Joseph Smith’s neighbors testify of his character

I may be bringing this blog out of retirement to oppose’s Greg West, or rather, his columns.  Since making that decision, I haven’t been motivated to actually oppose the articles he’s written, but watch for that series.

In the meantime, I have found some new information about the character of Joseph Smith, according to his neighbors, before he became famous.

Did I mention the Mormon church has tried to suppress this information?

This information comes via Steve Benson, at RfM:

Rodger I. Anderson, in his book, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Re-Examined” (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1990), tackles the significant number of legal affidavits (over 80) that were sworn out against the character and conduct of Joseph Smith’s by his neighbors, associates and fellow citizens of New York state.


Anderson (who provides exact copies of the affidavits as well as other statements and interview) describes the affidavits’ contents, which were originally published by Eber D. Howe in his book, “Mormonism Unvailed” (Painseville, Ohio: Eber D. Howe, printer and publisher, 1834):

“In affidavit after affidavit the young Smith was depicted as a liar and self-confessed fraud, a cunning and callous knave who delighted in nothing so much as preying upon the credulity of his neighbors.

“A money digger by profession, Smith spent his nights and his days lounging about the local grocery story entertaining his fellow tipplers with tales of midnight enchantments and bleeding ghosts, the affidavits maintained. . . .

“In a statement dated 4 December 1833 and signed by 51 residents of Palmyra, New York, Smith was described as being ‘entirely destitute of moral character, and addicted to vicious habits.’”

Moreover, Smith, as noted by Anderson, was portrayed by his affidavit-signing critics as being “animated by no loftier purpose than the love of money”–“a money digger who told marvelous tales of enchanted treasure and infernal spirits.”

(Anderson, pp. 2-3, 8)


Anderson describes Smith’s desperate response to the release of the troublesome affidavits:

“Once published in 1834 [after being collected by Dr. Philastus Hurlbut, ‘a one-time Mormon who was excommunicated in 1833 for, among other things, saying “that he deceived Joseph Smith’s God, or the spirit by which he was actuated”‘], Hurlbut’s affidavits became especially dangerous to the newly founded church and its leader.

“To defuse the potentially explosive documents, Smith read them aloud at public meetings, denouncing them as the work of Satan. More importantly, Hurlbut’s affidavits stimulated Smith to publish the first official history of the new church, ‘Early Scenes and Incidents in the Church,’ authored by Smith’s closest associate at the time, Oliver Cowdery.”

(Anderson, pp. 2-3)


Anderson reports on an “ambitious” attempt by William and E.L. Kelley to refute the affidavits–claiming in their own published report that they “could find virtually no one who knew anything firsthand against the Smiths and a number who remembered the family as being quite respectable.”

In this effort, the Kelleys produced less than impressive results.

The credibility of the Kelley claims were strongly disputed by even some of those to whom the Kelleys spoke during their dubious effort to build a chase for Smith.

Anderson, for instance, reports that “[a]t least three of those interviewed were so incensed with the published [Kelley] report that they produced affidavits of their own charging the Kelleys with misrepresentation.”

The complaints included Palmyra resident John H. Gilbert, who according to Gilbert’s affidavit on file in the clerk’s office of Ontario County, New Jersey, responded by appearing before a judge to state that he was “designedly” and “grossly misrepresented in almost every particular . . . .” Along with the affidavits of others, Gilbert’s complaint was subsequently published in local area newspapers.

(Anderson, pp. 5-6, 8)


Anderson notes that Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley, in his 1961 book, “The Myth Makers” (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, p. 6)—together with fellow Mormon defender Richard L. Anderson, in his 1970 article, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised” (“Brigham Young University Studies,” 10, pp. 283-314)–have attempted “to discredit the Smith family neighbors.”

Nibley contends that the affidavit signers “told the best stories they could think of, without particularly caring whether they were true or not” (brushing them off as “trumped-up evidence”).

Richard L. Anderson claims that the Kelley report was supposedly more objective and based on positive testimony from people who claimed to have known the Smiths personally.

Roger I. Anderson remains unpersuaded by such apologetic efforts.

Roger I. Anderson exhibits particular disdain for the tactics of Nibley, whom he regards essentially as an unprofessional hit man for Smith. His list of academic crimes against Nibley are substantive.

–First, Anderson says Nibley’s book suffers from the “unqualified scope of its generalization” in concluding that because he claims to have found “some writers who were lass than careful with the truth, . . . all such writers must have been similarly careless, a conclusion that is simply not justified.”

–Second, Anderson says that Nibley’s book is characterized by its “use of arguments which are non sequiturs.”

