A Faithful Response to “Debunking Rough Stone Rolling” pt. 1

Hanna Seariac
7 min readMay 3, 2021
Cover of “Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard Bushman, audiobook

The Joseph Smith Foundation has recently released vidcasts in a series titled “Debunking Rough Stone Rolling’s Treasure Digging Sources with REAL Data.” Hannah Stoddard claims “Richard Bushman advocate a new progressive interpretation of Joseph Smith, depicting him as being involved in ritual magic and using peep stones to find treasure. What if we fact-checked Bushman’s sources against verifiable and quantifiable data?” In this short and informal essay, I respond to the claims that Hannah Stoddard makes throughout part 1 of this vidcast, particularly noting that 1) sources are misattributed and misrepresented, 2) the methodology of the videos merits critique, and 3) Bushman’s analysis does not represent a “new progressive interpretation”, but rather is an analysis of historical records.

While Hannah Stoddard might find Joseph Smith’s treasure digging objectionable, Joseph Smith himself did not. When asked, “Was not Jo Smith a money digger?”, he responded, “Yes, but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.”[1] The vidcasts rely on framing Joseph Smith in a particular way while ignoring the historical record as a way to promote a type of pseudo-history that could lead one to holding different and more dangerous ideas. Stoddard sets up a false dichotomy, was Joseph Smith a “lazy son of a money digger” or was he a prophet of God who did not engage in that at all? Stoddard cites the phrase, “lazy son of a money digger” from Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Contextually, Bushman speaks about how people perceive Smith in this way, but he himself does not claim that Smith was lazy, however, Stoddard sets up this dichotomy in a way that imputes that view onto Bushman, thereby misrepresenting him. She says, “that’s the new narrative” after reading that quote. This misrepresents the view that many have of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging; her misrepresentation here stems from not understanding folk-magic in a nineteenth century context. Eliason writes:

“With the biblical precedent that form, content, seeming similarities to paganism, and subjective feelings of weirdness are not legitimate reasons to call out practices as inappropriate for God-fearing people, and with the understanding that still today, as in Bible times, the Lord’s anointed determine what is and is not licit, perhaps Mormons can safely put up mistletoe, hide Easter eggs, and even witch wells (but maybe not scry with seer stones?), regardless of their ostensible pagan and previous “folk magic” uses. That some Saints continue to be troubled by such issues perhaps reveals more about modern attitudes toward earlier and unfamiliar practices — and the work Mormon folklorists have yet to do de-exoticizing them — than it does any real problems with Mormon origins.”[2]

Folk-magic operates in a self-conscious Christian realm[3], unlike the Stoddard’s mischaracterization of it. Although Stoddard might claim that anyone who participated in treasure-digging was “a low-life”, John Taylor writes, “Joseph Smith was considered a fool — a gold-digger. Although all the world nearly have turned gold-diggers since that, it has become a respectable profession; but it is highly unpopular to be a Prophet and receive revelation from God.”[4] While treasure-digging went through bouts of popularity and relative levels of respectability, to besmirch all who practiced it as “low-lifes” is 1) bad form (think equivalent to saying that all waitresses and waiters are lazy — incorrect statement), 2) a misrepresentation. This claim drips with elitism and presentism.

The vidcast continues where Stoddard cites an unrecorded Zoom meeting with Cristina Rosetti, Benjamin Park, and Robin Jensen. Citing an unrecorded Zoom meeting does not suffice for the claim that Stoddard makes, because the source then is inaccessible and cannot be verified. Furthermore, the claim she makes is false. Stoddard claims that whether or not Joseph Smith was involved in treasure-digging or folk-magic is a hot debate; that is false. It would be fair to say that the extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement with treasure-digging is debated, but whether or not he was involved is not an open question among scholars to the extent that she frames it as. The Joseph Smith Foundation might be the loudest voice on this issue from the self-identified “traditionalist” side, but as they are not trained historians and do not produce peer-reviewed work, by definition, they are not scholars involved in the debate. I understand that access to the academy has its flaws, especially stemming from socio-economic issues, but the fact remains that their work is not peer-reviewed and does not meet the standards of basic academic rigor.

