The Treasure of the Widow’s Son

(unpublished manuscript, n.d., ca. 1960)

Editor’s note—at least three conflicting dates have been assigned to this piece—1948 (by Peggy Adamson, Jack’s wife; 1960—my guess; and ca. 1970, by John Brooke in The Refiner’s Fire (1996). An original draft was likely written as early as 1948.  Because the current version cites a book published in 1958, however, this draft is later.  There is nothing to indicate, however, that Jack revisited this ms. as late as 1970, by which time it had been in underground circulation for some time, and so the later date is almost certainly incorrect. 

In the early 19th century the small town of Manchester, New York, lay in an area which, because of the peculiarly intense and long-continued response of its inhabitants to the fiery spirit of God, came to be called the “burned-over district.”[1]  In that town, on September 21, 1823, while the flame was burning fiercely, a shining angel, dressed in a radiantly white robe, descended through the shingled roof of a small frame house and into the bedroom of an eighteen-year-old boy named Joseph Smith.  The angel told the boy that lying buried in a nearby hill, later to be known as the Hill Cumorah, was a treasure consisting of some gold plates, a breastplate and two sacred stones.  The plates, according to the angel, contained a history of some ancient Hebrew inhabitants
of the American continent; the latter two objects were none other than the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate of the high priest of ancient lsrael.[2]

On the following day, the awe struck boy related this vision to his family, all of whom “were melted to tears and believed all he said.”[3]  Perhaps nothing is more puzzling to the readers of the Mormon story than this absence of surprise in the Smith family and their neighbors, many of whom talked and acted as if it were quite to be expected that sacred objects from pre-prophetic Israel should turn up in a drumlin (a hill formed by a glacial drift) in the state of New York.  The principal reasons for such equanimity, perhaps, lie in the fact that such experiences were quite common in the burned-over area.  Too, there was a widespread popular belief that the American Indian represented a genuine, if degenerate, remnant of the lost tribes of lsrael.[4]  It was, therefore, to be expected that sooner or later a history of these people would be found. But there is other reason, I believe for the air of familiarity which accompanied Joseph’s announcement and his family’s acceptance of it, namely the rapid and uncontrolled spread of Masonry and Masonic lore in the early 19th century.[5]  This remarkable, oft-disseminated lore had made people aware of the story of a sacred treasure, the treasure of the widow’s son, buried in a sacred hill. [6]  The story of the treasure was circulating at least as early as 1802,[7] and it embodied the kind of material that could be expected to appeal to those who were reared in the peculiar environment of the burned-over district.

The ultimate sources of the story of the buried treasure are quite ancient; some of them are central to Jewish Cabbalistic lore.  To understand the story, one needs first to know the Cabbalistic background and context.

Cabbalistic legends tell of the mystical significance of the name of Deity, a name composed of four Hebrew letters, two symbolizing the upper world and two the lower.  The Zohar tells us that once, in a cosmic ritual, the two letters from the lower world
moved upward and the two letters from the upper world moved downward; when joined
together, they formed the tetragrammaton.  With the Holy Name complete, the Shekinah, or Holy Presence, was able to dwell on earth among men. Solomon’s temple was to become his first earthly dwelling. [8]

But we are pursuing legends of a time before Solomon which center around a shadowy Biblical figure known as Enoch, son of Jared.  This preoccupation with Enoch perhaps reflects his mystically significant position, number seven, in the line of patriarchs from Adam.  It is to one of these legends of Enoch, son of Jared, that we turn for the story of the sacred treasure in the sacred hill.  It is a legend that passed over from Cabbalistic lore into Masonic legend.[9]

