Seer Stones and the New Narrative

unnamedA week ago, the Church released a suddenly iconic photograph of Joseph Smith’s favorite seer stone, and also posted at an article by three LDS historians, “Joseph the Seer,” to be published in the October 2015 Ensign. It seems clear that the image plus the content of the article are going to rewrite the standard (“official”) LDS narrative concerning Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon text. I’m concerned it may also bring folk magic back into that narrative and even back into mainstream LDS culture. That seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Here’s the key passage from the article by Turley, Jensen, and Ashurst-McGee.

[S]ome 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.

The essay goes on to note that “historical evidence shows that in addition to the two seer stones known as ‘interpreters,’ Joseph Smith used at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light.” Acknowledging that Joseph used the same seer stone for producing the Book of Mormon text that he used to find (or at least look for) lost objects creates an uncomfortable overlap between folk magic and religious practice. After two centuries of trying to keep these two categories separate and minimizing or simply denying Joseph’s participation in folk magic, the LDS standard narrative (in the Ensign!) is suddenly marrying the two. I guess life is full of surprises.

The new narrative raises this tricky question: Does this seer stone and others like it actually have supernatural power, whether occult or divine? This wasn’t a stone or interpreter delivered by an angel, it was just a stone Joseph found while digging Willard Chase’s well (see Rough Stone Rolling, p. 48-49). The article reminds us that some folks in the 19th century believed certain individuals (Joseph among them) could use the stones to find things and see things. The article states that Joseph believed this, too. Publishing the article in the Ensign suggests at least some LDS leaders in our day believe this as well. The mainstream LDS response to these disclosures seems to be, “A photo of Joseph’s seer stone, isn’t that wonderful?” Wait a year and see how wonderful it is. If we welcome seer stones into the official narrative, what else might follow?

What About the Bible?

Before your Christian neighbors in glass houses start throwing rocks at your Mormon folk magic, let’s remember the Bible has its share of folk magic associated with biblical religion. A Christian Bible reader can either dismiss those episodes or rationalize them or embrace them. Any choice is problematic. Mormon readers and Mormon leaders, it seems, are likely to embrace them. Just yesterday I was skimming the new LDS Old Testament Seminary Student Study Guide (this year’s course of study) and came across this quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith, giving his explanation of one biblical episode. Recall that in Exodus 7, Moses and Aaron turn a rod into a snake, whereupon Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the feat.

All down through the ages and in almost all countries, men have exercised great occult and mystical powers, even to the healing of the sick and the performing of miracles. Soothsayers, magicians, and astrologers were found in the courts of ancient kings. They had certain powers by which they divined and solved the monarch’s problems, dreams, etc. … The Savior declared that Satan had the power to bind bodies of men and women and sorely afflict them [see Matthew 7:22–23; Luke 13:16]. … It should be remembered that Satan has great knowledge and thereby can exercise authority and to some extent control the elements, when some greater power does not intervene. (p. 96, ellipses in original; quoting Answers to Gospel Questions 1:176, 178)

So Joseph Fielding Smith seems to be saying that there are “certain powers” which some humans can wield, that alternatively Satan may (apparently through humans) “control the elements,” and of course there are divine powers as well that some humans can wield.

A later episode is also instructive. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul employs one “witch of Endor” to summon the spirit of dead Samuel to provide Saul with badly needed advice. Here again is Joseph Fielding Smith’s commentary (this appears only in the printed volume, not in the online version).

It has been suggested that in this instance the Lord sent Samuel in the spirit to communicate with Saul, that he might know of his impending doom; but this view does not seem to harmonize with the statements of the case, made in the scripture which gives the particulars. If the Lord desired to impart this information to Saul, why did he not respond when Saul enquired of him through the legitimate channels of divine communication? Saul had tried them all and failed to obtain an answer. … Why should he employ one who had a familiar spirit for this purpose, a medium which he had positively condemned by his own law? (p. 195; quoting Answers to Gospel Questions 4:108-9)

The manual makes the point clearer by quoting the LDS Bible Dictionary, item “Samuel”: “It is certain that a witch or other medium cannot by any means available to her bring up a prophet from the world of spirits. We may confidently be assured that if Samuel was present on that occasion, it was not due to conjuring of the witch. Either Samuel came in spite of and not because of the witch, or some other spirit came impersonating him.” I’m tempted to think that the difference here is that, in the LDS view, only men are allowed to exercise “certain powers” but not women — sort of an extension of the LDS male-only priesthood policy to the exercise of occult powers. If that strikes you as unfair, consider organizing. “Ordain Witches” would make a catchy title for your group.

The Good News

Yes, there is good news. Mainstream Mormons don’t seem particularly troubled by the photo and the article. Let’s hope that continues to be the case when the print version of “Joseph the Seer” is distributed more widely in a couple of weeks. But expect to encounter years of articles, essays, and blog posts as the LDS community digests this new incursion of folk magic into the LDS narrative.

55 comments for “Seer Stones and the New Narrative

  1. Dave, I’m having trouble understanding your fear of the supernatural. Isn’t Mormonism filled with it top to bottom? What’s a seer stone in that context?

    Have you ever baptized someone? Why do you think raising your hand, mumbling some words, and dunking someone in water means anything?

