Joseph Smith’s Treasure Digging In Doctrine and Covenants

The church has reluctantly had to admit that Joseph Smith used his seer stones in his efforts to translate the Book of Mormon and not just the Urim and Thummim he received with the gold plates. They don’t like to admit that the seer stone in question is the same one he used in his treasure-digging efforts as a youth (and beyond). Today, they do include a short sentence or two when needed to acknowledge that he was in fact involved in treasure digging along with his family. They can’t deny it because there is overwhelming evidence for it. He was even taken to court for it. They now dismiss it as a youthful pastime of folly that he put away when he grew up and even that the Lord commanded him to put his “skills” toward building the church rather than finding free money in the ground. They don’t mention he stopped because he was busted and tried for conning people out of their money.

Church Leaders Denied Joseph’s Money Digging Practices

Historically the church has denied that Joseph was involved in treasure digging, but today they must admit it because the evidence is undeniable. As Apostle, Elder John A. Widtsoe, wrote in the Improvement Era of August 1946, “Joseph Smith was not a money digger, nor did he deceive people with peepstone claims”:

"Joseph Smith was not a money digger, nor did he deceive people with peepstone claims. It is almost beyond belief that writers who value their reputations, would reproduce these silly and untrue charges." - LDS Apostle Elder John A. Widtsoe, 1946 |
“Joseph Smith was not a money digger, nor did he deceive people with peepstone claims. It is almost beyond belief that writers who value their reputations, would reproduce these silly and untrue charges.” – LDS Apostle Elder John A. Widtsoe, 1946

The claims that Joseph Smith had had communication with supernatural beings furnished the foundation for the later tales of Mormon-haters about Joseph’s peepstone activities. Then, by the usual accretions from many lips, the story grew, and was fed and fostered by those in whose hearts was a hate of the work to which Joseph Smith was called by God. All of the Prophet’s history points away from superstition, and towards belief in an unseen world in which God and his associates dwell.

Carefully examined, the charges against the Smith family and Joseph Smith, the boy and young man, fail to be proved. There is no acceptable evidence to support them, only gossip, and deliberate misrepresentation. The Smith family were poor but honest, hard-working, and religious people. Joseph Smith was not a money digger, nor did he deceive people with peepstone claims. It is almost beyond belief that writers who value their reputations, would reproduce these silly and untrue charges. It suggests that they may have set out to destroy “Mormonism,” rather than to detail true history.

The life of Joseph Smith as boy and youth, was normal, and worthy of imitation by all lovers of truth.

Improvement Era August 1946, Evidences and Reconciliations, Elder John A. Widtsoe

Admitting Joseph Was a Glass-Looking Treasure-Digging Seer

Compare Elder Widtsoe’s remarks in the official church publication in 1946 to what the church states today in the online study materials:

Joseph occasionally used stones he located in the ground to help neighbors find missing objects or search for buried treasure.

Church History Topics: Seer Stones
"Joseph occasionally used stones he located in the ground to help neighbors find missing objects or search for buried treasure." - LDS Church Website, Church History Topics, Seer Stones |
“Joseph occasionally used stones he located in the ground to help neighbors find missing objects or search for buried treasure.” – LDS Church Website, Church History Topics, Seer Stones

They admit that he used his stones to help others find missing objects or search for buried treasure. They don’t include the fact that he never actually found any of these missing objects or buried treasure.

Joseph Uses Stones to Help

Joseph didn’t just “help” neighbors out of the goodness of his heart. He did it because they paid him for his glass-looking services. This is the definition of being a money-digger, which Elder Widstoe denies Joseph did. The way the church frames it he simply helped others, but in reality, he conned his neighbors. We even have an instance where Joseph himself clarified that he was paid (fourteen dollars a month) for his services, to be fair he also suggests it wasn’t a profitable venture.

Another apologetic that is common to Joseph Smith’s treasure digging is that he did not make that much money out of it. In a question and answer session in 1838, Joseph Smith was asked about his money digging as it was a story that followed him as he gained followers and fame:

“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 Smith, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Kirtland, Ohio] 2 no. 3 (July 1838), 43)

Many apologists point to this statement to show that Joseph Smith didn’t make much from money digging, so it’s really not a problem. But when you look at the statistics, that idea falls apart quickly.

In 1827, farm laborers were paid just nine dollars a month in Vermont. So not only did Joseph Smith make over 50% more as a money digger, but he also avoided the hard labor of digging as he was the “seer” who would sit with the rock in a hat while directing the others on where to dig.

LDS Discussions: Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith and Treasure Digging

The church study page on Treasure Digging also states that Joseph never denied the charge (and alluding to the fact that nothing has been hidden). It states that critics called him “a money digger or a treasure seeker” to disparage him. Though yes, Joseph acknowledged this, the church didn’t until very recently.

