by Kevin V. Douglas
July 31, 2018
A few years ago, the LDS Church released information and accompanying images of the rumored “seer stone” that Joseph Smith utilized during the production of the Book of Mormon (BofM). The release came on the heels of the Church Historian’s Press publication of Revelations and Translations: Volume 3, and after decades of remaining mum on the issue.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the BofM’s production is shrouded in mystery and wrought with controversy. Officially, the LDS Church maintains that in the late 1820s, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter-day Saint (LDS) or Mormon movement, unearthed a set of golden plates said to contain a record of ancient Jews who migrated from Palestine to the Americas in multiple waves over long periods of time. The find was significant, a divine appointment with destiny as announced by the angel Moroni, because the plates bore witness to the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a message that had become lost in the white noise of an universally apostate Christian church.
Smith retrieved the golden plates and began to translate them from “reformed Egyptian” into English with the help of various scribes. The finished product was published on March 26, 1830 as The Book of Mormon. The means by which he translated the BofM accounts for much of the mystery and controversy. For decades, details of how Smith accomplished the feat were conflicting, confusing, and, at times, a bit bizarre to outsiders. Tales of divination and seer stones ran parallel with the conventional account of an unschooled young man being given an extraordinary gift of translation.
For the most part (and with sensible purpose) the LDS Church downplayed or flatly denied the peculiar accounts of Smith dropping a seer stone into a top hat along with the plates separated from his scribe by a curtain. Church-sanctioned artistic renditions often portrayed the young prophet studiously gazing at the plates with a scribe near by writing diligently as the ancient text was miraculously translated into English. Naturally, antimormon propaganda, like South Park’s infamous episode All About Mormons, was an exaggerated caricature of the earliest days of Mormonism – so we were told.
Yet, for many years, at an almost glacial pace, the LDS Church warmed to the most historically reliable accounts of Smith employing nineteenth-century spiritualism and occult talismans as integral instruments in the production of Mormonism’s cornerstone scripture. Such thawing came to public awareness last week with the announcement of a joint effort between the Community of Christ and the LDS Church to publish facsimiles of the earliest manuscripts of the BofM. While this is exciting news in and of itself for those interested in Mormon Studies, for both LDS and non-LDS alike, the media picked up on something they found more interesting – the seer stone.
Perhaps the news was exciting to some because it meant the LDS Church had finally—officially?—acknowledged what ‘antimormon propagandists’ have been saying since the earliest days of the Mormon movement. Perhaps it was excited to others because the news was a genuinely new to them: Who knew 15 million people believe their holy book was the product of golden plates and a seer stone?
Who knows why the news took off? But, since it did, I think there are a few things worth pointing out in the wake of the barge that just passed us in the form of this monumental event.
SEEKING TRANSLUCENCY, FINDING TRANSPARENCY
First, to me this is simply yet another step in, what the LDS Church believes is, translucency. The internet is a powerful thing. It is a wonderful conduit of information, both the kind you appreciate and the kind you wish would stay hidden in print deep within the archives of some local county library. Surely, some in the LDS Church have felt this way about the various affidavits and journal entries that, when pieced together, tell of the precarious events that pepper and bruise Mormon history.
But, since people are learning about the more troubling aspects of Mormonism’s past, why not simply come forward with it? The LDS Church has already seen to this with the release of articles on racism and polygamy in the history of the Church. With those two, however, there is a difference. Both were released without fanfare, without announcement, without Moroni atop the news steeple pronouncing its arrival. Instead, they were quietly released under anonymous authorship for the persistently curious to dig up and discover for themselves.
No, this new announcement of the manuscript facsimile and, in relation, the seer stone was quite different. In my opinion, it seems that the LDS Church rolled the proverbial red carpet out for this celebrity. But why?
Consider their history with this particular topic thus far. One of the earliest critiques of the LDS movement was suspicion surrounding the “Golden Bible.” In fact, most of the earliest criticism and suspicion about the “Mormonites” was the BofM. Yet, in large part the accusations of divination went unchallenged for many years. That is until Fawn Brodie’s popular book No Man Knows My History cast the “seer stone” as a supporting actor in her biography of Joseph Smith. Since then the stone has acted as a lightening rod for antimormon writers and speakers, and a thorn in the side of LDS leadership who dealt with the discomfort of watching formerly faithful Mormons lose their faith over a chocolate-colored, egg-shaped rock that Joseph Smith used to translate the BofM.