    Have you ever taken the sacrament? Said a prayer? Received an endowment? Put on garments? Blessed a baby or someone who is sick?

    Don’t you suppose we will be brought back from the dead one day?

  2. Dave:
    I like you but holy handcarts and haberdashery. Are you ever happy? Ever?
    Its too much. Its not enough. Its too slow. Its too fast. Its too scary. Its not scary enough. We are not trusting the Mormons. We are trusting them too much.
    I do not really foresee any Mormons I know getting all occult. For gosh sakes, you can’t even bring Lucky Charms to a Seminary breakfast without getting chided. We seem to have institutionally over-corrected this issue thoroughly enough to comfort you. If that comforts you.
    And by the way, in this corner of Mormondom (Alaska) I have heard nothing (not a peep! ha) from any of my co-religion-ists about the seer stone. And guess what? I bet you a dollar to each and every doughnut that I won’t after the Ensign publishes this, either.
    Merry Christmas to you,
    Mark Clifford

  3. The mainstream LDS response to these disclosures seems to be, “A photo of Joseph’s seer stone, isn’t that wonderful?” Wait a year and see how wonderful it is. If we welcome seer stones into the official narrative, what else might follow?

    I hope that “what else will follow” is a continuing commitment to historical accuracy and openness. Frankly, the people who will ridicule us over the seer stone are not the ones likely to be hearing the message; I’d rather listen to them razz us for coming clean about it than continue to criticize us for hiding it, denying it, and covering it up.

    Personally, since I’m not really a scriptural literalist, I don’t have a problem believing that Joseph Smith acted and believed like an uneducated, rural 19th-century American with a belief in some forms of folk magic, any more than I have trouble believing that a bunch of ancient Middle Eastern herdsmen believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and all the starts were little lights hung up on the dome. My grandfather, a railroad blacksmith born in 1910 and a high school-educated autodidact much like Joseph, dowsed for water. I know adults today who throw spilled salt over their left shoulders, and even the “Bless you!” after a sneeze has its roots in folk magic.

    Although the Witch of Endor is an interesting example, let us also remember that the Lord speaks in the language (verbal and cultural) that we understand. The apostles replaced Judas by casting lots (a process which is still followed in a certain form today), and the Savior himself made mud with dust and spit to rub on the eyes of a blind man to heal him – a neat little bit of folk magic right there (John 9:6-7).

    As a full-time missionary, I encountered those sheltered sons of Utah who believed that the Urim and Thummim, along with the Sword of Laban, etc., were kept in a safe behind the Church President’s desk, and that men who were called as apostles were “special witnesses” because they had received a personal visit from the Savior. These things may be true; I don’t know. I do know that they probably don’t matter; that God will still use imperfect people to get his business accomplished, and that we all, priests, prophets, and schmucks like me alike, will continue to see “through a glass darkly” and probably muddle things up some as we do our best.

    I think that as a church and as a people, we do the world better service when we are honest about this.

  4. Isn’t folk magic just another way of saying “religious practices that aren’t as familiar to us”?

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I think.

    Normally, in a post I try to lay out some facts and an interesting question or two around an interesting event, post, book, or idea. If there’s nothing to discuss, there’s really no point in posting, unless it’s a relevant announcement. It’s nice when comments engage the post, and there are plenty of things to engage on this particular topic. When both a perm and a commenter think I’m the problem to talk about, I am a bit puzzled.

    Alison, for some members Mormon life is just one miracle after another, a burning bush every day. Others just endure to the end.

    Mark, glad you like my posts. Nice that nothing troubles the Saints in Alaska.

  6. Mainstream Mormons don’t seem particularly troubled by the photo and the article

    You’re right. I can’t imagine that they would be. They accept the Urim and Thummim, so a seer stone doesn’t seem a far cry away.

  7. “New Iconoclast” (3)

    I hope that “what else will follow” is a continuing commitment to historical accuracy and openness. Frankly, the people who will ridicule us over the seer stone are not the ones likely to be hearing the message; I’d rather listen to them razz us for coming clean about it than continue to criticize us for hiding it, denying it, and covering it up.

    I think this is right. For the skeptics the resurrection of Jesus is at least as irrational if not far more irrational. For those unwilling to entertain the reality of communication with God to know, we’re simply never going to convince them. Let’s cease catering to them.

    My sense is that there is already a pretty strong folk tradition within Mormonism, even outside of Utah, that embraces quite strongly the reality of spiritual phenomena and miracles. For those people this fits right into that. I think part of the problem is that while that’s a strong folk dialog, too much of our moral formal discussions seem tied to low church protestantism. Although that will vary – lots of people who perhaps go overboard the other direction in Fast & Testimony meetings. I sometimes wonder how many people believe some accounts. While some seem questionable, I think in many cases it’s sincere people who perhaps don’t recognize that some things are inappropriate to share in public like that.