Enoch was taken in vision to the hill of Moriah.  Standing on the hill, in the vision, he saw a cavern below him within which, brilliantly shining, was a gold plate, curiously engraved.  Many symbols were to be seen on the plate; for example, the letter “M” designated the name of the hill.  But by far the most important engraving was that of the letters in the true and ineffable name of God through which the universe was integrated and preserved.[10] As the vision continued, Enoch, son of Jared, saw that a flood would destroy mankind; it was, he perceived, his duty to provide a refuge for the holy name.  He therefore placed a stone door over the cavern in which the gold plate was hidden, and above the door he placed two pillars.  The first pillar was of marble, an enduring substance which men, from the beginning, have chosen for their monuments to be pitted against forgetfulness and decay.  On this marble was engraved in Egyptian hieroglyphics the story of the treasure.  The second pillar was of brass and on top of it
Enoch placed a metal ball, hollowed out so that it could float and thus survive the flood.  Carved on this ball were maps of the world and of the universe.[11] The ball also possessed the mystical quality of being an invaluable instrument “for improving the mind and giving it the most distinct idea of any problem or proposition.”[12]  Finally the lore contained a hint that some day an lsraelitish descendant would find the treasure. [13]

The ages spun themselves out.  Man fouled the earth and God, in anger, cleansed his creation by a flood that destroyed all living things except for the small remnant of seed, divinely selected spermatikoi, that bobbed along safely in the ark. But the treasure, as we shall see, safely withstood the flood.

When Solomon decided to build a house in which the Divine Presence could dwell permanently among the people of the holy nation, he chose as a site for the temple the Hill of Moriah, partly because Father Abraham had taken his son Isaac there, along with the knife and the faggots, instruments of a deed through which his faith was to
shine down to all ages. But, even more, the hill Moriah was the exact center of the
earth; it was the navel of the world’s body, although Greek poets pretended that the navel of the earth was in the rocky chasm at Delphi.  On this Mount Moriah, then, was to be built the temple of Solomon, a mystical microcosm, an exact analogue of the heavenly kingdom. [14]  And it was here, while excavating for the foundation of the temple, that some Master Masons discovered the long buried treasure and the gold plate.  Twice they tried to reach the treasure and failed, but on the third attempt they obtained it. [15]  Now with the tetragrammaton in their possession, the transformation of the earth into a paradisiacal society seemed only a matter of moments.

At this critical juncture, three evil men intervened. They committed an “enormous” crime.  This crime was nothing less than the attempt to force the Master of all Masons, Hiram Abiff, or Hiram the widow’s son, [16]to reveal the hiding place of the gold plate.  But the stout Hiram resisted and whatever secrets he knew died with him.  As he was slain, he cried out, “O Lord my God, is there no help for the son of a widow?”[17] This cry of anguish became the secret Masonic distress call, a cry which could save a man’s life, it was said, among pirates, Turks, cruel savages, haughty Jews, Chinese or even Christians, if accompanied by the proper sign—both arms raised to the square.  Even if one went into the remotest areas of the earth he could find, as did the men in one of Kipling’s stories, the signs, secrets and obedient devotees of Masonry.[18]

Three loyal Masons pursued the evil ones.  One of the former came across the arch-villain asleep in a dark cavern with his poniard lying conveniently near.  The Masons seized this providential opportunity, slew the villain with his own villainous knife, and severed the head from the trunk.[19]

Anti-Masonic writers insist that this story was embodied in one of the degrees of Masonic ritual in which the candidate was symbolically threatened and able to save his life only by promising that he would revenge the death of the father of Masonry.  The candidate was then symbolically shown into a dark cavern and told to strike all who opposed him:  “’Strike off his head,’ the voice repeats, and the head of the corpse is lying at his feet.”[20]

It has been further alleged that in Revolutionary France, the tyrant in the cavern became the surrogate for the king of France and that the name of King Phillipe Le Bel was actually used. [21]  A. E. Waite, himself a Mason and certainly the most authentic scholar who has written on the subject, says that it is unquestionably true that at one period the candidates were required to trample on a crown and tiara (symbol of King and Pope).  That the formal execution of Le Bel, Clement V, and a traitor named Noeffedi was symbolically carried out in Masonic ritual, he mentions as an accusation without affirming or denying it.[22]

