Interpreters, visions and seer stones

The Interpreter has recently published two reviews of William L. Davis’ Visions in a Seer Stone. The two reviews, by Brant Gardner and Brian Hales, exemplify what I think are positive trends in Latter-day Saint contributions to Mormon Studies. I’ve enjoyed reading through back issues of the old FARMS journals, but some of the older reviews are exhaustive critiques of stupid books. Rather than a point-by-point rebuttal or an eye-glazing meta-discussion of the philosophy of science, it should be enough in many cases to note: this book or article (such as the recent proposal that Joseph Smith’s early visions were enabled by psychedelic substances) is a stupid idea based on slim or no evidence and not worth a detailed response. It’s more productive for everyone to confidently engage with serious books.

Both Gardner and Hales compliment Visions in a Seer Stone as a serious and original contribution to the study of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, even as they disagree with many of its points. If I’ve understood correctly, Davis contends that the Book of Mormon shows the hallmarks of nineteenth-century oral composition techniques, in particular “laying down heads,” or starting out with a summary and then expanding on it; Joseph Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon was a virtuoso oral performance of a complex text from memory; his considerable rhetorical skill was honed by his prior experience; and he prepared the text extensively in the years prior to 1829. A key passage for Davis is Jacob 1:4, “And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, [Nephi commanded me] that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates.”

Gardner and Hales each point to a number of problems with this argument. As a compositional technique, expanding on an initial summary is not unique to the nineteenth century or anachronistic in an ancient text; “laying down heads” fails to explain most of the text of the Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith was not known for having remarkable intellectual abilities in the 1820s; evidence for his training in oratory or composition is lacking; and there is no evidence for Joseph Smith’s spending years in careful preparation of a scriptural text that (as Davis acknowledges) required considerable planning. It’s an interesting discussion with potential for future developments—and perhaps a small degree of rapprochement between devotional and secular approaches to the Book of Mormon—and all the contributions are worth reading.

If I can make one substantive contribution to the discussion: there was in fact a technological device readily available to Joseph Smith that would have enabled him to perform seemingly supernatural feats of memorization and oral performance. This technological marvel is known as a “book” and was widely known to citizens of Palmyra and elsewhere on the frontier in 1829. Some eyewitness accounts place just such a device—the gold plates—within arm’s reach as Joseph Smith dictated his translation. And as Jacob 1:4 indicates, it is precisely there, on the plates, that the “heads” of the text were to be found.

We moderns are accustomed to think of books as containers filled with information, but in earlier centuries, it would have been more accurate to think of books as instruction manuals for oral performance. Page numbers and indices and other apparatus for information retrieval don’t become widespread until the high Middle Ages. A book’s informational content or textual narrative was often already known to the reader. It was in this sense that Gregory the Great could talk of images as books for the unlearned: it was not that the images conveyed information to illiterate readers, but that the stories became activated in their memory, became “read,” when they viewed the visual depiction of a story with which they were already familiar.[1]

If Lucy Mack Smith’s account that Joseph Smith began describing “the ancient inhabitants of this continent” in 1823 is correct, it suggests that at least some elements of what he translated in 1829 were already known to him and that the translation process at least occasionally involved some aspects of memory. If his months-long complex oral performance (albeit for an extremely limited audience) was remarkable, the question is not how he had trained his memory to superhuman capacity in the meantime, but more likely: how did he access the book that was lying on the table in front of him? (Davis accepts that Joseph Smith made little direct use of the plates while translating.[2] I think this not uncommon view is an oversimplification of the tenuous and contradictory evidence, although that’s a topic for another time.)

There’s even an answer to the question of how Joseph Smith accessed the plates—by the gift and power of God, and aided by a hat and various seer stones—but some continue to be dissatisfied by it. If I were looking for an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith’s remarkable oral performance, I would focus not on memorization and extemporaneous composition, but on how he used the etchings on the gold plates for dictating the text of the Book of Mormon. The plates are the key to understanding the visions seen in a seer stone.


[1] Jonathan Green, Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 93.

[2] William L. Davis, Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 177.

13 comments for “Interpreters, visions and seer stones

  1. “Davis accepts that Joseph Smith made little direct use of the plates while translating….I think this not uncommon view is an oversimplification of the tenuous and contradictory evidence, although that’s a topic for another time….The plates are the key to understanding the visions seen in a seer stone.”