    Brad L (6) Yes exactly. Like I’ve been saying it seems weird to freak out over discovering Joseph Smith used a new rock to translate after the first 116 pages when all the literature already talked about the two rocks of the Urim and Thummim. It’s not at all clear there’s any conceptual difference between the two beyond one has a cool name. (And as others have noted Joseph often used the term Urim and Thummim broadly to include seer stones)

    Dave (5) I think I get the questions you’re asking. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re at the distinction between technology and an object that’s much more a catalyst to faith/revelation between the individual and God. I don’t like the term superstition both because it’s a loaded pejorative term but also because I’m not sure it’s helpful as a category here. The problem is that even the most technological-like item we find in scripture, the liahonah, seemed to stop working if the people didn’t exercise faith. (It also had many seer stone like features and I think the assumption that it functioned more like a GPS unit are incorrect)

    Everything else at best seems a conceptual aid for faith that often seems unnecessary. Certainly that’s how Joseph came to view the seer stone. Even if we still ritualistically accept one as part of the endowment and are promised one in D&C 130. Even things like using oil to heal seem unnecessary although we should use it when we are able. I suspect we could strip off a lot of trappings. The problem I see is that some people (not you) seem to assume that if we could conceptually strip off such trappings that we should strip off such trappings. That is, they assume if it’s not essential for the function that it doesn’t aid the function. That seems a problematic conclusion. A lot that we do seems to involve ritual that is both a catalyst for our understanding & faith as well as perhaps having other functions.

  8. Thanks for the comment, Clark. I suspect most Mormons who go to their bishop with a question or concern, then, the next day, have the bishop return to them and say, “I prayed about your concern, received a response, and feel inspired to tell you: X” would give faithful consideration to the bishop’s counsel. I suspect most Mormons who have their bishop respond, “I consulted my personal seer stone about your concern, received a response, and feel inspired to tell you: X” would be a bit freaked out. So all the rhetoric about “spiritual technology” gets problematic when actually applied. We like the story but not, I suspect, the reality if confronted with it.

    And the history is equally puzzling. So Joseph used the two-stone interpreters (from the stone box) then the seer stone in the photo (found digging a well) to translate the Book of Mormon and for a few D&C revelations. Then he sort of moved on … and just got revelation straight, no stone needed. So the “spiritual technology,” with whatever object, seems somewhat superfluous. No one distinguished between seer-stone sections of the D&C and got-it-straight-from-God sections. I don’t know anyone who looks at the JST or later D&C sections and objects because they came through direct revelation rather than mediated (through a stone) revelation.

    Nor does the idea that seer stones somehow train a person to receive revelation, then get discarded later, really work. No other LDS prophet, seer, and revelator has gone through a “training period” using a spiritual object, then moved on to unmediated revelation, at least to my knowledge. And it is not like the standard view is that Joseph was somehow particularly unfit to receive revelation, hence the need for spiritual objects to help him along, whereas every other LDS recipient of revelation gets it straight from God on Day 1. And consider the Hiram Page experience — a good Mormon apparently following Joseph’s example and starting out with a seer stone. He was not exactly commended for his attempt.

    So what we have is these spiritual objects, seer stones, as features of the early Joseph Smith story, but almost no doctrinal explanation or theory for what they are or why they work or who should use them. And suddenly highlighting Joseph’s seer stone is going to also highlight this doctrinal lacuna. My sense is that for all the Mormon discourse on the subject of seer stones, no one really knows what they are talking about.

  9. “No other LDS prophet, seer, and revelator has gone through a “training period” using a spiritual object, then moved on to unmediated revelation, at least to my knowledge.”

    Yes, but has any other LDS prophet, seer, or revelator received anywhere near the number of revelations that Joseph Smith did, especially in such a short amount of time? Perhaps the stone was a necessary crutch when he was starting to receive important revelation on a daily basis, and he needed to receive it quickly and efficiently, without weeks of ponder, prayer, and fasting.

  10. Bottom line is simply… Either you believe Joseph Smith spoke with the voice of Heavenly Father as a Prophet or you don’t. If you truly believe in the Prophet, then, it doesn’t matter the means through which revelation is triggered. If it’s simply a piece of toast with the burnt section in the image of the face of Jesus Christ? Then, so be it!!! The point is, are you a TRUE believer in the Prophet Joseph Smith? If your answer is YES! Then, enough said.

  11. Dave: This is just weird. Your concern is that by trying to accurately understand and explain what Joseph did everyone is going to start using seer stones? We have a test case for this, namely that thousands of Mormons who have long accepted the kind of narrative that the Church is now putting out. After all, there is nothing really new about this, and this has basically been the narrative among historically well-informed and believing Mormons since the 1980s. Bushman published Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism in 1984. I know lots of people who have read that book, accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, and more or less accept Bushman’s interpretation. None of them have seer stones. Maybe all those “regular” Mormons are just going to go gaga over this and get into seer stones. It just strikes me as too implausible to spend much time worrying about it.

  12. Given recent events, it appears that when non-leadership Mormons want to receive revelation for the church, they’re more likely to use near-death-experiences as their source for “revelation” than seer stones.

  13. I definitely know some Mormons who are going to get weirder/more smug about their superstitions now that these pictures have been published. I don’t expect any huge sloughing off of gullible members into folk magic, but the ones who have already quaffed the New Age Kool-Aid will place even more importance not only on their crystals and charms but also on who it is giving them that fifth successive blessing meant to alter someone else’s agency. Why settle for the home teacher when you know someone with a “gift” possibly hinted at in a Patriarchal Blessing?