Stoddard continues to misrepresent Bushman’s approach by reducing it down to him merely accepting Hulburt. This is incorrect. Both “friendly” and “non-friendly” sources also make claims of Joseph Smith using a seer stone in the translation process.[5] As the Stoddards dismiss Smith’s use of the seer stone on the grounds that it was an occultic practice, they also have to dismiss both “friendly” and “non-friendly” sources. Even employing the Stoddards’ own method, which is to favour the words of Latter-day Saints over non-Latter-day Saints, they should accept the seer stone use, but they do not, because of a hyper-sensitivity to magical practices, which stems from not understanding the conditional condemnation of magic in the Bible, and the Christian realm in which folk-magic operated. Stoddard closes off the first part of the series by highlighting how John Dehlin featured Bushman on his website and has Bushman’s book in the background; this shows a flaw in her methodology. She tries to make Bushman “guilty by association” through proximity to Dehlin, however, Bushman’s interview was one of the top twenty-five most watched/influential, which is why he is featured, and Rough Stone Rolling remains the best biography on the subject, which is why it is featured. Instead of engaging Bushman’s arguments further in this video, Stoddard sadly tries to besmirch a man of faith, who has written one of the best landmark works on Joseph Smith, bringing many to the Church. This harms the Church more than it helps it.

Even a cursory look at the historical record, at Joseph Smith’s own words, at the words of those who believed Joseph Smith demonstrates the fallacious nature of the Stoddard’s vidcast. The framing of this vidcast sets up one to reach the same conclusion as Stoddard does, which is that because anti-Mormon sources make claims of treasure-digging and pro-Latter-day Saint sources make claims against treasure-digging and folk-magic, that Joseph Smith must not have been a treasure-digger or participated in folk-magic. The issue with this line of reasoning is that both Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints have acknowledged that Joseph Smith engaged in treasure-digging and folk-magic, which means that Stoddard’s framing is disingenuous. Bushman’s historical analysis stands up to scrutiny precisely because he uses a bevy of sources and demonstrates his points well. We can and should debate the extent of Joseph Smith’s activities in folk-magic, if for no other reason than to learn more about the historical figure of Joseph Smith, but that discussion only is productive when one can properly situate nineteenth-century folk-magic, which Stoddard failed to do yet again.

Attacking Bushman gets us nowhere except pushing us further back into anti-intellectualism that flies in the face of what the Church has done with the Gospel Topics Essays, Saints, and even in General Conference, where President Nelson has specifically and consistently spoken about the importance of using scholarly sources to study out various topics. It is dangerous to produce pseudo-history, because that’s what creates the narratives that cripple people’s faith and because we live in an age where misinformation was rampant. I am a believer. It is clear that I am a believer. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and I do not see a contradiction between that and his use of a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon or the amount of treasure-digging he was engaged in (I do not have an opinion yet on the extent).

In short, this vidcast from the Joseph Smith Foundation leaves a lot to be desired. Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling remains unharmed and untouched through this failed critique of it.

[1] Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 43, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[2] https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/seer-stones-salamanders-and-early-mormon-folk-magic-in-the-light-of-folklore-studies-and-bible-scholarship/

[3] 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), 140, 182–192.

[4] John Taylor, (7 October 1859) Journal of Discourses 7:322.

[5] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/seer-stones?lang=eng; Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:128–129. “[Martin Harris] said that the Prophet possessed a Seer Stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as with the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he sometimes used the Seer Stone.”; David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12.; “Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Press, 1996–2003) 1:532.

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Hanna Seariac

MA in Classics, BYU 2022 | Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Member | student of ancient Greek, Latin, and Biblical Hebrew