You didn’t bring your dead brother Alvin? Sorry, you can’t have the plates

As September 22nd was the date known as the Autumnal equinox to contemporaries of Joseph Smith in 1823, September 25 was a notable day the following year. Joseph Smith Sr., Jr.’s father, published a notice in the Palmyra newspaper denying “reports [that] have been industriously put in circulation, that my son, Alvin, had been removed from the place of his internment [burial site] and dissected.” Whoa. That needs some context.

The following comes from Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, pp. 133-137:

Although absent from Smith’s presently available first-person narratives, both early Mormon and non-Mormon sources agree that on 22 September 1823 Moroni required Smith to bring his oldest brother Alvin to the hill the following year in order to obtain the gold plates. About ten years later, one of Smith’s devout followers, Joseph Knight, recorded Smith’s relating that the following dialogue occurred on the hill in 1823: “Joseph says, ‘when can I have it?’ The answer was the 22nt [sic] Day of September next if you Bring the right person with you. Joseph says, ‘who is the right Person?’ The answer was ‘your oldest Brother.’ But before September [1824] Came his oldest Brother Died. Then he was Disapointed and did not [k]now what to do” (Jessee 1976a, 31; also Hartley 1986, 20). The Smiths’ non-Mormon Palmyra neighbor Willard Chase reported in 1833: “He then enquired when he could have them, and was answered thus: come one year from this day, and bring with you your oldest brother, and you shall have them. This spirit, he said was the spirit of the prophet who wrote this book, and who was sent to Joseph Smith, to make known these things to him. Before the expiration of the year, [Smith’s] oldest brother died” (1833, 241-42, emphasis in original). Nearly forty years later, Fayette Lapham remembered that Smith’s father told him in 1830 that “Joseph asked when he could have them; and the answer was, ‘Come in one year from this time, and bring your oldest brother with you; then you may have them.’ During that year, it so happened that his oldest brother died” (1870, 2:386).

In 1884, a third Palmyra neighbor, Lorenzo Saunders, Benjamin Saunders’s brother, was asked, “Did you ever hear Joe give an account of finding the plates?” He replied: “Yes. He gave the account in my father’s house. He said he was in the woods at prayer and the angel touched him on the shoulders and he arose, and the angel told him where the plates were and he could take his oldest Brother with him in a year from that time and go and get them. But his oldest Brother died before the year was out” (1884a, 9-10; also 1884c, 16). At present, no available evidence explains why Moroni in September 1823 required Alvin’s presence the following year.9 Joseph was the son who had had the theophany, but [p.135] according to the family’s Palmyra neighbors, prior to 1823 Lucy and Joseph Sr. both had said they looked to their first son Alvin, not their third, as the family seer. Orsamus Turner first met the Smiths in Palmyra about 1819-20 and later commented: “Their son, Alva [sic], was originally intended, or designated, by fireside consultations, and solemn and mysterious out door hints, as the forth coming Prophet. The mother and father said he was the chosen one; but Alvah … sickened and died” (1851, 213). J. H. Kennedy said that in Vermont, Lucy Mack Smith “announced the advent of a prophet in her family, and on the death of Alvah [sic], the first born, the commission that had been intended for him was laid upon Joseph” (Kennedy 1888, 12).10 Although Joseph Jr. was a treasure seer in New York and in Pennsylvania by 1822 (Blackman 1873, 580-81; W. Chase 1833, 240-41), the Palmyra neighbors also identified Alvin as a treasure-seeker and seer prior to his death in November 1823 (L. Saunders 1884c, 9; cf. W. Chase 1833, 240-41; chap. 2). Moreover, his mother observed that “Alvin manifested, if such could be the case, greater zeal and anxiety in regard to the Record [of the Book of Mormon] that had been shown to Joseph, than any of the rest of the family” (L. M. Smith 1853, 89-90). But with Alvin’s unexpected death on 19 November 1823, it seems that Joseph Jr. again shouldered the primary responsibility in his family’s search for treasure.

