Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick give us a delightful volume discussing Joseph Smith’s seer stones, exploring a portion of Mormon history that was excised along with the mortal practice of plural marriage among the Saints.
Here’s the gist:
Joseph and seemingly most of his colleagues used stones to see things that were otherwise hidden. This included his age peers, respectable members of the local community, and noted Protestant church leaders. When Mormon missionaries traveled to England, they found individuals in England who were similarly using stones to see hidden things. See pp. 158-159.
The Bible has a tradition of prophets seeing things in various miraculous ways, such as visions and dreams. But the ways God used to convey his wisdom also included such methods as writing on walls. The authors include a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn of Belshazzar’s Feast (1636), where writing appeared on the wall of the temple and was interpreted by the prophet Daniel (p. 119). The Bible also includes discussion of items used for divination or to see hidden things (the Urim and Thummim, the white stone John mentions in Revelation).
Joseph grew up surrounded by those who used stones to see hidden things, and he had a particular talent for seeing things. In Joseph’s youth, he became a valued resource for those seeking hidden treasure. In the course of these pursuits, Joseph obtained two stones, one white and one brown. One he obtained by digging on the Chase property, creating a well for the Chase family in the process. The other stone was found near Lake Erie after Joseph saw the stone and its location by looking into someone else’s stone.
Joseph was also presented two stones that could be attached to a breastplate. These were referred to as the Urim and Thummim. After these artifacts were reportedly retrieved by the Angel Moroni, the term Urim and Thummim was used to refer to the white stone Joseph retained until his death (the brown stone was given to Oliver Cowdery in 1830).
When Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, it is reported that he would bury his face in a hat to block the light as he looked at the Urim and Thummim, whether the two transparent stones conveyed by Moroni or the single stones he had obtained when he was younger. Those documenting the process report that words would appear on the Urim and Thummim in Roman characters (i.e., English language) and would remain shining on the stone(s) until they had been properly transcribed.
Detractors from Joseph’s claims regarding the divine origin of the Book of Mormon have used pejorative terms and images to refer to the stones and the process of observing hidden things by means of the stones. Even terms that may not have had pejorative meanings in 1830 have come to seem ridiculous to moderns. These include terms such as money digger and peepstone as well as images showing Joseph hunched over as if in pain with his face stuffed into a hat.
Modern Mormons may be surprised to learn Joseph used seer stones throughout his ministry, but this fact has been known to scholars for years. The authors suggest the seer stones be seen as sacred artifacts, yet stop short of suggesting what purpose these sacred artifacts might have in our lives.
Urim and Thummim
The Bible contains multiple references to the Urim and Thummim, deriving from the Hebrew terms for perfections (or innocents) and lights. It is understood that the Urim and Thummim were associated with the priestly functions, particularly divination. (Wikipedia)
The authors go to some length to detail the possible scenarios relating to the sets of two stones (interpreters, Urim and Thummim) mentioned in the Book of Mormon, a discussion comprising Chapter 6 (pp. 89-110).
The Book of Ether within the Book of Mormon speaks of two stones that were to be interpreters, which Ether was commanded to seal up with the record of his vision of all things. 1 The authors appear to be unaware of Don Bradley’s research, which suggests that Lehi found the Urim and Thummim at some point after receiving the Liahona. Bradley reports recollections from those who had been told of the 116 pages. According to these recollections, Lehi found the two stones and subsequently ceased using the Liahona as the means to receive divine direction. Bradley’s research suggests that the Urim and Thummim, which were subsequently passed down along with other important sacred artifacts, could have been the same two stones Ether prepared to be interpreters for his record.
The White Stone of Revelation
In the Book of Revelation, John wrote of a new name that would be written on a white stone:
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” 2
The book does not trace the emergence of the practice of looking into stones to see hidden things, but it seems possible that publication of the Bible in vernacular language allowed individuals to read and misunderstand Biblical concepts. John’s mention of the white stone may have been metaphorical, as a white stone was used in Roman legal practice to denote that an accused person was innocent (p. 177-180). The authors do not explore the Mormon practice in which a new name is received, which occurs in the context of being washed or made innocent. Therefore they are unable to further explore how the biblical mention of the white stone (whether symbolic or physical) correlates with common Mormon experiences.