    Personally all I want is some room for believing in miracles that isn’t crowded out by obvious coincidences and “we were saved from our stupidity because we’re more righteous than you” stories. Yeah, faithful women who are told by their doctors not to have any more kids and then try to anyway DO die (just as often as non-LDS people who do the same…), leaving their children motherless. Those people just don’t get up in sacrament meeting to tell everyone about it. This magic rock stuff is small potatoes compared to the everyday challenges of believing in a God of miracles when surrounded by so much callous, idiotic credulity.

  14. When both a perm and a commenter think I’m the problem to talk about, I am a bit puzzled.

    I don’t think it’s a “problem to talk about,” neither do I think you are “the problem.” I don’t understand your concern and so I’m asking if you can clarify. You said:

    I’m concerned it may also bring folk magic back into that narrative and even back into mainstream LDS culture. That seems like a step in the wrong direction.

    I’m trying to figure out why a seer stone is “folk magic” and baptism, confirmation, healing blessings, sealings, resurrection are NOT. There is so much supernatural in religion (as well as so much unknown and unexplained in science), that I don’t understand the “wrong direction” you are worried about. For example, let me reframe one of your questions.

    Does this laying on of hands actually have supernatural power, whether occult or divine?

    It seems we grapple (or accept/reject) this stuff every day. Do I misunderstand your position?

  15. A know a few members who have prayer rugs. Apparently they find that it helps them pray. If looking at a stone helped Joseph clear is mind and be more open to revelation, I’m cool with that.
    It’s not like the seer stone was ever a hidden item. It’s talked about in D&C.

  16. Alison, isn’t the difference that this borders on giving a *thing* power in contrast to our focus on symbolic covenants and the overriding importance of faith? For example, Oaks made it very clear that the oil or the words are not where the power lies in a priesthood blessing, but rather the power comes from Christ and our faith in him. Are the brethren going to make it as clear (maybe Joseph already did???) that the rock didn’t actually matter? But they’ve already failed to do that by saying they won’t display it because it is so sacred. Really? It’s just a rock. We let the heathen tour our temples, and those are sacred too. (And also just rock, wood, and plastics).

  17. You’re right, Alison. The supposed difference between “magic” and “religion” is in the eye of the beholder: one is deemed proper and the other generally isn’t. But opinions differ on what is proper. There was no move in early Mormonism from magic to religion. Both (however you want to classify them) used rites to invoke the supernatural, which is something we still do.
    Here’s an overview

  18. Seer stones, folk magic, and superstition don’t give me concern, per se. At one point in my life, I had a bit of a desire to have the chutzpah to pull it off. I imagined the possibility that I could be a medicine man or a guru or a shaman. The desire faded once I started regularly fly fishing. (I suppose I could analyze that later.)

    Esoteric knowledge. My concern with seer stones is the nature of the alleged knowledge and the ends to which that alleged knowledge is put.

    When someone looks into a hat and says they are reading words off of a stone, the 8-year-old boy in me wants to look too. If I’m told I’m not allowed to look in the hat and read the rock … this fundamentally changes the nature of the knowledge received. This isn’t verifiable knowledge. This is esoteric knowledge.

    It’s asymmetrical knowledge. There isn’t even a future hope that through some process I could become a stone reader. I must submit to the whims of the stone reader. That doesn’t seem like a particularly spiritual or even moral way to live one’s life.

    When the asymmetrical knowledge gained from the stone benefits the stone reader–status, wealth, sex, power–to the detriment of the follower, that’s manipulation. I can’t think of any instances when Jesus taught in such a way.

  19. Dave (8) I don’t doubt many people would freak out if they found their Bishop using a seer stone to answer questions. However is that due to it seeming unfamiliar or due to it logically really being any different from receiving a vision or answer in prayer? My sense is that most of the reaction is a gut reaction rather than a reasoned reaction. Nothing wrong with that of course and it’s completely understandable, even if it probably is completely incoherent with the stated beliefs these people hold. But gut reactions are often incoherent. Doesn’t make them any less significant for people of course.

    If, as I suspect, these gut reactions are due to unfamiliarity with this largely lost culture, what does that indicate about them?

    To draw up an analogy, do you think the average Mormon if somehow magically transported to 1st century Palestine and saw Jesus spitting in mud and applying it to heal would be any less freaked out? I think our problem is that culturally we’ve largely adopted the low church protestant Christianity that many of the converts to Mormonism came from. When we encounter other religious traditions, including our own that most are unfamiliar with, we freak out. (I know lots of people who freak out in Catholic mass for instance – it seems very weird to them)

    To the “spiritual technology” (I don’t think it was technological) I think there’s a big difference between the typical contemporary GA who comes up typically having been on a mission, in a Bishopric, in a Stake Presidency, and then in some other leadership position before becoming an apostle. Then they serve for years as a junior apostle before typically doing much significant. Then what is asked of them is significantly less than Joseph Smith. No GA since Joseph has had to translate records for instance. And Joseph did this with no background and little training at an incredible young age. So I think we’re being a bit unfair to say, “well we don’t need training today so why did Joseph.” He was a relatively ignorance young man living in very primitive conditions and with little to look to as a model. That God may have used things around him to help him seems reasonable.