Given the messenger’s requirement for the second visit to the Hill Cumorah, the intensity of the Smith family’s despair over Alvin’s death less than two months later is understandable. Alvin’s last words to his brother Joseph were to “do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given to you. Your brother Alvin must leave you” (L. M. Smith 1853, 88). Alvin’s final charge underscored the dilemma Joseph now faced: he had been commanded to meet the angelic treasure-guardian at the hill the following 22 September 1824 and to bring Alvin with him. By some accounts, Smith had been violently jolted three times and severely chastised for disobeying instructions during his first visit, and Mormon convert Joseph Knight wrote that now Smith “did not [k]now [p.136] what to do” (Jessee 1976a, 31). One can only imagine the turmoil Smith would have experienced during the ten months between the death of his eldest brother on 19 November 1823 and his next solitary visit to the hill.

Smith’s own available histories give no details of the visits to the hill between 1824 and 1826, but it seems likely that he hoped to obtain the plates on 22 September 1824 even though he did not bring Alvin. The day was a stinging disappointment. According to Smith’s 1832 autobiography, the messenger told him “to come again in one year from that time [1823]. I did so [in 1824], but did not obtain them” (Jessee 1984b, 77; Faulring 1987, 51). His friend Joseph Knight wrote, “But when the 22nt Day of September Came he went to the place and the personage appeard [sic] and told him he Could not have it now” (Jessee 1976a, 31). Lorenzo Saunders remembered that Smith told him, “At the end of the time he went to the place to get the plates the angel asked where his Brother was. I told him he was dead.” Fayette Lapham recalled the story as “Joseph repaired to the place again, and was told by the man who still guarded the treasure, that, inasmuch as he could not bring his oldest brother, he could not have the treasure yet” (L. Saunders 1884a, 10; Lapham 1870, 2:386). As Smith left the hill in disappointment on 22 September 1824, apparently the message he had received was: without your dead brother Alvin, you cannot have the gold plates.

Within days of this second unsuccessful visit to the hill, local events indicated that someone evidently contemplated remedying the impass by exhuming Alvin’s body. Joseph Smith, Sr., published a notice, dated 25 September 1824, in the Palmyra newspaper, denying “reports [that] have been industriously put in circulation, that my son, Alvin, had been removed from the place of his internment and dissected.” He chastised town gossips for disturbing the peace of mind of a still-grieving parent, and then made two comments that allude to his son Joseph as target of such gossip: “[these rumors] deeply wound the feelings of relations … [and] have been stimulated more by desire to injure the reputation of certain persons than a philanthropy for the peace and welfare of myself and friends” (Wayne Sentinel, 29 Sept.-3 Nov. 1824; Kirkham 1951, 1:147; Rich 1970, 256). Biographers of Joseph Smith to the present have consistently ignored Mormon and non-Mormon sources concerning Moroni’s requirement to bring the now-deceased Alvin to the hill, and therefore have regarded this as a bizarre incident explanable only by neighborhood malice (Brodie 1945, 28; D. Hill 1977, 60; Gibbons 1977, 42; Bushman 1984, 65).

However, the treasure-guardian’s unfulfilled requirement to bring the now-deceased Alvin provided a context for such rumors and denials. As explained in pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy: “From [p.137] hence it is, that the Souls of the dead are not to be called up without blood, or by the application of some part of their relict Body” (1655, 70; 1665, 67; 1783, 123). Barrett’s The Magus, the source for the design of Joseph Smith’s Jupiter talisman, observed, “There are two kinds of necromancy: raising the carcasses, which is not done without blood; the other sciomancy, in which the calling up of the shadow only suffices.” Despite his negative attitude toward the practice in general, Barrett noted that the power and knowledge to do so rested with “God only, and to whom he will communicate them” (1801, II:69, 70). Even though they were influenced by the magic world view, none of the Smiths may have actually considered this drastic option, but someone in the family obviously described the angel’s requirement and Joseph’s predicament to neighborhood friends, since Willard Chase, Lorenzo Saunders, and Fayette Lapham all knew about the situation. Someone evidently talked openly about the possibility of using part of Alvin’s remains to fulfill the requirement of the treasure guardian by necromancy, and village rumors required the denial, which Joseph Smith, Sr., published in six consecutive issues of the local weekly. Without providing details, E. D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed claimed that young Joseph became “very expert in the arts of necromancy” (1834, 12). And a year later, Oliver Cowdery’s published history of the new church also referred, without details, to rumors that Smith dug treasure “by some art of nicromancy” (1835, 2:201; Kirkham 1951, 1:103).