As Joseph actually had a white stone which he could use to see hidden things, his writings suggested that a physical white stone would be given to those who come into the Celestial Kingdom (D&C 130, received April 1843). The authors do not mention that by the time D&C 130 was written, dozens of the faithful had already been inducted into the Quorum of the Anointed without any recorded gifting of physical stones. Thus Joseph’s 1843 description of the righteous each receiving a literal white stone that would serve them as a Urim and Thummim appears to have been metaphorical.
Origin and Provenance of Joseph’s Seer Stones
The Stone from the Well, the White Stone?
Sometime after 1818 it appears Joseph obtained two stones. One he obtained by digging a hole some twenty to thirty feed deep on property owned by the Chase family. The public explanation given for why he would dig such a deep hole was that he was digging a well for the Chase family. Joseph’s successor, Wilford Woodruff, believed that the stone retrieved from the Chase property was the white seer stone Joseph would retain for the duration of his life.
It is inferred that Joseph bequeathed the white stone on Brigham Young, who apparently passed it on to John Taylor. When John Taylor died, the both the white and brown seer stones were given to Wilford Woodruff. In 1888 Wilford Woodruff consecrated the white seer stone on an altar in the Manti temple. It appears the white stone has subsequently continued in the possession of the LDS Church presidents.
The Stone from Erie, the Brown Stone?
Sometime before dictating the text to the Book of Mormon, it appears Joseph traveled to Lake Erie and retrieved a stone he had seen by looking into the seer stone of someone else, possibly a neighbor girl. Though some scholars suggest this trip to Erie may have occurred as early as 1819, it seems unlikely that Joseph Smith had reason and means to make such a trip until 1825. The authors don’t mention that 1825 is when Joseph met Emma Hale.
According to a late report from Emma Smith, it appears Joseph Smith used the brown seer stone during his translation of the Book of Mormon. He also used the transparent Nephite stones. There is no reason to be certain he couldn’t have also used the white seer stone. Joseph Smith gave the brown seer stone to Oliver Cowdery in 1830, after completion of the Book of Mormon translation.
After Oliver Cowdery’s death in 1850, Cowdery’s widow was visited by Phineas Young. All reports agree that Phineas asked Mrs. Cowdery if he could see the stone. However accounts differ on whether the transfer of custody of the brown stone from Mrs. Cowdery to Phineas was something Mrs. Cowdery intended to have happen. Phineas transferred the stone to his brother, Brigham Young. After Brigham’s death, the brown stone passed into the possession of his widow and General Relief Society First Counselor, Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young]. A handwritten tag bearing the name “Zina Williams Card” is in the box in which the brown stone is stored. This has been taken to suggest Zina Young [Williams Card] had possession of the stone prior to its being given to John Taylor. However the widowed Zina Young [Williams] did not remarry until 1884, two years after John Taylor showed the brown stone to Franklin D. Richards in 1882.
John Taylor showed the brown seer stone to various people between 1882 and his death in 1887. When Wilford Woodruff was Church president, Zina Card wrote that Wilford Woodruff possessed “two seer stones,” insisting that the stones should be treated as the property of God’s mouthpiece. In 1933, B. H. Roberts discovered that the stone was no longer in the possession of the Church President, then Heber J. Grant. Roberts learned the Smith family had custody of the stone. The Smiths eventually showed Roberts the stone, which he described in A Comprehensive History of the Church. When Joseph Fielding Smith became President of the Church in 1970, he donated various items from the Smith family collection of artifacts to build the First Presidency’s collection. This transfer returned the brown seer stone to the custody of the LDS Church leadership. An image of this stone was published in the LDS Church magazine, Ensign, in October 2015.
It is not certain the white seer stone was the one found on the Chase property, though Wilford Woodruff believed that was the manner in which the white stone was found. After the death of Joseph Smith, the next record of the white stone occurs when Wilford Woodruff consecrates it in Manti in 1888. Zina Young Card’s letter indicates Wilford Woodruff was in possession of both seer stones during his lifetime. It appears the white stone has constantly been in the custody of the LDS Church leadership, but the provenance of the stone is not a matter of public record, and the LDS Church has not published any images of the white seer stone. The image on the book’s cover and within the text appears to be an artist’s rendition rather than a painting of a stone the artist had actually seen.
