Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones

Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones
We live in a great time for Church history. The Church has opened their archives to create the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It now has official statements on controversial historical and doctrinal issues. It is embracing the Internet. It is now dealing with the skeletons that have been trying for decades to escape its archival closet.

With the new openness to history, the Church recently published a photograph and basic information regarding one of Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones (Ensign, Oct 2015, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer?lang=eng )

There clearly is a continued interest and need for a more thorough discussion of Seer Stones and Joseph Smith. Were there more than one? What is the provenance of these stones? How did Joseph use them? How important were the stones? What about magic and money digging?

Michael Hubbard Mackay and Nicholas J. Frederick have given us a quality product that helps to answer these and many other questions. The book is 8 chapters long, with 6 appendices, and an extensive annotated bibliography. Each chapter has sufficient endnotes for those who wish to look at primary sources, and do more study.

While the book will be useful for scholars, it is written with the average reader in mind. The book is filled with paintings and charts that enhance the mystery being unraveled by the authors. I appreciated the fact that none of the paintings showed Joseph translating directly from the plates of the Book of Mormon, as has been in the past.

Unlike some other LDS historical books, Mackay and Frederick did not shy away from using all sources, including some that are clearly anti-Mormon. Both LDS and non-LDS Mormon historians are referenced, including non-LDS historians Dan Vogel and D. Michael Quinn, so the volume will also appeal to non-LDS scholars interested in researching Mormonism.

The book explains what seer stones are, how they are related to the Urim and Thummim, how common they were in Joseph’s day, the issues of magic in relation to religion, what the Book of Mormon teaches us about seer stones, and what the Urim and Thummim in the Old Testament and the white stone* in John 2:17 and D&C 130 mean to both LDS and non-LDS today.

I appreciate the fact that the authors reviewed the key theories, and discussed the probabilities of each theory being correct, comparing statements by various people that knew Joseph in his early years, or who had been interviewed by others later on.

The book discusses possible ways in which the translation process occurred, noting Royal Skousen’s theory of a tight translation, where Joseph received the translation word for word, but also explaining Brant Gardner’s theory of a less tight translation that allowed Joseph to add some of his own terminology and interpretation into the process. As I’ve looked at the evidence over the years, I see evidence for both: a tight translation in some things, but also how documents were used by God as a catalyst for Joseph to receive new revelation (such as the Book of Moses coming from Joseph’s “translation” of the Bible).
While I knew Joseph Smith had at least one seer stone, it surprised me to know he may have had as many as five stones, and encouraged other members to go find their own “white stone.” The two most likely stones Joseph owned are the brown stone (seen in the Oct 2015 Ensign), and the white stone that Wilford Woodruff consecrated on the altar of the Manti Temple. The provenance of these two stones is discussed, along with a possible green stone that is also mentioned.

One of the best parts of the book is the discussion on the scriptural significance of seer stones. While many thought that the stones were just a temporary crutch to teach Joseph how to receive revelation, Mosiah 8 and D&C 130 insist that it is the special stone that makes the Seer. For me, the authors succeeded in explaining just how important seer stones were for Joseph, and how we should also marvel at them in our day. Joseph’s use of them, first in treasure hunting, was a normal effort that many did in the Palmyra area in his youth. The book points out, however, that only Joseph transformed this skill from money digging to actually having sacred words revealed about ancient peoples.

Perhaps the one thing they did not touch much upon, and perhaps it is due to the sensitivity of the subject, is why the information on seer stones was kept so secretive by the Church over the years. They do note, “This stone may have remained in the hands of the Presidency for decades, but it is clear that Church Historians like B.H. Roberts knew nothing about the white stone.”

Also missing is a discussion on why the Church’s stance for many decades was that Joseph Smith only used the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates, and never the seer stones. While other historians were insisting that the seer stone was the primary tool used for translation, Joseph Fielding Smith (as Church historian) was claiming otherwise. My personal belief is that he was attempting to protect the family name by writing faithful history versus writing all of the history. Unfortunately, such actions may have allowed for much criticism over the years, and questioning on what the Church was hiding. This was especially true in the early years of the Internet. Since the Church made the difficult, but wise, decision to open its archives and let the skeletons come out, it has allowed LDS historians to deal with such issues on our own terms, and not the terms set by those who would destroy God’s great work of restoration . In this instance, Mackay and Frederick’s effort successfully normalizes what once was viewed as strange and magical.

Seer stones have a long and valued history in scripture. The book “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones” is an important addition for all those interested in early LDS history and doctrine. It is a valuable tool in understanding what has long been a strange curiosity, but now is a normal part of the marvelous work and a wonder of the restoration of Jesus Christ’s Church in the last days.