–Third, Anderson notes that Nibley is ‘mistaken when he charges that those who testified to Smith’s character were themselves disreputable,” rebutting Nibley by pointing out that “[w]itnessing a deed is not the same as committing it, and hearing a man boast of some act does not necessitate participation in it.” Anderson further points out that “[e]ven if it could be demonstrated that Smith’s accusers were in fact involved in the same practices they related, it would not mean their testimony was for that reason suspect. Defending the accused by pointing to the imperfections of their accusers is fallacious and only serves to deflect attention from the original issue.”

–Fourth, Anderson point out what he calls “[a]nother significant defect of Nibley’s analysis”—namely, “its frequent high-handedness in dealing with testimony unfavorable to Smith. Rather than consider whether similar testimony from more than one person might indicate that what they report is true, Nibley often dismisses the topic with flippant and unsupported assertions.”

–Fifth, Anderson criticizes Nibley’s repeated charge that Smith is supposedly the victim of exaggerated hearsay by noting that Nibley makes that unconvincing charge through the use of selective quotations and historically uninformed assumptions.

–Sixth, Anderson notes that Nibley’s “Myth Makers” is “marred by numerous factual errors, exacerbated by “a tendency to suppress information potentially harmful to traditional interpretations of the Mormon past.” Anderson goes so far as to say that “Nibley’s suppression of vital information . . . seems intentional.”

–Seventh, Anderson debunks Nibley’s apologetics by arguing that it is burdened by “a lack of scholarly standards in evaluating sources.” In criticizing Nibley on this score, he notes that “[f]irsthand accounts are impeached because they are not consistent with anti-Mormon fulminations of a century later, and contemporary accounts of episodes in Joseph Smith’s life are discredited almost wholly on the basis of later secondary reports.” Anderson criticizes Nibley for his “indiscriminate use of sources [which] enables him not only to oppose witnesses with non-witnesses but also to introduce sources whose only merit is that they make others appear unreliable by comparison.”

–Eight, Anderson chides Nibley for his “failure to consider Mormon sources when they concur with non-Mormon accounts,” further observing that “’The Myth Makers’ tends to disregard context” driven by Nibley’s “earnestness to impugn the whole corpus of non-Mormon literature.”

–Finally, Anderson sums up his critical assessment of Nibley’s multi-leveled demonstration of unprofessionalism by writing that “Nibley’s method of analysis is arbitrary” and “only proves what no one ever thought of denying, namely that not all historical documents are of the same evidential quality.”

Concludes Anderson:

“. . . Nibley’s argument fails on every significant point. Illogic, unsupported speculation, specious charges, misrepresentation, factual errors, indiscriminate and arbitrary use of sources, disregard of context, and a lock of scholarly standards characterize the book advertised by its publisher as a ‘masterful expose . . .[of] the makers of myths who told their untruths about Joseph Smith.’

“If Joseph Smith’s neighbors are to be discredited, it must be on the basis of better evidence than that advanced by Nibley.”


Despite efforts by Nibley and other Mormon defenders to deny historical reality on the reliability of the affidavits in question, Anderson says:

“I believe that the testimonials collected by Hurlbut, [Arthur Buel] Deming, and others are in fact largely immune to the attacks launched by Nibley, Anderson, and others. . . . [T]here can be no doubt that these reports [from Hurlbut’s collected affidavits], in early twentieth-century German historian Eduard Meyer’s words, ‘give us the general opinion of his [Smith’s] neighbors in their true, essential form’” (quoted in Heinze F. Rahde and Eugene Seaich, trans., “The Origins and History of the Mormons . . . “[Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah, n.d., p. 4])

“ . . . [I]t is clear that a broader picture of Joseph Smith emerges from these early affidavits and interviews than is otherwise available from [Smith’s] family and followers.”

(Anderson, pp. 6-12, 14, 16-18, 20-22)


Predictably, Mormon apologists have relied on their traditional limited circle of Mormon defenders in unconvincing attempts to repudiate the affidavits.

Anderson writes that because of “the questionable reliability of the Kelley report and the lack of credible testimony discounting the affidavits collected by Hurlbut and others, most scholars outside of Mormonism have tended to accept the non-Mormon side of the issue. The number of witnesses, the unanimity of their testimony, the failure to impeach even a single witness, and the occasional candid reminiscence by Martin Harris, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith,. Lucy Mack Smith, William Smith, Joseph Knight, or other early Mormons have contributed to the conclusion that Hurlbut and his followers were probably reliable reporters.

Citing the work of J. H. Kennedy, “Early Days of Mormonism . . . “ (New York, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, pp. 17-18), Anderson observes that “[e]ven those who suspected that the witnesses against Smith may have been motivated by more than a simple desire to inform have not questioned the depictions of Smith as a basically self-seeking charlatan.”