Reading on, one learns that, in Alvin’s absence, Joseph then tried Samuel Lawrance (a seer stone buddy), and then ultimately chose his wife as the consort needed for retrieving the plates (a wife he had recently married [eloped!] according to the alleged will of God revealed through a seer stone). But that’s another story.

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15 Responses to You didn’t bring your dead brother Alvin? Sorry, you can’t have the plates

  1. The scope of discussion in this thread should directly concern the content of the original post. Attempts to hijack the thread, or expand its topic to issues not already specifically covered in the above will be deleted.

    Also remember that our comment policy now states:

    “Comments that do not contribute satisfactory substance may be deleted without warning.”

  2. BornagainMormon says:

    There seems to be a discrepancy between the words used by Lorenzo Saunders (could take his oldest brother) and the ones used by the author (required Alvin’s presence.)

    “In 1884, a third Palmyra neighbor, Lorenzo Saunders, Benjamin Saunders’s brother, was asked, “Did you ever hear Joe give an account of finding the plates?” He replied: “Yes. He gave the account in my father’s house. He said he was in the woods at prayer and the angel touched him on the shoulders and he arose, and the angel told him where the plates were and he could take his oldest Brother with him in a year from that time and go and get them. But his oldest Brother died before the year was out” (1884a, 9-10; also 1884c, 16). At present, no available evidence explains why Moroni in September 1823 required Alvin’s presence the following year.”

    If we with hindsight can’t even be accurate in describing information, it is not hard to understand how the gossip of the time could get out of control.

  3. That he “could take his oldest brother” (which could be taken a number of different ways) and that he was required to isn’t plainly a discrepancy to begin with.

    And if you wish to cast doubt over whether Joseph reported Alvin to be required, then why not deal with the words of Joseph Knight (a very good friend of Smith) recorded about ten years after instead of forty years after?

    “Joseph says, ‘when can I have it?’ The answer was the 22nt [sic] Day of September next if you Bring the right person with you. Joseph says, ‘who is the right Person?’ The answer was ‘your oldest Brother.’ But before September [1824] Came his oldest Brother Died. Then he was Disapointed and did not [k]now what to do”

    There’s also what Willard chase reported in 1833:

    “He then enquired when he could have them, and was answered thus: come one year from this day, and bring with you your oldest brother, and you shall have them. This spirit, he said was the spirit of the prophet who wrote this book, and who was sent to Joseph Smith, to make known these things to him. Before the expiration of the year, [Smith’s] oldest brother died”

    In light of all the earlier corroborative evidence, it would look like a desperate act of denial to use the ambiguous “could take” phrase from 1884 to cast doubt on specificity provided decades earlier.

  4. BornagainMormon says:

    The “required” statement by the author is placed in the text directly after the original quote in the same paragraph. It is obvious that the author was referring to the quote immediately preceding his statement, but the authors statement is not an accurate assessment of the quote. This type of inaccurate assessment is at the core of the many rumors and innuendos about Joseph Smith.

  5. germit says:

    BornAgain: I know you are not fond of these ‘intellectual’ type debates, but if you choose to walk into them, then prepare to be critiqued (hopefully not with a spirit of criticism, which regrettably does happen on MC from time to time)
    You are leaning heavily on ONE authors use of the word ‘could’, as if everything hinged on that. Wake up, there are MULTIPLE quoted, from MULTIPLE sources, and the theme running throughout is that bringing someone back with him (JS) is NECESSARY. Yes, I know ‘could’ does not mean required, but given all the other quotes, it looks like Lorenzo could have used a better word. You are on a rabbit trail, hoping we will follow.
    THANK YOU for interacting with this article, most , neay ALL, of your LDS friends have decided not to, so I give you points for chutzpah. Instead of nitpicking one word, tell us what is learned, if anything by what the article tells us: to an OUTSIDER, which is what I am, all the above looks like SORCERY. What am I missing if if isn’t?? If the stories are GOSSIP, then what is the TRUTH in this situation?? Thanks for your desire to see truth prevail. GERMIT