*For my discussion on the white stone in D&C 130 describing modern computer technology, see http://rameumptom.weebly.com/urim.html

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones

  1. Sad that I’m on vacation and won’t get to see my copy of the book for another week or so…

    I don’t know about these being skeletons in the closet so much as being matters that were not exposed to broader audiences, with many of those entrusted with the secret not particularly caring (thinking of the McLellin papers which it turns out were in the archives the whole time and not as negative/condemnatory as everyone presumed).

  2. When I was in seminary 40 years ago, MMM was taught as being the Indians’ fault. Polygamy was dealt with very differently then. The theories for the priesthood ban were allowed to continue for decades after the revelation, without official comment.

    The method of doing history a century ago was to protect the hero of the story. George Washington’s slaves are not mentioned. The same with Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings or Lincoln’s depression. This is the pattern followed by the Church throughout the 20th century. When historians began dealing with these skeletons, it caused much pain for those who admired these American heroes. But the end results allow us to see them as humans dealing with their culture and own mortal weaknesses.

    As the Church delayed following this pattern, it allowed others to define our history and tell the story in their own way, often with an unflattering interpretation. With the power of the Internet, the negative interpretations had the largest voice. Did Brigham Young order the Mountain Meadows Massacre? According to many voices, he had. Only in the past few years have we begun to reclaim our own history. We now know that while President Young said many incendiary things that riled many people up, he did not order the massacre. We can now deal fully with that history.

    And now we can more fully deal with Joseph’s early history as a money digger.

  3. I like what Joseph said about his youthful involvement in money digging. As I recall his FAQ, he said he had participated in the employment, but never made much money at it. Outside of his pithy and amusing FAQ, we see him attempting to discourage folks who wanted him to keep looking for treasure.

    I suppose I was raised in a home where my mother told us stories from a land she called Zaremla, where Marekla merchants had to hide their daughters from Orquian priests who secretly practiced human sacrifice (and particularly delighted to offer up Marreklan maidens. In these stories there was a stone of truth, which the pure in heart could see emitting light. Properly used with the apparatus handed down through the righteous priests, the stone of truth could allow one gifted and righteous to see the future. And their were volcanoes and snakes and fried matlas and all kinds of lovely things.

    This was my mother’s attempt to frame her religious worldview in a fantasy environment to help those she cared for learn. This is what Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings and what C. S. Lewis did with his Narnia tales. But my mother’s audience was her children and grandchildren, rather than all mankind.

    So I’ve been blessed to live in a world where seer stones and breastplates are merely the real world analog to wonderful stories I learned as a child, where a beautiful woman couldn’t believe she was lovely and would only agree to marry the prince if she could wear a golden mask, where men saw God face to face, and a princess was given the right to choose her husband from among the many who came to compete for her hand.

    As the European fairy tales most of you grew up hearing were in no way informed by the restored gospel, you did not have the benefits I have had. I feel sorry for you.

  4. In her Okishdu/Zaremla stories, the promised one had not been born. That’s actually one of the continuing threads, as there had been a prophecy about how that promised one would come forth, and in one story a woman and man were being forced to marry in an attempt to make the prophecy come true. But in my mother’s stories, force and coercion were always bad, so that particular couple was able to avoid union, allowing the woman to marry her true love and the man to escape back to his kingdom (he was a prince who had become lost and who was believed to have died, to the joy of the vizier-like character who was trying to overthrow the king).

    I would say coercion was always bad, but one of our major adult conflicts over the stories involved the fate of a woman who had been abducted, drugged, and impregnated by a selfish man. He comes to feel remorse for what he has done and allows her to come out of her drugged amnesia/compliance. My anger regarded how quickly the woman is willing to forgive and accept her de facto marriage to the man. In the overall story, however, she becomes a savior figure to that people and a figure of myth (and the child goes on to become important in their own way). I don’t recall how the current story reads. I think mother inserted a period of anger and despair on the part of the woman, which I felt was lacking or insufficient in the original version.

    So shall I say that the stories I was raised on did not end in “Happily Ever After.” They were stories about great people who sometimes did terrible things, where virtue and valor were not always immediately rewarded, but over the generations the evil and selfish deeds were shown to be correlated with downfall for those regimes.

  5. Hi CJ,

    My mother wrote up the stories she told us as kids going to weekday Primary and turned them into novels, complete with additional volumes. She’s got them online. If you email me at stoutmtc at gmail dot com I’ll send you the link.

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