(Anderson, pp. 6, 9)


Anderson crystallizes his assessment of the affidavits reliability as follows:

–“First, I can find no evidence that the primary source affidavits and other documents collected by Philastus Hurlbut, Eber D. Howe, and Arthur B Deming are other than what they purport to be. The men and women whose names they bear wither wrote them or authorized them to be written. Ghost-writing my have colored some of the testimony, but there is no evidence that the vast majority of testators did not write or dictate their own statements or share the attitudes attributed to them.

–“Second, every contemporary attempt [in Smith’s era to impugn these accounts failed. Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris’s effort to prove Isaac Hale’s letter a forgery was contradicted by Hale himself. The attempts by Lucy Mack Smith and William Smith to exonerate the Smith family of certain charges were undone by the more candid admissions of friends or other family members. And RLDS apostle William Kelley’s report, designed to discredit Joseph Smith’s debunkers was itself discredited by many of those contacted by Kelley.

“The fact that these efforts resulted in impeaching not a single witness who testified against Smith, though many of these same witnesses were still alive and willing to repeat their testimony, supports the conclusion that the statements collected by Hurlbut and Deming can be relied on as accurate reflections of their signers’ views.

–“Third, with the possible exception of Peter Ingersoll, there is no evidence that the witnesses contacted by Hurlbut in 1833-34 and Deming in 1888 perjured themselves by knowingly swearing to a lie. In fact, existing evidence goes far to substantiate the recorded stories. The harmony of the accounts, the fact that they were collected by different people at different times and place, and the sometimes impressive confirmations supplied by independent witnesses or documents never intended for public consumption discredit the argument that the work of Hurlbut and Deming contains nothing but ‘trumped-up evidence.’

–“Fourth, there is no evidence that the majority of witnesses indulged in malicious defamation by repeating groundless rumors. Many based their descriptions on close association with the Joseph Smith, Sr., family. They did not always distinguish hearsay from observation, fact from inference, but they generally state whether or not the source of the information is firsthand, and several witnesses provided enough information to demonstrate that much what was previously thought to be popular rumor about the Smiths was not wholly groundless.

“Having survived the determined criticism of Mormon scholars Hugh Nibley and Richard L. Anderson, the Hurlbut-Deming affidavits must be granted permanent status as primary documents relating to Joseph Smith’s early life and the origins of Mormonism.”


“In general terms, the Hurlbut, Howe, Deming and Kelley testimonials paint a portrait of a young frontiersman and his family, struggling to eke out a minimal existence in western New York, facing the discouraging realities of life on the margins of society.

“Intelligent and quick-witted, if not always a hard worker, Joseph Smith, Jr., had been brought up by parents who believed in angels, evil spirits, and ghosts; in buried treasures that slipped into the earth if the proper rituals were not performed to exhume them; in diving rods and seer stones, in dreams and visions, and that despite their indigent status, theirs was a family chosen by God for a worthy purpose. . . .

“Whether hunting for buried treasure or the ancient record of a lost civilization, neither Joseph nor his family saw any conflict between the secular pressures of earning a living, even by so esoteric a means as money digging, and a religious quest for spiritual fulfillment. If they could accomplish one goal by pursing the other, so much the better.”

“Nondescript and of little consequence until he started attracting others to his peculiar blend of biblical Christianity, frontier folk belief, popular culture, and personal experience, Joseph Smith was an enigma to his incredulous New York neighbors.

“For them, he would always remain a superstitious adolescent dreamer and his success as a prophet a riddle for which there was no answer.”

(Anderson, pp. 113-116)

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One Response to “Joseph Smith’s neighbors testify of his character”

  1. Ron Hales Says:

    It is amazing to me, how otherwise level headed people will stair at the bold faced facts of the behavior of Joseph Smith, and just ignore it. I would not trust the man alone with my wife or daughter, let alone with my eternal soul, yet that is what millions of Mormons do, and what I did for 49 years. Joseph’s Nauvoo polygamy years are glossed over by the modern church like it never happened. Joseph was commanded by the Lord to approach all those underaged and married women. Funny I don’t remember reading anything like that in the New Testament. That finally sent me over the edge. I have had a wonderful two years discovering Christianity. I also spent a year learning much more about Joseph than I care to know. When it comes down to it Mormons have much more belief in him than they do the Lord. I am waving in the wind, the remainder of my family and extended family are all multigenerational Mormon, pioneer stock. I am not the type that can fake it to keep everyone happy, my wife is still trying to do that. I have a son on a mission and one about to leave in 6 months. I have experienced the mighty change and it feels like a ton of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders. I went from totally active lifelong member High Priest group leader to totally inactive, cold turkey, thank you for your article.

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