    As to others using the trappings. I bet that if the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon gets translated that whomever gets tasked to do it might find that at first they need the Urim and Thummim too. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even break out Joseph’s seer stone from the history department.

    All that said, I agree thinking doctrinally about them would be helpful. I’m not sure we can say there’s no doctrinal discussion of it. It think the Ensign entry does touch upon this.

    Josh (18) curious as to your definitions here. By esoteric do you just mean private knowledge?

    While I understand you’re point, I’m not sure that not being able to look (how could we? Everyone is dead for over 100 years) means that things aren’t verifiable. Depending upon how narrow one takes verifiable.

    Certainly there is a difference between public data that anyone can confirm at any time and data more constricted. However it seems that most of our knowledge is not of the public data sort. I don’t mean anything esoteric by that. But if I have private discussions there’s an asymmetrical relationship in that I can know about them and you can’t unless you are there. It doesn’t mean I don’t know what transpires in these private events. Rather we all take it for granted that for the most part we do know what happens in private experiences. Very little is as amenable to repeated inquiry that say the general laws and objects of physics allow.

    As for Jesus I think you’re just wrong here. Ignoring extra-testament accounts for the moment (since of course they’re more controversial – albeit are they any less “objective” than the gospels?) Anyway Matthew 13 seems so suggest Jesus most explicitly does teach private things to hide information. (I recognize there are other ways to read this passage of course – just that this is a common one) Even if you don’t like the idea that Jesus uses parables to hide information from uninitiated, there’s Matt 17 where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up privately to a high mountain. They then have a private religious experience, meet angels, and then Jesus commands them not to tell anyone. Of course since it’s in the gospels they did tell but is that any different from similar things about early Mormon private religious experiences. (Which we only know about because someone told)

    Now of course debates about NT history (which are pretty pointless given how long after the events the accounts were written) are somewhat beside the point. Just that for 19th century people to interpret these things as a kind of esotericism isn’t that far our of line.

    Owen (16) while we show people our temples let’s be honest. They are far from functional when we show them and a lot is left out. Whether the seer stone is sacred or not seems debatable. It seems Church leaders have varied on this over time. However I’m not sure it being sacred entails it not being symbolic. I tend to see the endowment as completely symbolic, but it’s arguably what Mormons keep most private and sacred.

    I know we’re here trying to figure out categories with which to describe these things in terms of both the historic understanding of the time and (in large measure) also contemporary theological understanding. That might in some ways be doomed to failure. But I’m not sure what it means for a thing to have power. As I understand LDS theology things only have power in an indirect fashion. It’s God pulling the strings. So say a Liahonah (to take the most technological-like thing in LDS thought) stopped working when Lehi’s company didn’t have faith. While this might be theologically interpreted as God turning it off, it might also be interpreted as it never having power but was always just very much like a seer stone as a catalyst for faith.

    I’m skeptical of anything in early LDS history interpreted as a gift God gives that is independent technology.

  20. Just to be clearer in my answer to Dave, I think ultimately the problem is our unfamiliarity with the very different cultures not only of Joseph Smith in his New York or even Nauvoo periods but most especially 1st century Palestine or the culture of pre-Davidic Israel. Perhaps we should contextualize scripture more in Sunday School. There probably is some truth to the criticism some make that we read everything through 21st century eyes and miss how different a culture the scriptures were written from.

  21. Religion in general always seemed to involve a little hocus pocus and Joseph Smith wasn’t immune. Along with seer stones, he and his family had a magic parchment they kept and passed down through the generations. Joseph Smith also wore a Jupiter talisman around his neck until the day he died. So, I guess along with the magic oil used in priesthood blessings, the hocus pocus past is with us too.

  22. So was the Liahona real? Did Aaron’s rod bud? Did Joseph Smith really see things on a stone?
    The real issue is the acceptance of the supernatural (by which I mean something outside empirical observation). And those who have largely adopted a secularist or materialist perspective will struggle in doing so. For them it will always be a bit of “hocus locus.” But as Alison (14) has pointed out, it is quite possible for a believing Latter-day Saint to deal with the idea of the supernatural being active in their religious lives. For those between these two positions, they will experience some discomfort, but I don’t expect any calamities. And theologically-speaking, Joseph Smith refused to separate the spiritual from the material (significant for our discussion), while criticizing unauthorized forays into revelatory practices (Hiram Page).

  23. Mostly I dislike the reference to the seer stone as “folk magic”. I draw strong distinction between faith-based Church ordinances and unfounded magical superstitions. I see no indication from either official narratives or historical accounts that Joseph Smith or his associates were any more or less believers in the common superstitions or “Holy Grail-type artifacts of their day, nor do I see that they were captured in this paradigm, or that it was a significant factor in the Restoration. Indeed, there is every indication that most viewed such practices as no more than affectations.

    In that vein I add that I had a “lucky” horseshoe hanging – with the proper orientation – over my door for many years. Not that I believe such things are truly “lucky” in any way. Most who know me would be wont to say that the period of my life covered by horseshoe luck was in fact particularly unlucky and filled with exceptional personal disaster and challenge. Difficult to imagine how miserable my luck would have been without the “lucky” horseshoe.

