This video discusses Joseph Smith’s early 19th century rural culture which accepted belief in seer stones and other objects as gifts from God to find lost belongings, wells, and other valuable things. While this culture is foreign to us today, God used it to forge his work forward – as He speaks to his children in their language and understanding. The Smith family, Emma Hale Smith, Martin Harris & Oliver Cowdery, all key participants in bringing forth The Book of Mormon, were influenced by this culture in ways that nurtured faith in Joseph Smith’s divine call as prophet, seer, and revelator. Details are also discussed surrounding the seer stone’s use in translating The Book of Mormon, as well it’s use in the life to come (Revelation 2:17 – white stone).
Okay so on this video I want to talk about Joseph Smith’s seer stone culture, the culture that he grew up in as a youth. And I want to talk about really also some very key players in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon before the church was even organized: Joseph Smith’s family, especially his parents, Emma Smith, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery. And I want you to think, as I go through these, how critical, these specific people were critical in the Book of Mormon coming forth, and how this culture actually played into it, whether it was inspired by God or more likely how God always works with his people where they’re at. He adapts to essentially their language and understanding, right? As we’re told.
So now there’s been a plethora of material that has come out the last few decades. Really this was the seminal work, a cultural biography of Joseph Smith from Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, phenomenal work. If you like Saints, this is Saints on steroids, it’s fantastic. Love it. I’m going to add some quotes in the video here from that. And then actually, as part of The Joseph Smith Papers, two great books that came out, From Darkness Into Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones. Both of these from BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book as part of The Joseph Smith Papers, people working on those projects, putting these books out in conjunction with that.
So, but even going back further, back to the 80’s. The Mark Hoffman forgeries created a firestorm of really looking at early church history and really trying to understand it better and really trying to get truthful clarity on what documents we can trust, et cetera. So I’ll talk about that as we go through. So in the midst of that environment in the 80’s, I did want to share this quote from the Ensign, October, 1987 from then apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks. And he said, “Some sources close to Joseph Smith claimed that in his youth during his spiritual immaturity, prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure.”
“Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the prophet of the Restoration.” Now Richard Bushman in his book Rough Stone Rolling. This is a little section. He said, “In 1833, an ex-communicated Mormon named Doctor Philastus Hurlbut collected affidavits in Palmyra and Manchester from people who remembered the Smith family. One of the repeated charges in the affidavits was that Joseph Sr. and his sons hunted for treasure and looked in stones. The aim of the affidavits was to discredit the Smiths, but the firsthand accounts of treasure seeking necessarily came from people who had gone on expeditions themselves and were participant observers.”
“In exposing the Smiths, the neighbors inadvertently described a culture of magic in which they and many others in 19th century New York were involved.” In fact, there were superstitions that the Native Americans had built up mounds to hide treasure. So the mounds around there is one example. In this book actually, even within Joseph’s town there in Palmyra, they record the number of people that are recorded to have had seer stones from 1820 to 1827 and there’s actually one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Nine different people in there. So just part of this culture there. And then look at this. Local newspapers of Joseph’s time on money digging activities, “Digging for money hid in the earth is a very common thing and in this state it is even considered an honorable and profitable employment. One gentleman digging ten to twelve years found a sufficient quantity of money to build him a commodious house.”
“Another dug up fifty thousand dollars! And, in 1825 the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra reported that buried treasure had been found by the help of a mineral stone, which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it.” Richard Bushman shared this, “Given the financial difficulties under which the Smith family labored, it would hardly be surprising that they might hope for such a reversal in their fortunes. Richard Bushman has compared the Smith’s attitude toward treasure digging with a modern attitudes for gambling or buying a lottery ticket. Bushman points out that looking for treasure had little stigma attached to it among all classes in the 17th century and continued to be respectable among lower classes into the 18th and 19th century.” Now, there’s a great article from, again, some of the people involved in the Joseph Smith Papers project and these books put out in the October, 2015 Ensign where they actually, the Church published a picture of the seer stone, the brown seer stone, which I’ll show you in a minute.
And in that article it says here, “Joseph was raised in a family that read the Bible, which mentions seers repeatedly. The Bible also mentions people receiving spiritual manifestations by means of physical objects such as rods, a brass serpent on a pole, an ephod (part of the priestly clothing that included two precious stones), and the Urim and Thummim. Seeing and seers were part of the culture in which Joseph Smith grew up. Some people in the early 19th century believed it was possible for gifted individuals to see or receive spiritual manifestations through material objects such as seer stones.”