  6. BornagainMormon wrote,

    It is obvious that the author was referring to the quote immediately preceding his statement

    Let’s look at what Quinn wrote:

    “Although absent from Smith’s presently available first-person narratives, both early Mormon and non-Mormon sources agree that on 22 September 1823 Moroni required Smith to bring his oldest brother Alvin to the hill the following year in order to obtain the gold plates… At present, no available evidence explains why Moroni in September 1823 required Alvin’s presence the following year.”

    Between those two statements is not just one statement, but four quotes by Joseph Knight, Willard Chase, Fayette Lapham, and Lorenzo Saunders. It is not obvious (nor is it warranted to conclude) that Quinn was narrowly limiting the scope of his latter comment to merely the last quote. He is making an observation about the lack of evidence over why Smith was required to take Alvin in light of the collective evidence he already provided.

    BornagainMormon, if you wish to insinuate that Joseph Smith was not required to take Alvin, you need to provide an alternative explanation of the collective evidence, especially that which comes from the earliest years. Otherwise it looks ilke you’re avoiding the substance of what Quinn wrote, and are instead opting for a red herring (a “diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue” [WordWeb]).

    Take care,

    Aaron

  7. JessicaJoy says:

    I wonder if anyone else was as creeped out by this post as I was. It seems the deeper I dig into the historical roots of Mormonism, the creepier it gets…

    What seems odd to me is the shift in Mormon thinking over the past twenty or thirty years. According to Mormon historian Klaus J. Hansen, Mormons would have agreed with me on the creepy factor up until around 1985, when the magical elements were re-framed as somehow connected with something spiritually light instead of dark.

    He said that until about 1985 Mormons “heartedly denied that there are any links between magic and their religion, insisting that whatever artifacts Smith may have employed in the translation of the Book of Mormon, he had done so ‘by the gift and power of God’ (his own words), and that charges of other magical and occult practices were slanderous. For Mormon apologists there was a clear inference that any link between Mormonism and magic would seriously undermine the truth claims of their religion.”

    http://www.signaturebooks.com/reviews/magic.htm

    I can definitely see why Mormon apologists were formerly concerned about people discovering this connection between magic and the historical roots of Mormonism.

    What I cannot understand is how they were able to re-frame everything a few years later so that everyone looks at the same information in a whole different light…

    The facts didn’t change. The grid was just altered so the facts could be viewed through a new lens.

    Kind of like the post-modern propaganda that is now being fed to people through FAIR and FARMS. i.e. Black and white thinking is bad. Flexible thinking is good. Helps you adjust and keep the faith when more creepy history surfaces…

  8. germit says:

    BornAgain: Once again, kudos for interacting with this thread, most of your friends don’t want to touch the magic topic.
    If you want to encourage yourself with the results of your posts, remember those who are ‘listening in’, and who knows how they are affected?? So even if you don’t budge GERMIT, you might be doing someone else a world of good.
    You say the ‘could’ statement is representative of much of the information out there, but you never responded to the other 3 or 4 comments that very clearly had the ‘required’ or ‘necessary’ theme to Alvin coming back to the hill. So who is the embellisher here ?? I will admit that a lot of people have played fast and loose with the facts, and that has no doubt happened on BOTH sides of the debate, I’m not real keen on either Dekker or Coke Newell. There is, however, a LOT of info about JS and early LDS origins, and 1830 was not milennia ago, so we make the best of it. I’m of the opinion that there IS some good scholarship from both LDS and non-LDS sources: R.Bushman seems to be a fair historian, for example.
    [Snipped to partially account for deletion of BornAgainMormon’s comment.]