The church wants to make it sound common for folks of the time to use stones to search for lost or hidden objects. This was maybe common but it was not accepted, in fact, it was illegal – which is why Joseph was taken to court! The church doesn’t mention this either, and only includes the idea that Joseph stops because the Lord commands him to stop treasure digging to focus on the Book of Mormon translation.

Joseph Smith’s critics often tried to disparage him by calling him a money digger or a treasure seeker. Rather than deny the charge, Joseph acknowledged in his official history that Josiah Stowell had hired him in 1825 to assist in a treasure-seeking venture in northern Pennsylvania…

As Joseph prepared to translate the Book of Mormon, he was commanded to have nothing further to do with those who sought treasure and instead use his gift to translate and seek revelation.

Though it was not uncommon in Joseph Smith’s time and place to encounter people who claimed to use stones to search for lost or hidden objects, using a seer stone to translate an ancient record was unheard of. God gave Joseph Smith power to translate the Book of Mormon, redirecting Joseph’s use of the seer stone toward work of a spiritual nature.

Church History Topics: Treasure Seeking

The apologists and the church tell us that Smith had long left behind his treasure-seeking days, which were a mere youthful pastime – but not so. Smith was a conjurer – a con man and he employed deceptive tactics to fool people into trusting him. His past character and trade involved expeditions of deliberate deception to find treasure. When they failed, as they always did since we have no record of any success, he employed the same types of excuses: (1) The incantations performed at the site were not quite correct (2) The guardian angels of the treasure had moved it further down (3) A curse has been placed upon it, etc.

Joseph’s Treasure Digging as Prophet

Did Joseph actually stop treasure-digging? Some say that founding a church is the ultimate form of striking it rich with treasure. We have accounts of Joseph still treasure digging with his seer stone. There is one actually found in the scriptures! It’s been cleaned up a little so as to not look like a treasure dig. But it was, even down to the excuses after it failed.

In August 1836, his addiction to treasure digging lures him to pretend to a revelation (D&C 111) having “the Lord” direct him to secure money under a house in Salem, which once more, was a complete failure.

D&C 111 is a Treasure Dig

Treasure Digging in D&C 111: Section Heading and Verses 2-4. 2. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion... 3. it shall be given you... 4. its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours. When it became apparent that no money was to be forthcoming, they returned to Kirtland. |
Treasure Digging in D&C 111: Section Heading and Verses 2-4: 2. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion… 3. it shall be given you… 4. its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours. Heading: When it became apparent that no money was to be forthcoming, they returned to Kirtland.

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Salem, Massachusetts, August 6, 1836. At this time the leaders of the Church were heavily in debt due to their labors in the ministry. Hearing that a large amount of money would be available to them in Salem, the Prophet, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Oliver Cowdery traveled there from Kirtland, Ohio, to investigate this claim, along with preaching the gospel. The brethren transacted several items of Church business and did some preaching. When it became apparent that no money was to be forthcoming, they returned to Kirtland.

I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality.

Therefore, it is expedient that you should form acquaintance with men in this city, as you shall be led, and as it shall be given you.

And it shall come to pass in due time that I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it, insomuch that they shall not discover your secret parts; and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours.

10 For there are more treasures than one for you in this city.

Doctrine and Covenants 111 Chapter Heading and 2-4, 10

If the scripture verses are not enough, we can look at the church’s own historical resources which readily admit that Joseph went in search of rumored treasure, prophesied that they would find it, and came home empty-handed. The historical introduction to the section states that Joseph heard about treasure buried beneath a house, and then received a revelation stating that he would be able to obtain said treasure. He was under heavy financial stress at the time and seeking relief, they were finishing the Kirtland temple and many church leaders were now in debt. The rumors of buried treasure must have been hard to resist. With a religion behind him and being used to receiving revelations, he was able to combine his treasure-digging and his religion-making into one experience. He believed the tip and feverishly looked for the hidden money with a revelation to sustain the search, but still found nothing.

