Witch Trials, Mob Riots & Joseph Smith's Visit to Salem

Witch Trials, Mob Riots & Joseph Smith’s Visit to Salem

For Latter-day Saints, the revelation now comprising Doctrine and Covenants 111 holds a bit of mystery and mystique. It documents a trip to Salem, Massachusetts, and speaks of silver and gold in the city. The small contingent of leaders, consisting of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery, were promised they would discover “there are more treasures than one for you in this city.”

What were these treasures, if not money to help pay off the Church’s financial debts, which was the original intent for the trip? Historian Craig J. Ostler believes the colorful history of Salem helped Joseph and the other men understand core principles of love and tolerance as religious leaders.

“The lessons of justice, equality, fairness, tolerance, and inclusion, so important to the fledgling restored Church, were further imprinted upon the minds of its leaders during their time in Salem,” Ostler said.

This can be seen in the reactions the men had to infamous events that took place in and around Salem as they diligently sought to “inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city” as the revelation directed them to do.

The Salem Witch Trials

Salem witch trials - Wikipedia

The Salem Witch Trials took place from 1692 to 1693 where mass hysteria caused the local Puritans to accuse one another of witchcraft, leading to multiple deaths. Oliver Cowdery wrote extensively about the Salem Witch Trials in a letter home, which would then be published for the Saints.

“This witch business began in 1691, and was so effectually carried on for about two years that the innocent blood of hundreds moistened the earth to gratify the vile ambition of jealous mortals,” he wrote. “I viewed the hill, immediately to the north-west of the town, on which they used, in olden times when they were very righteous, to hang people for the alleged crime of witchcraft—it still bears the name of ‘witch hill,’ and looks down upon this ancient town like a monument set up to remind after generations of the folly of their fathers.”

Catholic Ursuline Convent Riot

Boston Irish Long Remembered the 1834 Charlestown Convent Fire – Historic  Ipswich

In 1834, just two years before the visit from Joseph and the others, a Protestant mob burned down a convent of Roman Catholic Ursuline nuns near what is now Somerville, Massachusetts. The mob formed after a false story of a nun being held against her will and tortured at the convent began to spread. The anti-Catholic sentiment was reaching a fever pitch and riots broke out multiple times, eventually leading the nuns and young students to hide in the gardens as the convent was burned down. Located 25 miles outside of Salem, the convent was still in ruins when the men visited. Oliver Cowdery wrote:

“It was a religious persecution—a disgraceful, shameful religious persecution—one, or more, religious societies rising up against another. Is this religion? The good people here, being very tenacious of right, as well as the tradition of their ancestors, thought it doing God service to burn a Catholic convent, because the Catholic religion was different from their own. The Author of my existence knows the sorrowing of my heart, on the reflection that our country has come to this, that the weak must be trodden down by the strong, and disorder, confusion and terror, must distract our land and sow the discordant seeds of party strife and party animosity in the hearts of ignorant men, led on by infatuated priests, to overwhelm the continent with blood, and spread destruction and devastation throughout our happy asylum, and expose us to the fire, the sword, the rack and to death!”

Joseph Smith also wrote of experience:

“Well did the Savior say concerning such, “by their fruits you shall know them.” And if the wicked mob who destroyed the Charleston convent, and the cool, calculating religious lookers on, who inspired their hearts with deeds of infamy, do not arise, and redress the wrong, and restore the injured four-fold, they in turn, will receive of the measure they have meted out till the just indignation of a righteous God is satisfied. When will man cease to war with man, and wrest from him his sacred rights of worshiping his God according as his conscience dictates? Holy Father, hasten the day.”

More Treasures Than One

After reviewing these accounts, Ostler summarized, “Evidently, the Lord hoped to warn and educate the early leaders of his Church concerning the tendency of some in religious societies to establish their own righteousness by excessively crusading against real and supposed evils among them.”

You can read more about Doctrine and Covenants 111 and Ostler’s research into the revelation here.

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