  9. Because there is not much factual knowledge about his life, many authors seem to embellish these type of things… I do believe that if you read many of these type of works critically you would find a lack of scholarly objectiveness.

    I appreciate some of the comments that were posted in response to BornAgainMormon, but I am going to be stubborn and dogged about this thread. I just deleted his latest comment and some replies by others to him.

    BornAgainMormon seems to be operating with the method of insinuation (i.e. merely insinuating the larger claim is embellished) instead of directly dealing with the best evidence available.

    BornAgainMormon, you have been asked a direct question by a moderator. Attempt to answer it or don’t participate in the thread at all. As I said before, if you wish to cast doubt over whether Joseph reported Alvin to be required, then why not deal with the words of Joseph Knight (a very good friend of Smith) recorded about ten years after instead of forty years after?

    You’re on the hot seat. Forthrightly and specifically discuss the evidence offered.

    Thanks,

    Aaron

  10. I just moved two comments to the Equinox thread.

  11. thesinner says:

    Wow, what a story!! At least for someone not so familiar with the LDS beliefs and practices.

    If the book of mormon was soo important to be given to people, WHY would GOD want this angel to delay the translation for YEARS, and prevent “the other good news” (the OTHER gospel) to benefit his people, just because of the dead body or Joseph’s brother??? An alarmingly strange thought when compared to how Jesus regarded the importence of the bodies of the dead in the new testament.. 8-O (let the dead bury their deads)

    Fortunately we have been guided in plain language by the early christian leaders Peter and Paul!
    Galatians 1:7-9 (NIV)
    … Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you [the Galatians] accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

  12. jesicaJoy said “I wonder if anyone else was as creeped out by this post as I was.”

    Yeah. Me!

    I knew something of the quasi-masonic rituals in Mormonism, but nothing of the occultish side of its history.

    What I find irreconcilable, though, is this practice of Magic in a theology that is substantially materialist. I remember reading James E Talmadge’s rebuttal of the orthodox view of a ‘spiritual’ God; he said (maybe someone can quote from source) “a thing without substance cannot exist” (Articles of Faith). This, as I understand it, is a cornerstone in the LDS assertion that God has physical body.

    if nothing exists except for the material universe, what kind of mental gymnastics do we have to perform to accommodate the magical universe as well?

  13. I think some Mormons would appeal to the historic LDS distinction between “fine” and “coarse” matter—“coarse” matter being what we can empirically work with, and “fine” matter being the kind that still has size and shape, but can’t be directly interacted with in a commonly naturalistic way. So they can fit a kind of “magic” into their ultimately materialistic worldview by defining supernaturalism and magic in terms of the laws and order of the “fine” matter realm.

  14. germit says:

    Martin: interesting post, and then you add the idea of ETERNAL INTELLIGENCE, and that, it seems to me is an eastern, and gnostic, idea. What a blended religion the Mormon faith is. I’m still waiting to hear some kind of explanation of how ideas pre-date God HIMSELF. And does anyone want to add to the ‘fine matter’ thot given above?? This is like Ralphs expanation of the word “at” on the other thread: the backpedal is better than the original theory in terms of entertainment value.
    This thread is probably about done, but what stands out to me is the LDS going back and forth with how far they want to embrace JS involvment in magic. Similar, in many respects, to the polygamy theme. It seems the strategy of the future will be to paint the 1830’s culture to be steeped in folk magic at large, and just say ‘no big deal’, although John Gee’s tack seems to be (and I never would have thot of this way out) that MAGIC and CONJURE meant ‘fraud’ or ”sleight of hand’ back then, so the whole discussion SHOULD revolve around JS being charged a deceiver or fraud. Obviously, they would MUCH rather talk about claims of ‘fraud’ then an association with black magic. Neat apologetic trick, that one.

    PS to CLUFF: I know of NO CHRISTIAN who does NOT believe that Jesus still has a physical body. Of all your odd ideas, this might be the most bizarre. Jesus being only spirit (after the incarnation) has been fought as heresy for thousands of years.

  15. Any further comments on this thread need to be about the requirement of bringing Alvin to retrieve the plates.

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