“The young Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects. Since the biblical narrative showed God using physical objects to focus people’s faith or communicate spiritually in ancient times, Joseph and others assumed the same of their day. Joseph’s parents affirmed the family’s immersion in this culture and their use of physical objects in this way, and the villagers of Palmyra and Manchester, New York, where the saints lived, sought out Joseph to find lost objects before he moved to Pennsylvania in late 1827.”
So let’s talk about Martin Harris for just a second. Very early experience that Martin had. And as you think about this experience, think about how this laid a foundation for Martin to see Joseph of having a gift from God, and I’ll tell you, this becomes in this book very clear that without Martin Harris, we don’t have the Book of Mormon being published. He was the financier of the Book of Mormon essentially there. So this was recorded, Michael Ash shared this in the Gospel Scholar in Deseret News in the publication in 2009, said, “In Joseph’s world, the ability to use a seer stone to see the location of lost objects was a gift from God. Joseph, his family, and many of his associates believed he had this gift. Martin Harris recounted an incidence when he literally lost a needle in a haystack, shavings and straw, and asked Joseph to find it with the seer stone.”
In a manner common to frontier diviners, Joseph put his seer stone into the bottom of a hat and then put his face into the hat, obscuring all ambient light and somehow was able to see something in the stone. Martin watched Joseph closely to see he did not peek out from out of the hat. According to Martin, Joseph reached out his hand beyond me on the right and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin. We don’t know how Joseph was able to do this. We don’t know what his success rate was, finding lost or hidden objects. The important thing is that Joseph believed that he was able to find lost objects and this was a gift granted him by God.”
So this was actually helping Joseph too, himself and confidence there that he had this gift and Martin there. Okay, so Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling, let me share this about this folk magic culture as part of religion actually. “Enlightened newspaper editors and ministers scoffed at the superstitions of common people but were unable to erase them. Ordinary people apparently had no difficulty blending Christianity with magic. Willard Chase, the most vigorous of the Manchester treasure seekers was a Methodist class leader at the time. He knew the Smiths and his obituary was described as a minister. At the time he employed Joseph to use his stone to find Spanish bullion.” Oh, let me back up. “At the time he employed Joseph to use his stone to find Spanish bullion, Josiah Stowell was an upright Presbyterian and an honored man in his community.”
“The so-called credulity of the money diggers can be read as evidence of their general faith in invisible forces. Christian beliefs in angels and devils blended with belief in guardian spirits and magical powers. The saints were as susceptible as their neighbors to treasure seeking folklore … for people in a magical frame of mind, Moroni sounded like one of the spirits who stood guard over treasure. The similarities may even have made the extraordinary story more credible in the Smith family.” So again, think about how, what if Joseph’s family, especially his parents, did not believe him about Moroni and about the gold plates that were to be buried in the hill. This fit right in with their understanding and their culture there and it allowed them to express confidence in Joseph. Okay, so Bushman also noted in his chapter in a book called Reason For Faith.
And keep in mind the word magic here is not anything like how we use that term today or associate with it today. And more on that in a minute, but he says, I’m going to only read the underlying parts here. “This fascination with magic began to fade among the educated classes in the later 17th century, but it did not disappear among ordinary people. According to Yale historian John Butler, folk magic was prevalent among Yankees well into the 19th century. The Smiths may have been subscribing to folk religion, but in this they were part of the culture found virtually everywhere among Yankees of their generation. Church scholars now acknowledge that he had a seer stone and did look for lost objects as a young man. The difference is that since Thomas and Butler published their research, folk magic is no longer toxic. It was too commonplace to be scandalous.”
“Magic and Christianity did not seem at odds with one another, and the combination was altogether too common in the 19th century for it to invalidate Joseph Smith’s more conventional religious claims.” So on the Fair Mormon website they actually had a lot of great stuff on this. I’ll link to some of this and here are a few items I found particularly insightful. He says on the site, “Many people of the 1800’s did not see any differences between what latter generations would label as magic and religiously driven activities recorded in the Bible, such as Joseph’s silver cup in Genesis 44 in which he divineth (which was also practiced by the surrounding pagans and referred to as hydromanc), or the rod of Aaron, and it’s a divinely driven power, Exodus 7. The Bible records that Jacob used rods to cause Laban’s flocks to produce spotted and speckled offspring.”