In any case, the loyal Mason, the revenger of the death of Hiram the widows son, was rewarded by King Solomon with a great reward and the treasure became part of the collection of sacred objects in the temple: the gold plate, the breastplate of the high priest of Israel and the Urim and Thummim.  Later, when Solomon’s temple was destroyed, the Shekinah, somewhat like the Greek Astrea, fled to the heavens, leaving the lower world severed from the upper.  I have been unable to discover what happened to the treasure itself.  I presume, therefore, that it still lies hidden in the sacred hill of Moriah, awaiting a descendant of Enoch to find it and again unite the upper world with the lower, the eternal forms with the earthly shadows.

Such is the story, a piece of lore which perpetuates the esoteric and mystical beliefs of a neo-Platonic Cabbalism.  And the lore lends itself to many levels of interpretation.  Masons who haven’t the faintest belief in this story as actual history nevertheless find it to be a significant part of a profound religious allegory.[23]

But more important, at least for the history of the United States, is the fact that almost every element of the legend seems to have an analogue of some kind in the history of Joseph Smith or in the scriptures he produced.  To trace those analogues is to discover again, although transformed, in varying degrees, the ancient lore of the treasure of the widow’s son.

Enoch, son of Jared, does figure, although not prominently, in the Mormon history and scripture. In the Book of Moses, chapter 7, Enoch, speaking in his own person, says that he went up into the Mount of Simeon where, in a vision, he saw the future, including the coming flood. Inasmuch as there is no hint of this event in the Bible, the similarity of this account to Masonic lore seems apparent. Further, Joseph Smith frequently identified himself with Enoch. Section 78 of the Doctrine and Covenants reads, “Revelation given to Enoch (Joseph Smith, Jun.)   Inasmuch as this is an official edition, the material in brackets has official sanction.  It is an accepted identification.  In verses 1 and 4 of the same revelation, Joseph is again referred to as Enoch. A similar identification occurs in Sections 92, 96 and 104. Section 107, in which Joseph Smith recounts the ages at which the various Biblical patriarchs were given the “Melchizedek Priesthood,: is perhaps relevant also.  Seth was 69, Enos 134, Cainan 87, Mahalaleel 496, Jared 200, Enoch 25, Methuselah 100, Lamech 32, and Noah 10.  To those acquainted with Mormon history, one age stands out from the others: that of
Enoch.   For Joseph Smith was also 25 years of age in 1830, the year in which he founded the Church, published the Book of Mormon and himself, apparently, received the same “Melchizedek Priesthood” at the hands of heavenly messengers.[24]

But Enoch, son of Jared, remains on the periphery of Mormon history and writings.  Far more significant is a non-Biblical character known only as ‘the brother of Jared.”  In the Book of Mormon we are told that this man was present at that hybristic enterprise, the building of the tower of Babel.  Being a faithful man, however, he was warned of the Lord to flee iniquity and did so, leading a small band out into the desert to a place called Moriancumer. [25]  This strange word actually seems to be a compound
of two words: “Moriah,” the sacred hill where the old Enoch hid his gold plate, and “Cumorah,” the sacred hill where the new Enoch found his gold plates.  This word thus united the two sacred hills, one in old Jerusalem and the other in the new Zion.

The brother of Jared, upon arriving at Moriancumer, was commanded by the Lord to go up into a mount where he too was given a vision of the future: he was further told to write down the content of the vision but to seal up the writing so that it could not be read.  He was instructed to include with the writing “two stones” by means of which
some future tender of the record might be able to translate it. [26]  Section 17 of the Doctrine and Covenants is more explicit. There we are told that the brother of Jared, “on the mount, was given the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. He was also given the sword of Laban and the ‘miraculous directors.”  These latter two objects will be discussed later.