    YES. Please expand upon and write that thought up, Jonathan, when you have the time. It has struck me several times over the past months, since my reading of Royal Skousen’s edition of the Book of Mormon, that we have so little, and so fragmentary, evidence about all of Smith’s earliest history, and really all of the the earliest Mormon practices, that it is curious that any one narrative about the creation of the BoM–whether it be the long-standing pious orthodoxy of Smith studiously “translating” from the plates themselves in some traditional manner, or the once-heterodox-but-now-standard idea of Smith seeing one word after another appear in a seer stone he kept in a hat, thus engaging in “translation” in some profoundly Sam-Brownian manner–should become the basis for larger Mormon theories about Smith’s translation efforts, however defined. On my reading of the history, the simple truth is: we really don’t know. Smith and his scribes produced a book that he said came to him through the power of God; different witnesses, in a variety of different contexts, affirm the same thing. Beyond that–word-by-word dictation? extemporaneous oral recitation? stream-of-consciousness pontification? line-readings? speaking while in a trance? We can reconstruct what some people–some of whom appear to have been in closer proximity to the event than others–affirm to have been part of the process from letters and whatnot, and close textual investigations can suggest other conclusions, but basically it’s all a black hole, every bit as much as Mohammad’s production of the Quran is an unknown. Ergo, the plates can’t be counted out.

  2. I have never had a problem with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translating process. To me, it seems that he progressed — at first, he needed the plates — then, being faithful in small things, he no longer needed the plates and used seer stones — and even later, he no longer needed seer stones. God worked with him, and Joseph was faithful.

  3. Great post and comments, well worth reading, and they aid in moving us gently away from now-obsolete assumptions about traditional word-for-word translation of the BOM.

    It is my belief that at some point, our attempts to explain and understand the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s involvement, as helpful as they are, will inevitably fail. I remember that Alistair Cooke years ago produced a PBS/BBC series called “America.” When he dealt with the Mormons he said (I hope I have remembered it correctly) that, “in any event, Joseph Smith produced SOMETHING.”

    Cooke’s comment has helped me come to terms with BOM questions. I believe it contains the word of God, but don’t ask me to explain HOW.

  4. “If I were looking for an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith’s remarkable oral performance, I would focus not on memorization and extemporaneous composition, but on how he used the etchings on the gold plates for dictating the text of the Book of Mormon. The plates are the key to understanding the visions seen in a seer stone.”…

    …except for the fact that the six or so witnesses who watched parts of the translation take place describe the plates as being covered up or not even in the room, the stone in the hat being the sole source of translation. This is old news, so I’m obviously confused by the etchings comment; especially with the “caracters” note given to Martin Harris. assuming they reflect the etchings, appearing to be a bit curious even if considered as shorthand..

  5. TW: While there is a path away from a tightly controlled translation (along the lines of: the plates provided the heads, Joseph Smith provided the rhetorical fashioning), I think we’re a long way from declaring a tightly controlled translation obsolete. A number of eyewitness accounts describe a tightly controlled process, for example (but I’m deliberately postponing discussion of eyewitness accounts to a later date).

    RP: And what I’m saying is that the consensus opinion about the witnesses’ statements reads a lot into some ambiguous statements. The statements say a lot of things, including the things you mention, but not only the things you mention. And having the plates concealed or even distant is not the same thing as not using the plates. The consensus needs to be challenged.

    But not today. It’s going to take some preliminary work, so that discussion will have to be put off to a later date.

  6. 1. Why would we dismiss data about the possible use of psychedelic substances to aid visions? The psychedelics, the place, and the people correlate.

    Is it because the data doesn’t fit our belief system? Puritanical prejudice is strong among LDS. Data indicates that the Smiths may have dabbled in drugs. We know Alvin overdosed.

    If future evidence proves that the Smiths did use psychedelics, and that it is likely that Joseph also used psychedelics—our belief system will become a stumbling block. Ask: why am I offended if Joseph used psychedelics? Do psychedelics make him any less prophetic? Is it because my interpretation of the Word of Wisdom prohibits hard liquor and tobacco, and therefore drugs, and therefore psychedelics? That’s dogma, not doctrine.

    2. In an earlier T&S response about Joseph’s translation I described how I interpret the endowment as Joseph’s experience of the First Vision, and how the revelation-experience is connected to the concept of a figurative “book”:

    “… The same idea can explain how Joseph was able to scribe the entire Book of Mormon in a matter of weeks. I argue that Joseph received the entire self-contained BOOK of Mormon in the same way that John received the entire self-contained BOOK of Revelation:

    Figuratively, “eating” the BOOK (Rev 10:9-10), is to consume the whole—the entire revelation as a seed.”