That’s in Genesis 30. “One can only imagine what the critics would say should Joseph Smith have attempted such a thing. Joseph and his contemporaries would likely have been shocked and dismayed to be charged with practicing magic. For them such beliefs were simply how the world worked. Someone might make use of a compass without understanding the principles of magnetism. This mysterious, but apparently effective device was useful even if its underlying mechanism was not understood. In a similar way, activities of the early 1800’s or biblical times, which later generations would view skeptically were simply thought of as part of how the world worked. But it was a huge leap from this realization to charging that Joseph and his followers believed they were drawing power from anything but a divine or proper source.” Okay. Now, Joseph’s attitude really began to change, and Richard Bushman does a great job in really showing some of this in Rough Stone Rolling.
Here’s a little snip from the book. He says, “Joseph Jr. never repudiated the stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end. But after 1823, he began to orient himself away from treasure and toward translation. Martin Harris, another early supporter, remembered Joseph saying that the angel told him he must quit the company, the money diggers. That there were wicked men among them. After 1823 he continued to be involved in treasure expeditions, but not as the instigator or leader. Perhaps he resisted by dragging his feet. William Stafford depicts Joseph Sr. hunting for gold and going back to the house to seek further instruction from Joseph Jr., as if the son was trying to stay out of the picture while the father pushed on. In 1825, when the family needed money, Joseph Jr. agreed to help Stowell find the Spanish gold, but with misgivings. Lucy said of Stowell’s operation that Joseph endeavored to divert him from his vain pursuit.”
“Alva Hale, a son in the household where the Smiths stayed in Harmony while digging for Stowell, said Joseph Jr. told him that the gift in seeing with a stone was a gift from God, but the peeping was all dang nonsense. He had been deceived in his treasure seeking, but he did not intend to deceive anyone else. By this time, Joseph apparently felt that seeing with a stone was the word of a seer, a religious term, while peeping or glass looking was fraudulent.” It is interesting how again, this situation, if Joseph had not been looking as a stone or treasure digging, he would not have ended up meeting Emma Smith. That’s how he met Emma because Josiah Stowell, who had a couple of experiences with Joseph with the seer stone, hired him to come, and Joseph even tried to convince him out of it and prevailed on him after a month.
But he stayed with Emma, stayed with the Hale home. That’s where he boarded, and that’s where he met Emma. And then actually, take it even a step further, Joseph was told that he could get the plates next time, meaning in 1827, if he brought the right person and Joseph asked Moroni who that was. And he said, you will know, and he later looked in the seer stone and saw Emma. That’s how he knew. So again, the seer stone played a key role in him meeting Emma and bringing Emma into the picture. It was 165 miles from Palmyra where Emma’s home was there in Harmony, Pennsylvania. So quite fascinating when you think about. Now, Josiah Stowell’s nephew took Joseph into court saying he thought he was deceiving his uncle by being involved in this, and it was ironic because Joseph was trying to talk him really essentially out of it and did prevail on him there. And then in court Josiah Stowell was actually testifying for Joseph, in his benefit and faith in Joseph.
So really interesting, but let me share from Rough Stone Rolling a little snippet from the court appearance that really was, I thought, quite illuminating. He says, “Under examination, the 20-year-old Joseph said that he had looked for hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth and had helped Stowell several times. For the past three years at Palmyra, going back to the time he had found the seer stone in 1822, he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was, but he was not happy with this work. Treasure seeking, he said, was not his idea. He did not solicit business of this kind and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business. He had been under pressure from neighbors, from the enthusiastic and well-off Stowell, and from his own father.”
“They kept after him even though the hunts invariably failed. By the time of the court appearance, Joseph Sr. may have been backing off too. W.D. Purple, a skeptical observer at the hearing, said one statement particularly impressed him. Joseph Sr. testified that both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of earthly treasures. His constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the Son of Righteousness would someday illuminate the heart of the boy and enable him to see His will concerning him.” Nice timing too. This is right before Joseph is to get the plates and within the next year roughly, and also see how the family is being prepared as well. Interesting. Now, I love what the Fair Mormon website did on just a summary of some interesting aspects of this hearing.
Critics in Joseph’s day didn’t even bring this hearing up, but they bring it up a lot today. So it’s interesting to look at this. So first of all, they say on the website, “They didn’t bring it up in another trial in the same area in 1830. It was not mentioned in any of the affidavits collected by Hurlbut in 1833, even though he was diligently looking for any piece of dirt he could find. Although the trial was briefly mentioned in 1831, it was not mentioned again in a published record for 46 years.” So why today? Why later generations of critics? Here’s why. “Society had changed. Seer stones were no longer acceptable. Treasure digging was considered abnormal. Spiritual gifts were reinterpreted as manifestations of the occult.” Sound like today? So I thought that was helpful. Now let’s revisit that word magic. So again, a few more things from the Fair Mormon site.