To their discredit the LDS Church did not help matters much by either denying Joseph’s utilization of the talisman or remaining altogether aloof to the folk magic in Mormon history. This tactic of denial or ignorance came despite the fact that all of Joseph’s scribes (Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith) testified to his use of a seer stone.
So, for years the LDS Church has battled its own history, ignoring the folk magic elephant in the room. But why choose now to acknowledge the 15,000lbs guest sitting in the living room of Mormon history?
Abraham Lincoln is credited as having said, “Better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” In a way, I think speculating about the timing of the LDS Church’s acknowledgement of the seer stone is a bit moot. The bigger and better question is, Why ever address it? For decades the LDS Church remained silent on the accusations that it’s principle scripture was a product of 19th century spiritualism and occult talismans with the possibility that the antimormons were wrong. The Church patiently endured decades of criticism from those attempting to discredit Joseph’s role as “revelator” because of his folk magic background. For many, especially LDS, it left open the possibility that the antimormons were wrong. Recently, however, they’ve opened their mouths and removed all doubt.
In a bid for translucency, I think the LDS Church has become transparent. Now that the internet has been saturated with images of Smith’s talisman we can see straight through to the other side. “Yes,” the Church has said, “the earliest days of Mormonism would not have gotten off the ground without the help of folk magic.” This official acknowledgement has forever hitched Mormonism to the spiritualism and divination that inundated the 19th century American countryside. It is no longer a matter of speculation but of fact.
Now, this is very convenient for non-LDS students of Mormon studies who would like to see the evangelical-Mormon dialogue move beyond the tired heresy-rationalist paradigm it has found itself in for the past few decades. From here on out we can move on to something more interesting, like the relationship between folk magic and orthodoxy. (Can a group claim Christian orthodoxy if it includes divination and folk magic in its medium of special revelation?) But what we leave behind is this odd, know-but-unknown piece of the Mormon worldview fabric that cannot help but draw attention to itself. Moving the dialogue on past this point is much like a friend saying, “Oh, that? Yes, that’s my celebrity hair lock collection. Well, would you like to talk about theology now?” No, friend, I want to talk about that very weird aspect of your life.
At any rate, the aftermath of this official acknowledgement is yet to be fully appreciated. So much of Mormon history surrounds the battle between whether or not folk magic was instrumental in the creation of the BofM. I cannot think of a better example than prominent LDS theologian Hugh Nibley’s rebuttal to Fawn Brodie (No, Ma’am, That’s Not History) where he accused her of rejecting “the character witnesses as prejudiced while accepting the weirdest extravagances of their local gossip.” At the very least, it seems Mrs Browdie has been vindicated from Mr Nibley on this point.
JOSEPH THE TRANSCRIBER
Second, this news rekindles the debate of whether or not Joseph is a proper translator or simply a transcriber. He had always declared his ability to render the golden plates into English as possible on through the “gift and power of God,” but such a statement could be applied equally from an Old Testament prophet to a 21st century professor of Old Testament languages. What did Joseph mean by it?
According to various accounts, Joseph utilized the seer stone to translate the golden plates, sometimes even without them near his person. Martin Harris reported that Joseph only used the stone for convenience, that the Urim and the Thummim were the primary translation instruments. Either way, and whatever the case may have been, it is clear that the budding prophet relied on rocks, talismans, and God’s gifting to translate “reformed Egyptian” into English, not dictionaries and knowledge of languages and God’s gifting.
For this reason, I believe that when Joseph said he translated the BofM “by the gift and power of God,” he meant it as an explanation for how he, an unschooled young man, could translate an ancient document into English without having a command of his own native language, let alone Semitic (or mystery) languages.