The four church leaders were likely motivated by a concern about Zion and the financial situation of the church, particularly a need to reduce debts of church leaders. The financial burden placed on them by finishing the House of the Lord in Kirtland and purchasing land in Ohio and Missouri had added significantly to the church’s existing debts. Following a 2 April 1836 meeting at which JS and Cowdery were assigned to raise money to purchase land in Missouri, the men appear to have encountered difficulties in finding members willing to give their money or land for the cause of Zion…

Related to the revelation’s statement that there was “much treasure” in Salem, two later accounts from individuals not directly involved in the journey state that JS traveled to the eastern United States to search for treasure or hidden money. In an 1843 pamphlet, sixteen-year-old dissident James C. Brewster briefly mentioned treasure hunting in relation to JS’s 1836 trip. Ebenezer Robinson wrote an account in 1889, fifty-three years after JS’s trip, that also linked the 1836 trip and searching for treasure—in fact, he claimed that the single objective of the trip was to look for hidden money in Salem. Robinson printed his account as the editor of the Return, a publication for David Whitmer’s Church of Christ. Robinson, who joined the Church of the Latter Day Saints in 1836 while working in the Kirtland printing office, stated in his reminiscences that Don Carlos Smith, who worked with him, told him that JS had learned about possible treasure from “a brother in the church, by the name of Burgess” who had come to Kirtland and “stated that a large amount of money had been secreted in the cellar of a certain house in Salem, Massachusetts, which had belonged to a widow, and he thought he was the only person now living, who had knowledge of it, or the location of the house.” Robinson claimed he was also told that Burgess met JS in Salem but that Burgess was unable to identify the house after so many years and left. Continuing their search, according to Robinson, JS and the three other men found and rented a house they thought contained the hidden money, but they were unsuccessful in finding it.

It is possible that JS had been told about hidden money in Salem and decided to pursue it to aid the church and relieve the financial and temporal pressure weighing down the branches in Kirtland and Missouri, and two contemporary documents may provide support for the statements of Brewster and Robinson. First, a promissory note was made out to a Jonathan Burgess in Salem, a tentative connection to the Burgess of Robinson’s account. Second, JS mentioned looking for a specific house in Salem in his 19 August letter to Emma Smith. Robinson’s account stated that JS rented the house and failed to find any treasure, but JS’s letter to Emma reveals that he had not been able to rent or gain access to the house. While JS seemed hopeful the situation would change, the men left Salem only a few days later and offered no indication that they had rented or even visited the sought-after house, nor is there any evidence that they later returned.

Doctrine and Covenants, Historical Resources: Doctrine and Covenants 111: Historical Introduction

Was Joseph a treasure seeker?

Yes, the church can no longer deny this, but they do side-step the question as much as they can get away with. He led digs for treasure as a boy using his seer stone, and then later using the religion he founded led a treasure dig directed by the Lord, but neither ever found anything. It even seems in this account, that Joseph believed that he might find some treasure. It does feel clear that the same skills he honed in his early treasure digging cons, served him well throughout his life as prophet.

Was Joseph Smith Successful at Treasure-seeking?

That depends. He never found any treasure, but he was paid for his work, so … one would think if he could actually find treasure, he could simply have become very rich by seeking it for himself. Why would he need to earn money seeking treasure for others? Did he finally learn to do this though? His gold plates story sounds grand and resembles a treasure dig. There are no real witnesses to the plates – even though there are purportedly 3 and 8 witnesses, though they never denied being witnesses to the plates, they only ever saw them with their “spiritual eyes”.

Even church historian Steven E. Snow notes that “By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.” (Steven E. Snow, “Joseph Smith in Harmony,” Ensign Magazine, September 2015)

There are many sources that make clear Joseph Smith used these peep/seer stones in the exact same method that he would later claim to locate the Book of Mormon plates and translate the text of the Book of Mormon

Joseph figured out a way to find treasure, by finding some ancient records which he could translate with his seer stones into stories of the Nephites and Lamanites mixed with bible passages. We know well that he could tell stories about natives as if he lived among them. He “found” a treasure in a church that could prey on the faith of believers and give him ultimate authority and richness in this life. Sadly for him, he bit off a bit more than he could chew in his lust for women and establishing polygamy. He wanted to grow his power and start a real Theocracy but the people wouldn’t have it and killed him for his misdeeds.

As always, when Smith failed, or when the Saints failed to get some predicted blessing, the blame was dumped squarely upon them. It is nauseatingly seen throughout most pages of the D&C. It came either as an accusation by God of some form of sin, moaning, selfishness, pride, or unbelief. Alternatively, Smith’s failure was sometimes excused as merely a ‘test of their faith.’ He used this face-saving method when rejected by women, whom he had preyed upon. Indeed, this is still how the church salvages the ‘Zion Camp’ reputation – it was a refining test to recognize those whom Smith could trust as his future leaders.

How does the information that Joseph was a treasure digger, that he developed this practice into a way to an actual profitable venture – the church? He conned believers into following him and joining his church. He sent them on missions, asked for their money to further “the work”, and made them feel closer to God while sleeping with their women. He used the same seer stones he did as a child defrauding money from neighbors to generate the text of the Book of Mormon which he used to create a whole religion. A religion that set him up as the ultimate authority and benefactor. How does this information fit with the things you were taught about the church? Tell your story about learning these issues on

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