    Mere possession of whimsical rabbits-foot key fobs or so-called “talisman” jewellery does not establish the rationale of those who use them. We need to finally rid ourselves of the “Quinn-spin” that captured and so dominated such thinking since he conjured up this fantasy.

  24. Well, I’m not sure this will result in a movement toward folk magic among general membership, but it’s surely going to make interactions with the in-laws more annoying. Going to be much more difficult to dismiss their confidence in crystals and essential oils. Thanks, a lot!

  25. “By esoteric do you just mean private knowledge?”
    –Clark (19)

    Yes. I haven’t put a lot of thought into this topic in the past and I’m writing down my ideas as they come. Just shooting from the hip.

    When “truth” comes from a source that cannot be validated by others, and the stone reader forbids others from doing any stone reading of their own, the stone becomes an exclusive source of unverifiable knowledge.

    If I had to sum up my concern … I’m concerned about the relationship that develops between the stone reader and the believer. Let me see if I can phrase it another way. When “truth” comes from a stone that only one man can read, the believer’s moral compass is pointed towards the stone reader. When “truth” is out in the world in the open, it is discoverable by any humble seeker.

    Does that make sense, Clark? My concern isn’t with the magical stone, per se. My concern is that knowledge from the stone orients a person towards the stone reader. I think most independent adults can do better than that.

  26. It makes sense Josh. I just think it’s problematic simply because as I said most of our personal knowledge is private knowledge. Others are extremely limited in what they can investigate. The things physics studies are open to that sort of inquiry simply because they are so basic, general, and repeatable. Yet right now as I sit in a room with no one else present doing many things and knowing I am doing them, nearly every bit of new knowledge is private. We might say these things are mundane and uninteresting bits of knowledge. Yet they are knowledge.

    I’ve no idea saying we can know better the more general repeatable things. And things less open to that inquiry (say the elements of social science) are far less knowable. It seems like you’re trying to make a stronger claim though that may not be supportable.

  27. I have some experience with the supernatural.

    While mysticism is a powerful tool to open our minds and hearts to God, I have found it also opens us to influence by other sources. Unless commanded by God to use such a tool, it is therefore a terrible idea.

    It is also just a tool. There is nothing special about divination. Meditation can help similarly. So can ritual, as in the temple or sacrament. Or fasting and prayer. They are all widely recognized methods to open ourselves to divinity. (Not limited to Mormonism.) We worry about this one because it has fallen out of use in our culture, and for one other reason:

    People who access other power through divination often begin to think of themselves as special. When that attitude is present, I guarantee their source is not God. Unfortunately, such people are the ones who advertise their experience, so people begin to think no one who uses those tools is of God.

    But I think of how Joseph was called Brother Joseph, and how he did not flinch from publishing the reprimand from God. Divine power encourages humility. No matter the method involved. There is nothing more special about peering into a stone than there is in fasting to receive revelation.

  28. Josh, are you also concerned about the concept of a prophet who receives revelation for other people who cannot or do not subsequently confirm it by their own revelation? If not, how is the stone reader situation different?

  29. “If we welcome seer stones into the official narrative, what else might follow?” How about gold plates that Joseph somehow “translated” without being able (or even attempting) to read? What sort of translation would that be? What is obvious about the Book of Mormon translation is that it is not a “divine” translation (too many inconsistencies and grammatical goofs to claim God translated it); and it is not a “machine” translation (again, too many inconsistencies to claim that some sort of heavenly device produced the English version). Which leaves us with one alternative: the translation is a human translation, and it shows every sign of being just that. But which human did it? Not Joseph Smith. The complexity of the book, simply on a linguistic and structural level, was way beyond this New York farm boy, bright as he was in other ways. I think Royal Skousen is on the right track: the book was translated some time before Joseph dictated the text he received verbatim by some sort of undefined method, and it was carefully “managed” over time to “filter” out vocabulary that had dropped out of the English language between the original translation and 1829. Let’s face it—neither the critics nor the apologists have any reasonable explanation for where that book came from. I’d like to see the Church admit this.

  30. rkt, why can’t the “goofs” you mentioned have been introduced during the transcription? Even given accounts that say the text given by the interpreters wouldn’t change until correct, why isn’t it possible that said “correctness” was something slightly less than 100%? IMHO as a professional literary translator, your statement “it shows every sign of being just [a human translation]” has no legs. I could agree with “it doesn’t fulfill the imaginary standard of inerrancy religious zealots have cooked up,” but as translations go, it’s pretty flippin’ amazing. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but God’s MO has never been to do all the work for humans, delivering “perfect” anything without passing it through human actors. That’s kind of the whole point. So yeah, no one has a complete explanation that covers all aspects of the text. That doesn’t make Joseph’s story wrong though, since he explicitly declined to explain how the production process worked. What little we know is just scraps from bystanders to the main event, which happened within the mind of the prophet or on whatever devices he was using.

  31. Steve Fleming (29): Thank you for the link. I read your article. Thanks. This isn’t something I’ve thought a lot about and I appreciated your thoughts.

    your food allergy is fake (28): Love the name. Those are excellent questions. If it’s okay, I’m going to pass on answering them. To my mind, seer stones are a wee bit more detached from our everyday experience and a “safer” way to think about supernatural truth claims.