  7. Also,

    The “images” spoken about by Gregory the Great refers to iconography, like Russian iconography, so your reference is out of context, or maybe you never knew the context in the first place.

  8. I think what I appreciated most about Davis’s book was the insight into how the occasional book and chapter summaries (the ones that were part of the original dictation, not the ones added in the ~1980 edition) related to the following narrative text. To me, the idea that Mormon or Moroni would have included these summaries—sometimes erroneously identified as colophons—seems anachronistic. At least, I haven’t seen other ancient texts in which the authors or editors wrote that way. But the idea that these summaries were narrative heads beautifully explains their function and situates them within Joseph Smith’s environment. I don’t need 19th century oratorical sermon culture to be the only possible methodology that utilized narrative heads, but the fact that it did, and that Joseph would have repeatedly been exposed to that methodology, is quite compelling.

    I also really liked that Davis’s thesis makes sense of Lucy Mack Smith’s anecdote that Joseph regaled the family with stories of the Nephites in the years prior to the Book of Mormon’s publication. I remember being quite confused when I first read that anecdote while on my mission and now it finally fits!

    Any competing frameworks for explaining the translation process will need to account for these two discrepancies, at least, in order to be equally compelling.

  9. Speculation isn’t data. Full stop.

    That Gregory was referring to images found in churches is obvious. Since we’re both aware of the obvious, the significance of your pointing out the obvious to me is, well, not obvious.

  10. Reading through Gardner’s critique of Davis’s work, Gardner spends considerable effort to show that the narrative text differs from the explicitly provided heads. Gardner then argues that if the narrative summaries did function as heads, this difference shows that they were ineffective. However, that the narrative strays from the heads seems fit the extemporaneous nature of the oral performance. On the contrary, if the narrative was constructed first, and then an editor wrote a summary to introduce the text, why did the editor do such a poor job of summarizing the text they just constructed?

  11. Data is data. How the data is approached may be speculative, interpretive, etc.

    If you knew Gregory referred to iconography, you would have mentioned “iconography,” but you didn’t. You did not make the connection, and by overusing of the term “obvious” you make it obvious that you are fibbing.

    So in order to make your “book” thesis work, you find a foggy context in Gregory—which seemed ambivalent and cloudy and easy to manipulate because you didn’t see it as iconography—it would not be obvious unless you have background in Eastern/Orthodox tradition.

    It was you who was speculating the moment you used Gregory out-of-context. Novice mistake, “Full Stop.” Intellectual integrity counts.

  12. Right, data is data. And where there is no data, there is only speculation. An argument about history that has no historical documentation has no data. Get back to us when you have something better to go on.

    The two well-known citations from Gregory mention, first, “pictura in ecclesiis,” and second, just “pictura.” They’re the beginning of many centuries of discussion about images, reading, and the illiterate. The idea that memory was involved in earlier modes of reading isn’t new and isn’t controversial, and I still have no idea why you think your point about iconography is relevant. I footnoted my book since this is a point I’ve made in print before, but all of this is quite well known to basically anybody who’s at all familiar with medieval studies. You’re free to disagree with me, but your idea that only Byzantinists would truly understand a reference to images and illiteracy is, frankly, ridiculous. Get back to us when you’ve got something better to offer.

  13. I’ve been curious about what I perceive to be a strong link between the Book of Mormon and sacred hardware. First and foremost are the Liahona, the breast plate and spectacles, and the Sword of Laban. And of course the gold plates, the 24 plates, and all other plates referenced in the Book of Mormon.

    Why were these items so important that they were passed down through the generations to ultimately land in a stone box on the Hill Cumorah to be brought forth in a modern age by Joseph Smith but then spirited away? What purpose do they serve? Why were they preserved? How did they contribute to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon? What role will they play in the future?

    Then the recent shift of focus from the plates and the Interpreters to a hat and a seer stone as the means of “translation” has only added to my questions (if a hat and a self-found stone were all that was needed, why all the effort to obtain the plates?).

    I believe these tangible items of gold, brass, steel and crystal are of great historical, religious, and spiritual significance – but how and when that significance will be revealed remains unknown to me. But I like to think on these mysteries.

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