The brother of Jared, then, according to the narrative, sailed to America with a
sacred treasure consisting of metal plates, the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate.  Ultimately those treasures were buried by a “Nephite” named Mormon in the hill Ramah which, we are told in an official footnote, is another name for the Hill Cumorah.[27]

Thus the Mormon scriptures tell us how the sacred treasures arrived in the New World.  There for many centuries they lay buried in a sacred hill awaiting the new Enoch. And, at the appointed hour, the new Enoch appeared.

Joseph Smith, like his ancient counterpart, first saw the sacred hill in a vision. “Owing to the distinctness of the vision which I had,” he writes, “I knew the place the instant I arrived there.”[28]  In this vision the angel had told him of the sacred treasures; when Joseph went to the hill he found these treasures underneath a stone and lying in a stone box.

The parallelism is further carried out in that, like the Master Masons, he could not “obtain” the treasure immediately.  Rather, he returned to the hill once each year for three years and on the fourth year was allowed to take the treasure to his home.  Before he arrived at home he was, like Hiram Abiff, assailed three times, but unlike the unfortunate Hiram, he was able to knock down his assailants and keep the treasure safe.[29]

This part of the story can be briefly concluded. Once the Prophet Joseph was asked by an English convert to name a new-born child, and he gave it the surprising name of Mahonri Moriancumr.  He then told the surprised parents that he had just that moment discovered, through revelation, that this was the true name of the Brother of Jared. [30]  Obviously this name calls for analysis.

Psychiatrists sometimes use the word “clang’ to denote a tendency observable in
certain individuals under certain conditions to mask an intended word by using one
similar to it. Joseph Smith, apparently, sometimes used such “clang” words. For example, in the Book of Moses, written in 1830 at the height of the anti-Masonic agitation, we are told that Cain was called ‘Master Mahan” (5:31). In 1917, Prince, writing in the Journal of American Psychology, pointed out that this phrase was a transparent “clang” for Master Mason.  Similarly he said that Mahonri was “clang” for Masonry. [31]If we accept this postulate, and it seems obvious enough, then the name the Brother of Jared, divested of ‘clang,” is Masonry Moriah Cumorah.  Another sacred object in the Masonic lore, it will be remembered, was the mystical hollow sphere which stood atop Enoch’s brass pillar. This object, or one a good deal like it, appears in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi, 4:12, 10)

And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning and went forth to the tent door to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass.  And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

Not only was this ball capable of giving directions, but like the ball of Masonic lore, it could also impart ideas.  When the steel bows of the sons of Lehi lose their spring and Nephi breaks his bow, the little band faces starvation.  In this peril they pray mightily.

And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him, Look upon the ball and behold the things which are written.

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which
were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith, and diligence, and heed which we did give unto them.

And there was also written upon them, a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord, and it was written and changed from lime to time according to the faith and
which we gave unto it.

This metal ball was used as a compass to guide the second band of Israelites to the New World. The purpose of the sphere and its description may be compared with that given above from a Masonic source to the effect that the sphere gives the mind distinct ideas about problems and propositions.[32]

One treasure remains to be discussed: the sword of Laban.  The Book of Mormon opens with a scene in which a young man named Nephi is made out to be a hero for cutting off the head of a wicked king. The name of this evil king is Laban (clang for Le Bel?) who has in his possession some brass plates which he will not release to the righteous Nephi.  Rather, Laban threatens Nephi and his brothers who then depart.  At night, Nephi returns alone, finds the king lying on the ground, in the darkness, drunk, helpless and conveniently wearing a sword.  The spirit “constrains” the young Nephi to kill the king, but he cannot for he has been taught not to kill.

And the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands,

Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and smote off his head with his own
sword [1 Nephi, 4:12, 181.