    Clark (26): In my opinion, the best parts of Mormonism are experiential. When we’re not sitting through meetings, Mormons live very full lives. Most Mormons I know engage life in remarkable ways. Yoked to this experiential faith is a deep commitment to reflection on those experiences–journal keeping, sharing with others in small and large group settings. Mormonism on its best day is a faith rooted in one’s personal experience and reflection on those personal experiences.

    This last Sunday a young father in my ward spoke about a terrible trial he has faced. I’m spiritually tone deaf and it even moved me. He spoke about what he saw, what he heard, what he felt. The audience was able to vicariously experience it with him. His experience changed him uniquely, and the personal knowledge he gained was uniquely his. But, the audience had no obligation to kowtow to this good man’s experience or knowledge. The audience was free to experience the world and see if the man’s experience matched up with our own experiences. The relationship between the sharer and the receiver was symmetrical.

    That is not the nature of the diviner’s knowledge. The talisman, amulet, or stone only works in the hands of the diviner–for a reason. The very purpose of knowledge revealed through the amulet is about the diviner’s role in the community as much as what is actually revealed. It creates an asymetrical relationship between the diviner and the believer. My concern is that relationship. I can’t help but feel that an independent moral agent can do better than to enter that relationship.

  32. Josh, may I ask why you think a diviner’s knowledge is any more authoritative by its nature than, say, simply receiving a prompting?

  33. Individual “promptings” are probably insufficient to create a community of believers.

    A community of believers can build up around the utterances of the diviner. The bond between diviner and believer is strong enough to hold the community together. It is the community that gives the diviner authority.

    My .02.

  34. So, basically it’s because of the significance people put on having a physical object as a medium of revelation?

    Because there are plenty of charismatic prophet-types who gather people around them without relying on a physical focus. Were there even accounts of Joseph using it this way? I don’t remember for sure if he used it for personal revelation and guidance, or only for translation.

  35. (Just to clarify, I’m not trying to trap you or anything like that. I’m just trying to understand it. I don’t find seer stone-like methods to be that significant, so I don’t see how others think they are.)

  36. It’s like the classic Disney cartoon Dumbo. Dumbo put all his faith in the feather to be able to fly when he actually possessed the ability the whole time. What ever it takes to trigger true revelation can not be discounted. Even if it takes a physical object for one to focus on to bring out one’s spiritual state of receiving the message.

  37. I find it interesting that the “photographic disclosure” of the seer stone had zero interest or mention in my local ward. Yet imagine if somehow last week they released a photographic image of the “Urim and Thummim”? Had that happened, local leaders would have probably held special Sunday meetings to discuss the significance of such an event and take questions from anxious LDS members.
    Why then is there such a dichotomy in reaction when: (1) both were used in the actual translation of the BOM, (2) both require a super natural belief in how such instruments work, and (3) both require faith to believe in such ideas (that non-believers would simply dismiss both away as ridiculous).
    So how do you reconcile how both of these events would be received so differently by members? One possible answer is that (1) the Urim and Thummim fits the traditional narrative accepted by members in our own history – it’s inherently legitimate as the instruments were prepared by God and given to Joseph by an authorized angel (Moroni) whereas (2) the seer stone is harder to accept as it wasn’t given by an authorized angel from God, but rather discovered almost “by chance” during an engagement in the search for dubious employment / riches. The seer stone then represents that “crazy uncle” in your family that you don’t want to acknowledge, or the elephant in the room you ignore, since to acknowledge his existence is to accept a completely new narrative with facts that one might find embarrassing or problematic. Not that it couldn’t happen that way, but it doesn’t fit as neatly into the narrative of authorized angels and authentic instruments prepared by God for translating the ancient record. Why would the hypothetical reaction be so different…Thoughts?

  38. SilverRain (33 and 36):

    I probably didn’t understand your question. I suppose I don’t know what you mean by “authority.” … I’m not sure if “authority” moves us forward on this post.

    Here’s what I said up above, and it’s really my only contribution to this thread:

    When “truth” comes from a stone that only one man can read, the believer’s moral compass is pointed towards the stone reader. When “truth” is out in the world in the open, it is discoverable by any humble seeker.

    … My concern isn’t with the magical stone, per se. My concern is that knowledge from the stone orients a person towards the stone reader.

    That’s it. I’m interested in conceiving of “truth” as something I can learn through my own experience. I’m wary of people who claim secret or private knowledge. That’s all I’m trying to say. Have a wonderful evening.

  39. Josh, I don’t think private knowledge is in opposition to your own experience. Often private knowledge is just private because you haven’t had the appropriate experience. I don’t think it entails you can’t know through verification. (Although as a practical matter a lot of knowledge may simply be unknowable – it’s not hard to figure out facts of that sort)

    Now I think it entirely appropriate to distrust claims from private experience that you haven’t had. So I think we’re in agreement there. If someone claims a UFO landed, gave them secret knowledge about an invasion of earth via aliens masquerading as psychologists I’m probably skeptical enough that I’m not even going to both investigating closely. And I certainly don’t begrudge those who take that stance towards Mormonism.

    As the Book of Mormon shows (the Broadway play, not the scripture) to the secular community our beliefs are so ridiculous as to be hilarious. While that’s understandable I do think Mormonism makes the very interesting claim that these things can be known in your own experience.