They say, “Critics are generally not clear about what definition of magic they are using. And how to distinguish a magical belief in the supernatural from a religious belief in the supernatural. Scholars of magic and religion have, in fact, come to realize that defining magic is probably a hopeless task, John Gee noted. In 1990, Cambridge University published Stanley Tambiah’s Magic, Science, Religion, and the Scope of Rationality, which showed that the definitions of many of the most important writers on magic were heavily influenced both by their backgrounds and their personal ideological agendas. They define magic as religious beliefs other than their own. In 1992 the International Interdisciplinary Conference on Magic in the Ancient World failed to come to any agreement on what magic was.” Okay. The Fair Mormon site continues to go on and says, “So did Joseph Smith and his contemporaries believe in supernatural entities with real power?”
“Yes, and so does every Christian, Jew, or Muslim who believes in God, angels, and divine power to reveal, heal, et cetera. However, to label these beliefs as magic is to beg the question. To argue that Joseph believed in and sought help from powers besides God.” Note besides God. “Nobody disputes that Joseph and his family believed in the Bible which condemns divination and witchcraft.” And there’s a verse right there in Deuteronomy. “Therefore, Joseph and his family viewed folk magic and the use of seer stones as not falling under this biblical condemnation. It is clear that Joseph and his contemporaries believed that one could gain knowledge from such activities as dousing, using a rod to find water or buried treasure, and the use of the seer stones. This does not mean, however, that Joseph understood such activities to be a form of magic.” Okay. If you want to pause, I’ll flash this up on the screen, but you can see how scientific journals talked about this.
The divining rod may have worked in line with scientific natural principles, but they also viewed it as part of, in fact, it says, “It is further clear that those who use divinization by rods, for example, believe that the rod’s natural ability also required the grace of God to operate. Hence practitioners would consecrate their rods and pray to God to bless their efforts.” This is where Oliver Cowdery comes in. So if you read in Doctrine and Covenants section 8, it talks about that Oliver actually had this gift from God of dealing with the rod essentially. And what is it? So this is the culture they were living in. So think about Oliver. So he could easily accept Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone because of that background and culture that he had. So I’ll pause this on the screen if you want to read it.
This is Revelations in Context, talking about D&C 8, but they looked at it and they looked at how Aaron had the use of the rod in Exodus 7:9 to receive God’s will. And, “many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those that believed and used a divining rod.” That’s interesting. Okay. So now after the Church started to grow, Joseph’s culture began to change rapidly. And many even account of this may have been some of Joseph’s reticence to share some details. But so from that 2015 Ensign article, we read, “Partly as a result of the enlightenment, or age of reason, a period that emphasized science and the observable world over spiritual matters, many in Joseph’s day came to feel that the use of physical objects such as stones or rods, was superstitious or inappropriate for religious purposes.”
“In later years, as Joseph told his remarkable story, he emphasized his visions and other spiritual experiences. Some of his former associates focused on early use of seer stones in an effort to destroy his reputation in a world that increasingly rejected such practices. In their proselyting efforts, Joseph and other early members chose not to focus on the influence of folk culture, as many perspective converts were expressing a transformation in how they understood religion in the age of reason. In what became canonized revelations, however, Joseph continued to teach that seer stones and other seeric devices, as well as the ability to work with them, were important and sacred gifts from God.” Okay, so let’s talk about Joseph’s use of the seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon. This is where he really differentiated from any other seer with a stone and became unexplainable. The production of scripture, and then look at the fruits of what that scripture then did.
This is where things really became amazing. So if you actually look back, this book talks about that Joseph had really two main seer stones, the brown one that the Church did the picture of recently, I’ll show, and then a white one. And the record is a little confusing as far as when and where for sure which was found. Either Lake Erie or digging a well on the Chase farm there. And then even the dates, scholars disagree, but it’s somewhere between 1819 at the earliest, up to maybe even 1826 at the very latest, one of them, the white stone possibly. But he had two stones there that he used. So, and if you recall, with the records, the golden plates Joseph was given, they called them interpreters, and it was two stones set in silver rims, if you recall.
So that was what is talked about in the book of Mormon as interpreters there. But in addition to that, if you go to the Church website under the Gospel Topics Essay, The Book of Mormon Translation, they share this. “The other instrument which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or seer stone. As a young man during the 1820’s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture. Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments, the interpreters and the seer stone, were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way that, in course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.”
