Mormonism, Moroni, and Madness
When Joseph began writing in 1838 about the history of the Mormon Church, he recorded details about his first encounter with the angel Moroni, an event he claimed occurred in 1823. There is no record by Joseph of the multiple encounters with the angel occurring between 1823 and the finding of the plates in 1827, although certainly he had told some of the stories to his family by 1827. But it is from the later telling by Joseph that we get the most consistent details about the claims during that four year period.
Joseph recalled his first encounter with Moroni and described him as being “of most exquisite whiteness.” Moroni told Joseph about the book that told the history of the ancient Indian civilization of the area. Moroni appeared three times that night, and the next day Joseph fell unconscious in the fields, where Moroni appeared a fourth time. Lucy Smith notes that the night before this encounter Joseph appeared “in quite a serious and contemplative state of mind.” This state of emotional withdrawal, compounded with the subsequent loss of consciousness the next day, is listed as a warning sign of schizophrenic psychosis.
After passing out in the field, Joseph’s father urged him to follow the angel’s instructions. Joseph went immediately alone. Joseph says that he found the treasure and that the angel would not let him take it. The treasure was a set of Golden Plates in a stone box. Minute details of the account vary, but most are in agreement with the basics. Joseph took the plates out and was instructed not to set them down. Nevertheless, Joseph saw additional items in the box, the spectacles Urim and Thummim and a breast plate. When he turned back to the plates he found them gone. Then looking back into the box, the plates had returned and he could no longer move them. Moroni gave him instructions to come back in a year with the right person which he’d know of when Joseph found them.
When Joseph returned home, he recounted these things to his family. He also began telling fantastic stories about the ancient Indian civilization that lived in the area long ago.
The region around western New York is littered with mounds of dirt. These mounds were built by what is now called the Hopewell Indians. This civilization flourished between 100 AD and 300 AD, and extended from the region of New York to Missouri. They were known as metal workers and for their burial mounds.
During the time of Joseph Smith, there were many legends circulating about the origins of the mounds and the civilization that built them. They didn’t have the benefit of modern archeological findings, and so they built their own theories.
Joeseph, Sr. was an avid reader of local news. He received the local periodical, Wayne Sentinel, in the region in which he lived, even printing an advertisement dispelling rumors about the recent burial of his son Alvin. Joseph, Jr. had access to these newspapers and most likely received some home education on reading from these materials. Included in the stories of this paper is a notable series of articles on the Hebrew origin of the American Indians. The articles gave arguments for why the American Indians were of Hebrew descent, including tribal divisions, language and dialect, and prophetic office. Prior to that, the previous local papers, Palmyra Register and Palmyra Herald frequently ran articles speculating the origin and history of these Indians. One of the Palmyra papers also reported in 1821 that diggers along the Erie Canal had found several brass plates.
In a combination of religious angst, buried treasure lore, and Indian legend, it can easily be plausible that a young man showing early signs of schizophrenia onset could begin inventing grand tales and having delusions reflecting these cultural paradigms. Of particular suspect are the names of the hill Cumorah and the angel Moroni. As noted above, the pirate Kidd was arrested in New York for crimes he committed off the coast of the Comoros Islands, whose capitol city today is Moroni. The pre-1860 spelling of Comoros was Camora, sometimes Comora, and the 1830 Book of Mormon spells Cumorah as Camorah. The similarity is obvious. Mormons typically point to Moroni not becoming the capitol of Comoros until 1876. However, being made the capitol of the island is not a predicate to the city’s existence in Joseph’s time.
Joseph’s Indian tales would go on for four years, as Joseph claimed to return to the site and receive additional instruction from the angel Moroni. During this time he thoroughly convinced his family of the legitimacy of his claims, and even asserted psychological authority over his father.
On September 21, 1827, the allotted time had come for Joseph to retrieve the plates. He took with him his wife Emma. At the hill Cumorah, he left her in the wagon at the foot and went to the top alone. He retrieved the plates and hid them in a tree for the time being.
After speaking with his family of these events, he became increasingly paranoid about someone discovering the plates. After all, the angel Moroni had threatened him with death should he allow another living person to see them. Joseph returned alone and on foot to the tree and took the plates. He wrapped them up and began the long journey home. Not long after starting back, Joseph says a man jumped out and attacked him. After only a few paces, he was struck by a man with either a club or the stock of a gun. Joseph defended himself and escaped, no small feat since he claimed the plates weighed between forty and sixty pounds. Three times Joseph had to defend against attackers as he made his way home. Returning home, the wrapped plates were immediately hidden with none of his family actually seeing them.
In the context of clinical schizophrenia, this portion of the story is especially interesting. Paranoid delusions are one of the most telling and recognizable symptoms of the illness. Certainly this account fits nicely into the symptoms and is strong evidence that Joseph at this moment is having a psychotic episode.
The paranoia did not stop there. It spread through the family. Joseph told them of a mob that was on the way to attack the household and take the plates. At this point, it seems a frenzy of sorts began among the treasure-seeking community nearby. Tales that Joseph had retrieved a “Golden Bible” had spread throughout. Members of the Smith family tell of a mob that did indeed come, which they were able to frighten away. Joseph took measures to securely hide the plates before their return that night. In all the excitement, no one saw the plates at all, save Joseph Smith.
Posted on December 6, 2011, in Angels & Demons, My research journey, Nonfiction, Publications, Special Knowledge, Theology and tagged angel, book of abraham, book of mormon, Bridge Whitton, captain kidd, comorah, crazy, demon, hopewell indians, indian, joseph smith, keven newsome, kinderhook, ladder day saints, lds, lucy smith, mental health, mental illness, mormon, mormonism, moroni, pearl of great price, prophecy, psychosis, psychotic, Robert Wiley, schizophrenia, treasure. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.