    Now there are the usual objections to that point. But I think it crucial to note that what you object to is something that Mormonism objects to as well. We can learn through our own experience.

  40. Thank you, Josh. I guess I just don’t see what that has to so with a seer stone, then. The same thing holds true with or without the stone.

    So it’s not the stone you object to, but the claim of exclusive knowledge?

    Did Joseph claim that?

  41. I have always been told the Lord uses more advanced science too perform his works. I don’t understand how this stone fits in.

    This is being presented very differently to the other treatments of history. Is this the new way? Will the older essays now appear in the Ensign too, and there be conference talks? Will they be discussed in church?

  42. If my home teacher said he had the power to use a rock to find lost treasure and decipher unknown languages i would seriously question his sanity. I can’t construct a logical scenario where once upon a time there were magic translating rocks in America but today they no longer work.

  43. SilverRain (41):

    This is just my opinion …

    I think the best way to develop the best of who we are as people is through a process of experience and reflection on that experience. (This is at the core of Mormonism.) We can also use abstraction to think about our experience, but I think the heart of the process is a concrete experience and reflection on that experience. I like to think that “truth” is out there in the world for everyone to experience.

    Talismans and supernatural artifacts given by the divine to aid the chosen ones are at the heart of wonderful stories. I love these stories. I truly do. But I don’t think this is a good way to live one’s life.

    Primarily, I have no experience with supernatural artifacts. As I said above, I value and trust my experience with the world. I’m open to new experiences. If you have a supernatural item, I would love to see it.

    I also believe the world has plenty of wonder without magical trinkets. These last couple years I’ve started keeping bees. Anyone who feels the need to embellish our world with magic should learn about honey bees. There’s plenty of mystery there to keep you occupied for decades. The world is already full of wonder without superstition.

    To my mind, supernatural artifacts aren’t about revealing new truths about the world. Supernatural artifacts are about carving out a role for the reader of the artifact. The artifact is used to create a relationship between the diviner and the believer. Given the asymmetrical nature of the knowledge received from the artifact, the relationship is ripe for abuse.

    This is my last comment on this thread. If I had anything intelligent to add to this conversation, I’ve surely added it by now.

  44. They don’t work because we don’t expect them to work. Moroni 7:35-36, and all that.

    Joseph expected them to work–so they did.

  45. JimD, I agree whole heartedly to you brief comment. Jesus Christ also said to that if one does not believe that even His miracles will not have an affect upon the recipient. It all comes down to faith and what inspires you personally to have revelation triggered. Enuf said.

  46. What intrigues me in all this is why is this subject is coming up now when there has been no obvious pressure in the LDS world to clarify it? Does it have something to do with the recent joint event with the RLDS? Even in that case it would not be necessary to release a photograph of the stone.

  47. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Here are a few links to posts and podcasts giving additional quality commentary on this whole seer stone topic. As expected, everyone who is anyone is weighing in on this topic.

    At WWE, Brian Whitney provides a bunch of source quotes from LDS sources on seer stones and translation. Very helpful.

    At Mormon Matters, a two-part podcast panel featuring D. Michael Quinn (LDS historian, author of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View), Ron Barney (LDS historian, worked with the Church History Department for 35 years), and Ann Taves (non-LDS scholar of religion with interests in Mormonism and visionary religious experience). Great discussion.

    At Radio West, a podcast on seer stones featuring Ben Park and Matt Bowman, two young LDS historians. I haven’t listened to this yet but I’m sure Ben and Matt are worth listening to.

  48. @JimD, my home teachees expect the magic juice they sell to cure all ailments, but it still doesn’t do anything beyond what any other juice does. And the narrative they have constructed around this secret-recipe snake oil is highly manipulative and abusive, to the point that I now have a hard time visiting these otherwise sweet old folks.

    I have to content myself with focusing on being faithful to my covenants and doing good as Jesus taught. That is “faith” I can understand.

  49. Thanks for explaining, Josh. You leave me with more questions, but if you’re done, you’re done.

    I will say I’ve never heard the point of a “supernatural artifact,” as you say, is to draw a link between believer and diviner. They can be presented that way as part of the “smoke and mirrors” aspect of divination, but I was taught they are merely foci, and my experience has corroborated that.

    I neither use nor keep “supernatural artifacts” for the reasons I explained above. They are unnecessary. unless commanded/guided by God I don’t see a need for them. To the contrary, I find they encourage hubris and dependency, and invite far more trouble than revelation.

    But most people who use them today don’t use them to create a role for themselves, or to elevate themselves above others, I’d wager. It’s just that the people who do are the ones you hear about. Most of the people I have known who train with and use objects for divination keep them fairly private.

  50. I for one would like for all of us to be issued seer stones. Maybe we could go on walkabout to find one after we graduate primary.

    There are a lot of benefits. First, we’d bring back hat wearing. Two, whenever we have questions, we’d bury our faces in our hats and meditate.

    I can’t see the downsides here other than opening ourselves to mockery. We might as well just wear funny underwear so none will notice. Ooh wait….

  51. A sophisticated name for a beanie will never compare with a nice bowler, fedora, or even a stove pipe hat.

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