Salem: The Town of Puritan Witch Hunts and Failed Mormon Treasure Hunts

Salem, Massachusetts is the town that gained its reputation for the Salem witch trials that took place between 1692 and 1693, in which nearly twenty people who were thought to be witches, were executed.

Fast-forward 143 years.

By the early half of the 1800’s, Salem had a new reputation amongst Mormons. By 1836, Kirtland, Ohio became the new headquarters for the Church. The Kirtland (Ohio) Temple had been built and dedicated in March of 1836. This temple left a debt of $13,000 that the Mormon Church owed.

Faithful and infamous Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman writes in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (page 328), “Ebenezer Robinson, a printer in Nauvoo, remembered that a convert named Burgess had persuaded Church leaders that a large sum of money was hidden in the cellar of a Salem house. Perhaps Joseph [Smith] believed he could identify the site using his boyhood gifts as a treasure-seeker.”


Well, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph’s brother Hyrum Smith traveled to Salem, Massachusetts from Kirtland, Ohio. Doctrine and Covenants section 111 is wholly dedicated to this venture. Read this following paragraph carefully. The Lord “speaks” in this section, giving a revelation to Joseph Smith on August 6, 1836, saying:

I, the Lord your God… have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality. And it shall come to pass in due time that I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it, insomuch thatthey shall not discover your secret parts; and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours… For there are more treasures than one for you in this city…. Amen. (Doctrine and Covenants 111:1-2, 4, 9)


Well, what happened? Did the Mormons find treasure in this city? NO! The introduction to Doctrine and Covenants 111 even says, “When it became apparent that no money was to be forthcoming, they returned to Kirtland.”

The Mormon group was in Salem for two weeks. Sidney Rigdon gave lecture on “Christianity” at the local lyceum. They toured the East India Marine Society like regular tourists tended to do. (Rough Stone Rolling, 329) On August 19, Joseph Smith wrote to his wife that “we have found the house [that the treasure is in] since Bro. Burgess left us… the house is occupied, and it will require much care and patience to rent or buy it.” (Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, August 19, 1836, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 390, text in brackets added) Joseph Smith said he would wait until September, or months if necessary, but ironically, the Mormon party left for Kirtland empty-handed, and with no treasure.

Historian Richard Bushman describes and quotes Doctrine and Covenants 111 when speaking of the treasure in Salem: “The ‘wealth pertaining to gold and silver’ could be obtained ‘in due time,’ implying that meanwhile they should concentrate on people.” (Rough Stone Rolling, 329, emphasis added) The problem with Bushman’s interpretation is that he says the treasure could be obtained, but the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 111:4 says “its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours.” (emphasis added)

After the group returned to Kirtland, Joseph Smith had run up debts of over $100,000 dollars from purchasing land and store inventory. (Hill, Rooker, and Wimmer, Kirtland Economy, 27-35)  This flies in the face of a “revelation” from “God,” saying, “Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them.” (Doctrine and Covenants 111:5)

Is this revelation from “God” excusable? After all, no treasure in the city ever fell into the hands of the Mormons, the treasure did not benefit Zion, and people in the town of Salem were not gathered “out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through [Joseph’s] instrumentality.” (Doctrine and Covenants 111:2). Joseph Smith did not have power over the city, like Doctrine and Covenants 111:4 says he would. Read Doctrine and Covenants 111 for yourself to see the entire picture at this link:

This is a failed prophecy. Even if there was treasure in a house’s cellar in Salem like the rumor went, Joseph Smith claimed that God would fufill this word given in Section 111 of Doctrine and Covenants. The introduction to Doctrine and Covenants says that the “book of Doctrine and Covenants… is in fulfillment of and in concert with the words of all the holy prophets since the world began… These [are] sacred revelations…” which ‘makes this book of great value to the human family and ‘worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth’ (see heading to D&C 70).” I would wholeheartedly disagree.

Doctrine and Covenants 1:7 says about the book’s contents: “For what I the Lord have decreed in them shall be fulfilled.” It continues to say:

Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

For behold, and lo, the Lord is God, and the Spirit beareth record, and the record is true, and the truth abideth forever and ever. Amen. (Doctrine and Covenants 1:37-39)

Clearly, Doctrine and Covenants says that God cannot excuse himself for revelations not coming to pass. If revelations are given that do not come to pass, obviously God did not command them in the first place. Mormons make excuses at times to try and justify a revelation not coming to pass, but when Doctrine and Covenants says that the “prophecies and promises which are in them shall ALL be fulfilled,” and many are not fulfilled, there is a problem.

The failed prophecy of Salem is an example of a slippery one.


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