The character and claims of Joseph Smith are fundamental to the claims of the church he founded. Knowing this, critics of the Prophet have contended for more than a century and a half that he and his family were the kind of people from whom nobody would want to buy a used car, much less receive a plan of salvation.
The original anti-Mormon book, Eber D. Howe's 1834 "Mormonism Unvailed" (sic), featured affidavits gathered from former Smith neighbors by the excommunicated and embittered Philastus Hurlbut describing the Prophet's family as, among many other derogatory things, "lazy" and "indolent." Joseph Capron, for example, declared that the Smiths' "great object appeared to be, to live without work." "It was a mystery to their neighbors," said David Stafford, "how they got their living."
Over the past several decades, Mormon scholars have subjected the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits and other such alleged "reminiscences" to sharp criticism. Nevertheless, these early documents have remained an anti-Mormon treasure trove to which generations of critics have eagerly turned and returned for years.
However, in a path-breaking article published in 1993 ("The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee," in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., editors, "Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man," Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993, 213-25), Donald L. Enders, a senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, presented hard evidence that deals a serious blow to the credibility of the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits. Working from land and tax records, farm account books and related correspondence, soil surveys, horticultural studies, surveys of historic buildings, archaeological reports and interviews with agricultural historians and other specialists — sources not generally used by traditional historians and seldom if ever employed by scholars of Mormon origins — Enders concluded that, on questions of testable fact, the affidavits cannot be trusted.
The Smiths' farming techniques, it seems, were virtually a textbook illustration of the best recommendations of the day, showing them to have been, by contemporary standards, intelligent, skilled and responsible people. And they were very hard-working. To create their farm, for instance, the Smiths moved many tons of rock and cut down about 6,000 trees, a large percentage of which were 100 feet or more in height and from 4 to 6 feet in diameter. Then they fenced their property, which required cutting at least 6,000 or 7,000 10-foot rails. They did an enormous amount of work before they were able even to begin actual daily farming.
Furthermore, in order to pay for their farm, the Smiths were obliged to hire themselves out as day-laborers. Throughout the surrounding area, they dug and rocked up wells and cisterns, mowed, harvested, made cider and barrels and chairs and brooms and baskets, taught school, dug for salt, worked as carpenters and domestic servants, built stone walls and fireplaces, flailed grain, cut and sold cordwood, carted, washed clothes, sold garden produce, painted chairs and oil-cloth coverings, butchered, dug coal, and hauled stone. And, along the way, they produced between 1,000 and 7,000 pounds of maple sugar annually. "Laziness" and "indolence" are difficult to detect in the Smith family. Few of their modern critics, I suspect, would long survive such exertions.
What resulted from the Smiths' hard work? The 1830 tax records for Manchester Township appraise the family's holdings at the average level per acre for farms in the vicinity. In other words, they were not the local trash. In fact, rather amusingly, of the 10 farms owned by the Staffords, Stoddards, Chases and Caprons — residents of the neighborhood who affixed their signatures prominently to affidavits denigrating the Prophet's family — only one was assessed as more valuable per acre than the Smiths'. The others received lower appraisals — in some cases, significantly lower.
The conclusion to be drawn? If the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits cannot be trusted on matters that can be quantified and tested, there seems little reason to trust their judgments in the less tangible matter of character. Clearly, they reflect religious hostility and perhaps envy from the Smiths' less successful neighbors. As the Prophet's brother William expressed it, "We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable til then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in wonderful ways."
Daniel C. Peterson is a native of southern California and received a bachelors degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. He earned a Ph.D in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA after several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo. He is a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and is the editor of the twice-annual FARMS Review, the author of several books and numerous articles on Islamic and Latter-day Saint topics. Peterson is also director of outreach for BYU's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He spent eight years on the LDS Church's Gospel Doctrine writing committee and is the founder and manager of MormonScholarsTestify.org.