“In ancient times, Israelite priests use the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state the instruments involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined. Latter-day Saints later understood the term Urim and Thummim to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seemed to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.” This is where things get really confusing as a lot of people say, “Oh, the Urim and Thummim are these interpreters, the spectacles, as they’re sometimes called.” That’s not how they referred to them back then. It was more of a class, so anything that was used to translate became a Urim and Thummim in a sense.
Also, if you look on the Church website, on the Gospel Topics, it says, “Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.” So I think we struggle too with the seer stone being so natural, a rock in the ground versus these ancient mystical glasses, and they must have come from God, in the stone box that was hid up for all those centuries.
So I think that’s also our struggle, but God will work with wherever Joseph’s at and whatever is going to work best for him. At the end of the day, God achieved his purpose by bringing the Book of Mormon forth and He works with us where we’re at, and I’m going to talk in a second about why maybe the stone was better for Joseph to use. Now here’s an example of a quote. This is Emma Smith. She says, “Now the first that my husband translated the book, was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that that was the part that Martin Harris lost. After that, he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color.” Emma Smith, this was her sharing this. So a couple of things about this. She’s talking about the majority of the book was translated with the seer stone.
That was after the lost 116 pages, but we always say the Urim and Thummim there, and then she’s even referring to the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim there, but then it’s shown that you can see in the art there, that they maybe were even put in a hat. I’ll mention that also in a second here. But again, this is what a part of the confusion is on trying to understand each of these. Also look at the picture of where the plates are, how they’re covered with a cloth. Some may say, “Wait a minute. If Joseph’s looking in a hat doing this and not looking at the plates, why does he even need the plates?” Well try and imagine the Book of Mormon coming forth in his day without those golden plates. Those golden plates were a tangible evidence that this was an ancient record that was brought forth through the gift and power of God, but that was a tangible witness. And it was shown, as we know, to the three and to the eight witnesses there.
So there was a critical component to it. So President Nelson, well Elder Nelson at the time, back in 1992 at a mission president seminar, said, “The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote, ‘Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light, and in the darkness, the spiritual light would shine.'” Then here’s some interesting details about maybe why the seer stone came so much into play. This was in Michael Ash’s Deseret News article. He said, “We don’t know what instructions Joseph received in utilizing the interpreters, but it seems that he may have been on his own to figure that out. Since they were shaped like glasses, Joseph apparently tried to use them, at least initially, as one would use spectacles.”
“This proved to be difficult, however, because the lenses were set wider than Joseph’s eyes and caused eyestrain. Apparently Joseph likened the interpreters to a seer stone and, according to Martin Harris, tried to use them in the bottom of a hat but found that they were too big to fit. Somewhere during the early stages of translating, Joseph tried his seer stone and found that they, like the Nephite interpreters, could serve as a tool for receiving the Book of Mormon translation. Once Joseph used his seer stone for translating, he never went back to divining. Martin Harris, Joseph’s first scribe during the translation process, wanted to test the veracity of Joseph’s seer stone and related the following incident. During a break from translating the two men would sometimes go to the river and throw stones. Once Martin found a rock that closely resembled Joseph’s seer stone and, when the prophet wasn’t looking, switched the stone with the one in the hat. When the translation resumed Joseph paused for a long time and then complained that he was unable to see the translation.”
“Martin confessed to switching the stones because he wanted to stop the mouths of fools who said that Joseph merely memorized material and repeated it back to Martin.” So quite fascinating. This was, I’m sure, helpful for Martin to have that experience, but also shows the power of the seer stone that Joseph had. Okay, Gazelem. This is mentioned in Alma 37. Look at this. It talks about preserving these interpreters, but then listen to this, in verse 23, “And the Lord said, I will prepare unto my servant, Gazelem, a stone.” Now that’s singular, “A stone which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.” Very interesting. Daniel Ludlow says, “Gazelem is a name given to a servant of God. The word appears to have its roots in gaz, a stone, and Aleim, a name of God as a revelator, or the interpreter in the affairs of men.”
Also Joseph was called Gazelem as a pseudonym when they were in 1835 Doctrine and Covenants that needed to use code names for protection for different reasons in 1835. That was associated with that and, in fact, at Joseph Smith’s funeral, W.W. Phelps said that that was Joseph’s name in the preexistence there. So quite fascinating, but I really like how, and even in the Book of Mormon, it talks about a single stone that would light up as part of the help there for the record. Okay, so the transition, the general memberships evolution of viewing the stone in the hat, if you will, versus the interpreters. So if you look at this here, this talks about how the process happened. So in 1828 to 1830, this is on the Fair Mormon site, “Joseph was reluctant to describe the translation process in detail.”