This becomes especially apparent to me since, after losing the original 116 page manuscript, the Urim and Thummim were said to have been taken from Joseph. In their place, the Seer was afforded the same translative abilities solely through the use of a new instrument, which was described by Whitmer as a “strange, oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg.” “With this stone,” Whitmer claimed, “all of the present Book of Mormon was translated.” Therefore, despite the LDS Church’s article to the contrary, the Urim and Thummim may have played a role in the book of Lehi (116 page manuscript), but apparently not for any of the BofM as we know it today. If this is the case, then Joseph was simply a recipient of a translation given to him through a seer stone, not the translator of an ancient document. Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon. No, he simply transcribed what God, through a talisman, had produced for him.
And this type of “gift and power” matches well with many contemporary divination techniques employed by treasure-seekers and diviners in the early 19th century. During a time when the prevailing worldview included hints of alchemy and folk magic, it is unsurprising to learn that a young man in upstate New York at this time believed in such powers. What is surprising, however, is the LDS Church’s insistence that such folk magic blends well (if not altogether rescues) orthodox Christianity from the clutches of generations of degradation. That God would use folk magic to restore an ancient Jewish text through seems, within orthodoxy at least, incredibly unlikely (despite Daniel Peterson’s suggestion to the contrary).
Perhaps the LDS Church would find its defense in tying the Urim and Thummim to the BofM translation process in order to link Joseph’s divination to that of the Old Testament Hebrew priests (Ex. 28:30). However, given Whitmer’s testimony, it seems Joseph’s miraculous translation had less to do with Old Testament religious ceremonial garb and divine consultation instruments than it did 19th century spiritualist divination. We know little about the use of the biblical Urim and Thummim and would do best to leave speculation at that – speculation. At the very least, the items seem to have lost interest in the early church. Perhaps the instruments, along with the rest of the Temple, were destroyed and replaced with the Greater Temple for a good reason. At least the author of Hebrews seems to think so.
LAST (SKEPTICAL) THOUGHTS
Finally, the skeptic within me wants to accuse the LDS Church of manipulating SEO to paint a kinder, more positive picture of the Church. In answering the question as to why this announcement was different from the previous articles (racism, polygamy, etc), perhaps it is precisely because they wanted to generate enough internet traffic to point search engines towards their material and away from antimormon sites. Conspiracy theory, I know, but hear me out for a moment.
Case in point: visit www.seerstones.com and, as of the publication of this article, the URL forwards the entire domain not to a website but to an article written by the LDS Church. Seerstones.com links to an LDS Church article about seer stones. Let that sink in for a moment. Either someone sympathetic to the LDS Church’s position on the matter reserved the domain and forwarded it to their article, or the Church itself has done the same.
But, why do it? The idea behind this is simple – train all major search engines to associate “seer stones” with the LDS article about them. It’s clever, if that’s what going on. And it’s worked in the past. For example, a simple Google search for “LDS polygamy” and “priesthood racism mormonism” show the top result as favorable articles for the Church from lds.org, thus replacing the myriad antimormon sources that present the same information in different light.
If this is the case, if the LDS Church is intentionally flooding SEO for favorable positioning in searches, then it seems they are opting for inoculation over quarantine. However, it may also be that the Church sincerely desires more transparency. Maybe it’s a mixture of both? (Like I said, conspiracy theory.) Whatever the case, as of last week the LDS Church has forever married its history to 19th century divination. That in and of itself is enough to talk about for years to come.
If this article piqued your interest in the relationship of 19th century spiritualism and Mormonism, I would highly recommend The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 by John L. Brooke, Cambridge University Press.
(N) Kevin V. Douglas, “Seer Stone: The Book of Mormon Translated,” Blog, Sundry Times & Divers Places, (July 31, 2018), http://sundrytimes.org/seer-stone/. Accessed Day Month Year.
(B) Douglas, Kevin V. “Seer Stone: The Book of Mormon Translated.” Blog. Sundry Times & Divers Places, July 31, 2018. http://sundrytimes.org/seer-stone/. Accessed Day Month Year.
Douglas, Kevin V. “Seer Stone: The Book of Mormon Translated.” Blog. Sundry Times & Divers Places. N.p., 31 July 2018. Web. Day Month. Year.