Those who read the Book of Mormon as essentially an account of the inner life of Joseph Smith generally feel that Nephi is a surrogate for the Prophet himself.  One recalls the symbolic “dark cavern” of Masonic lore, the voice out of the darkness ordering “Cut off his head,” the neophyte’s slashing out at a wicked king named Le Bel, and shudders slightly to find the scene emerging out of the world of symbolic ritual to be narrated in the Book of Mormon as a historical account of a literal event.  Thus the opening scene of the Book of Mormon contains thematic elements from the parent lore:  an unrighteous king, the disputed possession of precious plates, and the
beheading of the villain with his own sword.

The strangest part of the story remains to be told.  So far we have seen aspects of the Masonic lore, transformed in whatever degree, emerging in the writings and history of Joseph Smith.  We have seen a kind of reshaping within his psyche of some of the legendary stories and traditional rituals of Masonry. But the final scene has a dual aspect:  it does indeed continue the symbolic acting out of Masonic lore – this time the death of the founder of Masonry — but in this event, symbol is not merely transformed into Joseph’s inner history or his sacred writings.  Rather, the action goes beyond metaphor and the symbol merges into a tragic reality.

Joseph surrendered voluntarily to officers of the law who promised him the protection of the law. However, he was placed in Carthage jail and handled in such a way that his enemies saw an open invitation to murder.  After an ugly mob had spent some time around the jailhouse, a few men detached themselves, rushed the jail and meeting no resistance, ran up the stairs and began firing through the door into the room where the prisoner and some of his friends were being held.

As a last desperate measure, in a noble if naïve gesture of belief in his brother Masons, Joseph ran to the window, stood in full view of the mob and raised both arms to the square.  Then, like Hiram Abiff, he cried out, “O Lord my God. . .”  He got no further.  Riddled by shot from a score of muskets, his body swayed for a moment and then plunged through the window to the ground below.[33] In Mormon country it is still said, sometimes, that there were Masonic rings on fingers that triggered some of the muskets.

If one drives to Palmyra, New York, any year in early August, he can view a pageant enacted from the top of the drumlin known as the Hill Cumorah.  On this hill is a monument erected in honor of the angel who first opened to the boy Joseph the vision of the treasure in the hill.  And if one asks any of the amiable missionaries at the Information Bureau there, he will be told, sometimes defensively, but generally with quiet pride, that lying buried somewhere in the sacred hill, the exact spot known only to God and his angels, is a stone box containing gold plates, the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate, the ancient treasures of the widow’s son.

*Editor’s note—at least three conflicting dates have been assigned to this piece—1948 (by Peggy Adamson, Jack’s wife; 1960—my guess; and ca. 1970, by John Brooke in The Refiner’s Fire (1996). An original draft may have been written as early as 1948.  Because the current version cites a book published in 1958, however, this draft is later.  There is nothing to indicate, however, that Jack revisited this ms. as late as 1970, by which time it had been in underground circulation for some time, and so the later date is almost certainly incorrect.


[1] See Whitney A. Cross, The Burned-Over District (Cornell University Press, 1950).

[2] B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1936, Vol. 1, Cbs. 1-3. See also another work not to be confused with the above: History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, 1902), Chs. 1-3. These are entirely distinct works and will be referred to hereafter as Comprehensive History and History of the Church respectively.

[3]William Mulder and A. R. Mortensen, eds. Among the Mormons (New York, 1958), p. 26. The quotation is from Joseph’s brother, William Smith.

[4] The book most commonly linked with the Mormon movement which propounds this
view is Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews (Vermont, 1823).

[5] The Freemason’s Library (Baltimore, 1826), cited by Henry Dana Ward in Freemasonry (New York, 1828), listed 1293 lodges in the United States, It gave the names and addresses of 1182.  This figure is probably much smaller than the actual number of lodges.  For example, this report lists only 157 Masonic lodges in New York State.  But Report on the Abduction of William Morgan, made to the senate of New York State on February 14, 1829, stated that there were more than 500 lodges in the state with an average of 60 members per lodge.  This, it was estimated, was about one-ninth of the voting population of the state. (See James C. Odierne Opinions on Speculative Masonry (Boston, 1830), p. 198.  Theoretically any three Master Masons could start a new lodge without any formal approval from a parent body. The result was sometimes the kind of confusion spoken of by the Rev. Joshua Bradley: “In New England, Masonry has been in some degree systematized . . . but pass these States and a scene confusion, contradiction and discordant modes of work in lodges and chapters abounds.”  See Odiorne, Opinions, p. 40.  The soundest study of this movement is Charles Mccarthy, “The Anti-Masonic Party: A Study of Political Anti-Masonry in the United States, 1827-40,” published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1902.