“BYU professor Stephen Ricks feels that Joseph’s reticence was probably well justified. It may have been due to the inordinate interest some of the early saints had shown in the seer stone or to the negative, sometimes bitter reactions he encountered when he had reported sacred experiences to others. Thus Joseph never discussed the details regarding which translation instrument he used to both translate the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation. Joseph simply told people that he received his early revelations through the Urim and Thummim.” And then in the 1930’s, “Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon.” And you can read about that there, but he basically concludes he didn’t believe in Joseph, the story there. And that then moved on. 1956, “Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone, but he did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon. Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity.”
“In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous.” And then in the 1980’s, “The visibility of these issues among the general church membership began to change significantly in the early 80’s as the result of a tragic event, the exposure of the Mark Hoffman forgeries. Some of Hoffman’s documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and, to some extent, simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents. Although the Hoffman forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general church membership.” And then that went like crazy with the Joseph Smith Papers and all this stuff we’ve talked about to the point of, look at the screen.
This was in… literally the Church published a picture of the seer stone. They have the brown seer stone published here, being on display of this photograph in the 2015 October Ensign article. Now look at the picture of these paintings here. Part of the challenge is, sometimes artists are trying to convey ideas, and that can be a challenge also. And it’s the way they may interpret this progress that people and their understanding of the process. So Anthony Sweat particularly has tried recently to get some solid art showing Joseph with the hat. And if you look here, he did some sketches, in fact look at number three there. He called that the sick of Joseph and he said, this is probably why it was hard for artists even to attempt to do this, is that his head buried in a hat, how do you portray that?
It looks like he’s sick there. And so number four was how he decided to paint this and show Joseph really maybe starting to go down to the hat, but it really telegraphs what’s the image of what’s trying to be communicated. But at the end of the day, the artists are trying to get the message across that Joseph is receiving God’s communication of what was on the plates in various ways there. But I think the new art really dovetails nicely with history. Now to finish, the seer stone no longer needed. I want to emphasize something here to be careful on. So in the article, in the Ensign it says, “Joseph had other seer stones, but in the words of Elder Orson Pratt, a member of the Twelve, ‘Joseph had also matured by this time in his spiritual understanding.'”
“At a meeting in 1874 attended by Brigham Young, Elder Pratt told his audience about being present many times when Joseph was translating the New Testament. Seeing no interpretive instruments in use during the translation process, he wondered why Joseph did not use the Urim and Thummim, as in translating the Book of Mormon. As Elder Pratt watched the prophet translate, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.” And we should be careful about thinking of this as like training wheels and not used again. Joseph gave his brown stone to Oliver Cowdery after the translation of the Book of Mormon in 1830 or so, and that did end up through back to Brigham Young at some point and then to pass down to the prophets.
But he kept his white stone and, in fact, he used that, Lorenzo Brown mentioned seeing him use it in parts of the Joseph Smith translation. Parley P. Pratt talked about him using it somewhat in the Book of Abraham translation. 1836 he gave a patriarchal blessing to Newel K. Whitney using his white seer stone there. And then in 1841, he showed the white seer stone to the 12 apostles. And Wilford Woodruff in 1888, when he dedicated the Manti temple, he put it on the altar and consecrated the seer stone there. But more powerfully, look at these two scriptures, Revelations 2:17 and D&C 130 and think about this for us in the future, “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”
Doctrine and Covenants elaborates on this. “Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17 will become a Urim and Thummim.” Notice what they’re calling it. A Urim and Thummim, “To each individual who receives one whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.” I think that’s fascinating. So I hope you enjoyed this and got some interesting thoughts out of it and subscribe for more. Thanks.
Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
Joseph’s Seer Stones by Michael MacKay and Nicholas Frederick
From Darkness Unto Light by Michael MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat
Church Website – Gospel Topic: Seer Stones https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/s…
Church Website – Gospel Topics Essay – Translating the Book of Mormon: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/s…
Church Website – Revelations in Context – Oliver Cowdery’s Gift: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/s…
Ensign Article, Oct 2015, Joseph the Seer by Richard Turley Jr (Asst Church Historian & Recorder), Robin Jiensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee (Church History Dept) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/s…
Deseret News Article from Michael Ash on Seer Stone in Translation: https://www.deseret.com/2009/11/23/20…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.
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