Magical Worldview




The first way in which the CES Letter seeks to discredit many living in the 19th century by saying they held a "Magical Worldview." They can't be trusted because they had some superstitious beliefs. The CES Letter dedicates pages 86-87 to this topic. Let's review the points.


In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues with their claims, one must understand the magical worldview of many people in early 19th century New England. These are people who believed in folk magic, divining rods, visions, second sight, peep stones in hats, treasure hunting (money digging or glass looking), and so on.

CES Letter, Page 86


"Digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered as honorable and profitable employment"

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This is flawed reasoning. Should we just throw out all 19th century testimonies because many of them had a magical worldview?

Additionally, what's more amazing is how magic-free the Book of Mormon is.  One would think if Joseph Smith was so impacted by magic that these magical concepts would be found in the Book of Mormon. Stephen E. Robinson provides further context:

“The Book of Mormon, written at a time when Joseph was supposedly most influenced by the magical world view, contains only six references to magic in more than five hundred pages, and two of these are merely quotations from Bible. Nevertheless, even these few references condemn magic in clearly hostile terms."

BYU Studies, 1987

Historian D. Michael Quinn said:

"Many Americans believed in divining rods, seer stones, amulets, talismans, parchments with mystical inscriptions, and buried treasure guarded by enchantments. Such objects and practices were also part of Smith's adolescence and early adulthood. Evidence for this come from the family's artifacts and reminiscences and also later statements by both Mormons and non-Mormons. Many then and now refuse to accept the religious dimension of "superstitious" beliefs and practices of folk magic. However until the mid-nineteenth century in America, scientists, college educated clergymen, lay preachers, civic leaders, wealthy landowners, as well as ill-educated and socially disadvantaged practiced forms of folk magic. This represented an alternative to academic magic which required knowledge of ancient languages and careful attention to written magical texts. Folk magic was often preserved by oral tradition, though its adherents included Oxford and Harvard graduates as well as the poorly educated devout Christians, and non-believers. Likewise, until the mid-nineteenth century, institutional religion was a minority experience in the United States, while folk religion was the experience of 80-90 percent of Americans. Literacy and social class did not determine who participated in folk religion or folk magic in early America."

 - Mormon Hierarchy, Origins of Power. Ch. 1

"Digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered as honorable and profitable employment"

"One gentleman...digging...ten to twelve years, found a sufficient quantity of money to build him a commodious house.

". . .another...dug up...fifty thousand dollars!"See Palmyra Herald (24 July 1822); cited in Russell Anderson, "The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith," (2002 FAIR Conference presentation.) Click here: FairMormon link

Money was found "by the help of a mineral stone, (which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it)."

See "Wonderful Discovery," Wayne Sentinel [Palmyra, New York] (27 December 1825), page 2, col. 4. Reprinted from the Orleans Advocate of Orleans, New York; cited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 170–171. Click here


Many people believed in buried treasure, the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is one reason why treasure digging as a paid service was practiced. Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother Hyrum had engaged in treasure hunting from 1820–1827.

CES Letter, Page 86


The Smiths were farmers. Palmyra tax records indicate that they spent significant time upgrading the land for farming use.

Historical evidence does not support a conclusion that treasure hunting was a "business" with the Smith family.

“The Smith farm had a perimeter of one and 2/3 miles. To fence that distance with a standard stone and stinger fence required moving tons of stone from fields to farm perimeter, then cutting and placing about 4,000 ten-foot rails. This does not include the labor and materials involved in fencing the barnyard, garden, pastures, and orchard, which, at a conservative estimate, required an additional 2,000 to 3,000 cut wooden rails. Clearly, this work alone—all of it separate from the actual labor of farming—represents a prodigious amount of concerted planning and labor....

In comparison to others in the township and neighborhood, the Smiths' efforts and accomplishments were superior to most. In the township, only 40 percent of the farms were worth more per acre and just 25 percent were larger. In the "neighborhood," only 29 percent of the farms were worth more and only 26 percent were larger. (Donald L. Enders, "The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee," in Joseph Smith, The Prophet, The Man, edited by Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993), 219, 221.) Click here

One neighbor “stated that one of their church leaders came to her father to remonstrate against his allowing such close friendship between his family and the "Smith boy," as he called him. Her father, she said, defended his own position by saying that the boy was the best help he had ever found.” (From the Notebook of Martha Cox, Grandmother of Fern Cox Anderson, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah)

Joseph Knight said that Joseph Smith, Jr. was “the best hand [my father] ever hired” (Autobiography of Joseph Knight Jr., 1, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah)


Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell, who Joseph mentions in his history. In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York on the complaint of Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.”

CES Letter, Page 86


Josiah Stowell was a strong believer in Joseph throughout his life. It was Stowell's nephew who brought Joseph to court because he believe he uncle was being taken advantage of.

The CES Letter does not tell us that Stowell testified in favor of Joseph. Stowell would go on to join the Church and died a faithful member in 1844. Multiple authors have debunked this charge.

Joseph came to a preliminary hearing and was discharged. Why doesn’t The CES Letter tell us he was not found guilty, and this hearing was never invoked in subsequent trials?

In a letter written by his son, Josiah Stowell Jr., to John S. Fullmer in February 1843, Josiah Stowell expressed his belief in the Prophet and the Book of Mormon.

Josiah Stowell dictated a letter to the Joseph smith in Nauvoo on December 19, 1843, and told him of his desire "to come to Zion the next season"; however, conditions prevented his doing so. Josiah Stowell died in Smithboro, Tioga County, New York, on May 12, 1844.

The nephew who brought charges seems to have had religious issues with Joseph: “Within a month after the trial he was licensed as an exhorter by the Methodists and within three years had helped establish the West Bainbridge Methodist Church. Upon his death in 1872 his fellow ministers characterized him as 'an ardent Methodist and any attack upon either the doctrines or the polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church, within his field of labor, was sure to be repelled by him with a vigorous hand." Is it possible that the trial of Joseph Smith was just one of his first attempts to apply a "vigorous hand?" Click here.


It would not have been unusual during this time for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to come up to you and say, “I received a vision of the Lord!” and for you to respond, in all seriousness, “Well, what did the Lord say?”

CES Letter, Page 86


This is a strange 19th hypothetical conversation. Yes, people used to be more religious, but that doesn't make them automatically more gullible.

This is a strange hypothetical conversation. Yes, people were more religious but that doesn't mean they we're a bunch of gullible dupes.