[6] For the story of the treasure, I have relied chiefly on the pro-Masonic work, Thomas Webb’s Free-Mason’s Monitor (New York, 1802), and a work that borrows heavily
from it, the anti Masonic work of Henry Dana Ward. See footnote 5.

[7] The date of Webb’s book.

[8] The Zohar, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon (London, 1932), II, p. 111.

[9] Ibid., p. 112. Also Vol. III, 5, 28.  Cf A. E. Waite.  The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry, (London, 1911, I, 46 ff.

[10] 10 Waite, 1,181. CF. Ward, pp. 4,13.

[11]Ward, p. 69. Cf. Webb, p. 56. Webb states that there were two balls, one supported by each pillar, and that one was a celestial, the other a terrestrial globe.

[12]Webb, p. 56.

[13]Ward, p. 15.

[14]Waite, I, 81. See also Louis Ginsberg, Legends of the Jews (Jewish Publication
Society of America, 1909-39), 1, 12, 352; V, 14, 15.

[15] Ward, p. 18. Webb, pp. 252-53.

[16] The name appears only in II Chronicles 2:13. It is not known whether the name Huram ‘abhi means Hiram the widow’s son or whether it is simply part of the name.  The Revised Standard version translates it, “Buram-abi, the son of a woman of Dan.

[17] William Morgan, Freemasonry Exposed (Chicago, 1880), p. 76. This work was first printed in 1827 and led to the alleged murder of Morgan and a resultant nationwide furor.

[18] See Kipling’s short story, “The Man Who Would be King.” Cf. Ward, pp. 207-8 and Webb, p. 14.

[19]Ward, p. 291. Webb says that one of the Masonic aprons has represented on the “flap a bloody arm with a poinard (sic) and on the area, a bloody arm holding by the air a bloody head.” See pp. 236, 238.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Abbe Barruel, The Anti-Christian and Antisocial Conspiracy (Lancaster, Pa., 1812), pp. 111-14.  Le Bel is Masonry’s traditional enemy because he suppressed the Knights Templar and put Jacques DeMolay to death. Cf. Ward, pp. 306-7.

[22] I, 324-25.

[23] Morton Deutsch, in a work called From Whence Came You (New York, 1958), expresses surprise that the English Masonic historians believe the Hiramic legend to stem from the first quarter of the eighteenth century. He proceeds to attempt to establish the legend as genuine history. His efforts come to nothing.

[24] Comprehensive History, I, 183, states that the exact date of the restoration of the “greater priesthood” is unknown. “but beyond all doubt it was between the 15th of May, 1829, and the month of April, 1830.”

[25] See Book of Ether, Ch. 2. This is one of the books in the Book of Mormon.

[26]Ibid. 3:22-23.

[27]Ibid.. 15:11. Cf. Mormon 6:6 (Mormon is a book in the Book of Mormon).

[28]History of the Church, I, 15.

[29] Lucy Mack Smith, History of the Prophet Joseph, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, 1902), p. 105. Mrs. Smith was the Prophet’s mother.

[30]“Questions and Answers,” Improvement Era. VIII :9 (July, 1905), pp. 704-5.

[31]Walter F. Prince, “Tests for the Authorship of the Book of Mormon,” American Journal of Psychology, XXVIII, July, 1917.

[32] See footnote 12 above.

[33] Comprehensive History, II, 286.

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