants the reproduction of an extract from a letter which he wrote February 17, 1834, to E. D. Howe, of Painesville, O. The letter, in part, reads as follows:

"Dear Sir -- I received this morning your favor of the 9th, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my pronouncing the Mormon inscriptions to be 'Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics' is perfectly false. Some years ago a plain, apparently simple-hearted farmer came to me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now dead, requesting me to decipher, if possible, a paper which the farmer would hand me. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.

"When I asked the person, who brought it how he obtained the writing, he gave me the following account: 'A gold book consisting of a number of plates fastened together by wire of the same material had been dug up in the northern part of the State of New York and along with it an enormous pair of spectacles. These spectacles were so large that if any person attempted to look through them his two eyes would look through one glass only; the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the human face.

"Whoever,he said. examined the plates through the glasses, was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning. All this knowledge, however, was confined to a young man who had the trunk containing the book and spectacles in his sole possession. This young man was placed behind a curtain in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally -- or rather, looked through one of the glasses -- deciphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those outside.

"Not a word was said about their having been deciphered by the gift of God. Everything in this way was effected by the spectacles.

"This paper handed to me was, in fact, a singular scroll [sic - scrawl?]. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle, divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source from which it was derived.

"I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends upon the subject since the Mormon excitement began and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but Egyptian hieroglyphics.

"Publish this letter immediately should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics."


Note: For further discussion of the stories about Joseph Smith walking on the water, see the comments accompanying the article in the Sept. 5, 1829 issue of the New Lisbon, Ohio, Western Palladium.