Article — From the October 2011 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the October 2011 issue
The pursuit of precious metals, as it happens, played a crucial role in the original “Mormon moment” of the 1830s. In the decade prior to the Book of Mormon’s publication, the penniless Joseph Smith carved out a career as a “money-digger”—a self-anointed seer who persuaded gullible landowners to fund digging expeditions to recover pirate or American-Indian treasure. As historian John L. Brooke writes in The Refiner’s Fire, money-diggers like Smith “located metallic treasures with stones and rods and then attempted to overpower guardian spirits by casting magic circles and invoking astrological influences.” What’s more, Brooke notes, the money-diggers on the New England frontier ascribed spiritual qualities to the metals themselves—an understanding of economic good fortune entirely in line with a social order that often made wealth seem a random blessing issued by remote household gods.
The maddeningly elusive nature of such treasures clearly left a lifelong impression on Smith. As Brodie observes, “the desire for money in gold and silver became almost an obsession” for the Mormon prophet—especially after his attempt to capitalize on rampant real estate speculation in the church’s first exilic home of Kirtland, Ohio. Bizarrely, the Mormons sought to incorporate their own bank, the Kirtland Safety Society. When a bill from the Ohio legislature blocked the launch of the bank and its circulating notes, Smith sidestepped these strictures by printing the prefix anti- on the society’s currency—so that he could legally claim to be trading in “anti-banking” notes.
No semantic subterfuge, however, could rescue the flailing bank from the collapse of the local real estate bubble. Meanwhile Smith, who had picked up word in 1836 of a cache of gold buried outside Salem, Massachusetts, organized a secret expedition to rescue the prize. The search proved a bust. This caused Smith to issue a prophecy—one of the rare instances where he professed to speak in the Lord’s name—clearing the whole contretemps from the divine memory bank, while guaranteeing an eventual payoff in Salem for subsequent seekers: “I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming on this journey, notwithstanding your follies. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion.?”
It’s hard not to see, in both the real estate distress of the Kirtland bank and the gold-prospecting adventures of Smith and Co. in 1836, a striking prefiguration of the goldbug investment strategies pitched so relentlessly by Glenn Beck.One can even argue that the Mormon faithful have lately made good on a rumored Smith revelation from the Kirtland bank launch, which foretold that the church-backed currency would prove so strong that it could be readily redeemed in gold and silver specie. In May 2011, Utah governor Gary Herbert signed into law a measure permitting Utah businesses to accept gold and silver in lieu of the greenbacks printed by the Federal Reserve. One of the supporters of the measure, Lowell Nelson of the small-government advocacy group Campaign for Liberty, explained the bill’s appeal to the New York Times by citing the LDS tradition of household preparedness. “It’s kind of written into our theology that we’re supposed to be prepared for any eventuality,” he said. Nor can it be a coincidence that the tablets on which Smith professed to discover the Book of Mormon were themselves forged from gold. Indeed, after polygamy, those golden tablets are pretty much all that the popular mind associates with LDS history and theology—supplying reliable ammunition for a long tradition of Mormon-baiting from Mark Twain down to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But the outlandish details of the faith’s founding moment have overshadowed the more significant legacy of Smith’s prophetic labors: the invention of a New World religion, merging a deeply exceptionalist vision of America’s role in biblical history with a hard-money gospel of individualist success.
More from Chris Lehmann: