I had often wondered how Joseph Smith was able to secure employment as a money-digger or treasure-seeker after the first few attempts came up empty. Why would people continue to hire him if nobody ever was able to secure the treasures he claimed he could see buried in the earth beneath their feet? In Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, Early Mormonism and the Magic World by Michael Quinn, and in An Insider's View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer, we get a picture of the Smith family immersed in the magic world view that permeated the 19th-century American cultural milieu.
These three works on early Mormon history reveal how Joseph Smith's treasure-seeking enterprise often worked. Joseph Smith had a seer stone (more than one, apparently) and the magical gift known as "second sight," by which he could gaze at the stone (either by holding it up to a light, such as a candle or the sun or, alternatively, by placing it in a hat) and in his "mind's eye" he could see, among other things, treasure buried in the ground in the surrounding countryside.
Joseph was able to convince many of his neighbors that he had this gift of seership. Typically, folks would hire Joseph to tell them where treasure was buried and to help retrieve the same. Joseph would look into his peep stone, receive a vision, and direct the expedition to the spot where the treasure was buried. Here is where it gets interesting. To obtain the treasure, special rituals and incantations would have to be performed with exacting specificity. Invariably, the expeditions would fail to retrieve any treasure. As described by a witness in Joseph Smith's 1826 trial tells of how the search for buried treasure worked:
Jonathan Thompson says that prisoner [Joseph Smith] was requested to look for chest of money; did look, and pretended to know where it was; and that prisoner, Thompson, and Yeomans went in search of it; that Smith arrived at spot first; was at night; that Smith looked in hat while there, and when very dark, told how the chest was situated. After digging several feet, struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. Prisoner would not look again, pretending that he was alarmed on account of the circumstances relating to the trunk being buried, [which] came all fresh to his mind. That the last time he [Joseph Smith] looked he discovered distinctly the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them, and that one of said Indians was killed by the other, and thrown into the hole beside the trunk, to guard it, as he supposed. Thompson says that he believes in the prisoner's professed skill; that the board which he struck his spade upon was probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment the trunk kept settling away from under them when digging, that notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them. Says prisoner said that it appeared to him that salt might be found at Bainbridge, and that he is certain that prisoner can divine things by means of said stone.
This story is consistent with many others told about Joseph Smith and the treasure-digging enterprise. Joseph would identify the location of the buried treasure and his cohorts, convinced of the reality of his gift and the verity of his visions, would follow the rituals he described, utter the magical chants, and dig. Invariably, they would come up empty-handed; sometimes, as in the account above, they would come tantalizingly close, but alas, no treasure was ever unearthed as a consequence of Joseph's visionary exploits.
So how did Joseph maintain his reputation as a man with the gift of second sight? Notice how the witness in the above account continued to maintain a belief that Joseph could "divine things by means of said stone." For a thorough examination of the issue, see Quinn's book. But in short, the people believed that the hidden treasures had corresponding spells that had to be broken in order for them to be unearthed. Guardian spirits stood watch and only by following an exact ritual, saying the right words in the right order, standing in the right place, being in the right frame of mind, etc. could the spell be broken and the guardian spirit defeated. So, it was easy for Joseph Smith to say something to the effect that "the treasure was there, but it slipped away because we didn't stand in the right place or utter the right words in the right way." And this did not seem incredible to his fellow travelers. I find it interesting that the idea of treasures being hidden in the earth and slipping away is found in the Book of Mormon.
Today we see a vestige of this magical thinking in the Mormon approach to ordinances, which must be performed with precision in order to be deemed effective. Consider baptism: for it to be effective (1) it must be performed by one having proper priesthood authority who is worthy, (2) it must be by immersion with not a hair or a toe popping up over the water, (3) the baptismal prayer must be spoken with exactness, and (4) two priesthood-holding witnesses must aver that these requirements were met. Any deviation from these requirements renders the baptism ineffective. Consider also the sacrament prayers. These, too, must be spoken with undeviating exactness. President Monson told a heart-warming story this past General Conference about a speech-impaired priest who struggled with the blessing on the bread:
One Sunday two years ago I was attending sacrament meeting in my ward. That's a rarity. There were three priests at the sacrament table, with the young man in the center being somewhat handicapped in movement but particularly so in speech. He tried twice to bless the bread but stumbled badly each time, no doubt embarrassed by his inability to give the prayer perfectly. One of the other priests then took over and gave the blessing on the bread.
During the passing of the bread, I thought to myself, "I just can't let that young man experience failure at the sacrament table." I had a strong feeling that if I didn't doubt, he would be able to bless the water effectively. Inasmuch as I was on the stand near the sacrament table, I leaned over and said to the priest closest to me, pointing to the young man who had experienced the difficulty, "Let him bless the water; it's a shorter prayer." And then I prayed. I didn't want a double failure. I love that passage of scripture which tells us that we should not doubt but believe.
When it was time to bless the water, that young man knelt again and gave the prayer, perhaps somewhat haltingly but without missing a word. I rejoiced silently. While the deacons were passing the trays, I looked over at the boy and gave him a thumbs-up. He gave me a broad smile. When the young men were excused to sit with their families, he sat on the row between his mother and father. What a joy it was to see his mother give him a big smile and a warm hug, while his father congratulated him and put his arm around his shoulder. All three of them looked in my direction, and I gave them all a thumbs-up. I could see the mother and father wiping tears from their eyes. I felt impressed that this young man would do just fine in the future.
Again, the thinking is that unless the ordinance is performed "just right" it will not be effective. Might this be a vestige of the magic world view? The idea that a ritual is only effective if done precisely the right way?
I really don't see why there need be such an emphasis on absolute perfection in uttering the sacrament prayers or performing the baptismal ordinance. I know that one apologetic defense might be that exactitude in recitation is necessary to prevent unauthorized changes from creeping in to the ordinances. I find this argument unpersuasive. The ordinances are protected by canonization and official publications and training of church leaders in orthopraxy. A minor variation from time to time by one performing the ordinance would not result in wholesale modifications to the standards for performing ordinances. And even if this is the reason given for rigid enforcement of the sacrament prayers, for example, how to explain the doctrine that improperly performed ordinances are ineffective? And, can the actual words used be that which makes the ordinance effective? If so, would we not perform the ordinances in the pure Adamic language? Or force everyone in the world to perform them in English? If we say it is not the words, but the priesthood authority, why make such a fuss over getting the words just right? It doesn't make sense.