Similarly, it cannot be certain the brown seer stone was the one found by Lake Erie. The provenance of the brown seer stone has been more public, but undocumented periods combined with imprecise descriptions of the stone leave room for the possibility that the brown stone currently in the possession of the LDS Church could be different from the brown stone Joseph Smith used.
Honoring All Scholars
MacKay and Frederick go to great lengths to include all viewpoints as they cover the history of Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones. Yet the important research of Don Bradley regarding the description of the interpreters from the lost 116 pages was apparently not known to the authors or was considered insufficient to reference.
Meanwhile accounts from numerous Mormon detractors are included in the discussion of the stones and their use. Though these accounts are often important to establish the pervasive use of “peepstones” in Joseph Smith’s day, these accounts were intentionally crafted to raise doubts regarding Joseph Smith, constantly returning the reader to the impression that the stones were fraudulent.
Similarly, the discussion of how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon includes all viewpoints, even though the participants in the process consistently reported that Joseph saw words, which would remain on the stones until the text was properly transcribed. These reports do not leave room for the speculations that Joseph made the book up from whole cloth or that he significantly injected his own interpretations into the text. Yet the authors are content to suggest that it isn’t possible to determine what actually happened during the translation process. They specifically state “There is simply not enough evidence to establish a final position beyond the theories discussed” (pp. 45-64).
This effort to embrace all fellow professionals leaves the lay reader with an impression that the stones might be the objects of fraud. This is unfortunately, as it appears to have been the author’s intent to demystify the seer stones and permit faithful LDS members to perceive the seer stones within a legitimate context as sacred artifacts.
Believing What the Book of Mormon Says about Seer Stones
Those who believe Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon without divine assistance reject what the Book of Mormon text says about seer stones and translation. These doubters read the elements of the Book of Mormon discussing seer stones and interpretation as Joseph Smith injecting an explanation that supports the story he chose to tell about the book he published. This appears to be why doubting scholars suggest that the Book of Mormon is merely Joseph Smith writing about his own experience. The “autobiographical” description of the Book of Mormon as a text created by a fraudulent Joseph Smith hadn’t made sense to me, as I am not aware of Joseph cutting off the head of a leader (Nephi killing Laban), fleeing into the wilderness and building a ship to cross an ocean (Lehi’s family), or defiantly testifying of God while under threat of immolation (Abinadi in the court of King Noah), to cite a few examples from the Book of Mormon.
It was lovely to see the authors point out what the Bible and Christian tradition say about divination using artifacts such as the Urim and Thummim and the writing on the wall of the temple. Yet these biblical stories and traditions omit the plainness regarding these artifacts and their use that we find in the Book of Mormon. The authors explore what the Book of Mormon says about these sorts of artifacts and the implications of this internal documentation about the process that Joseph reportedly used to bring forth the Book of Mormon. Yet to my mind the authors neglected an important element of seer stone utility in Mormon cosmology.
A Plain and Precious Truth
A reformationist and naive interpretation of the Bible between the initial printing of vernacular Bibles and the industrial age seems to have given rise to the use of peepstones to find hidden treasures. Yet the Book of Mormon and the accounts of Joseph’s use of seer stones gives us something far better than images of hidden treasure.
A key element of Mormon belief is that we each lived for an eternity with God before this life, and that each of us trusted that Christ’s atonement could redeem us from spiritual damnation, presuming we chose to be so redeemed. The Bible is replete with assertions that Christ will save all who believe on his name. Joseph Smith expounded on Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians to lay out a plan by which proxy ordinance work could allow the repentant dead to embrace Christ’s atonement prior to Final Judgement.
Yet Joseph also required that proxy ordinances be done for each individual by name. And the names and relationships of unknown billions of dead are lost.
The Book of Mormon and Joseph’s reported use of seer stones to bring forth the Book of Mormon give us the hope that God can show us written words to convey knowledge that no living individual can know by natural means. This potentially holds the key for how all the generations of mankind can be saved via vicarious ordinances, even though so many billions died without any records surviving to our day.
I can’t help but remember there was a time when the Church membership was not ready to admit Black men and women to full fellowship. Yet mere decades later, the vast majority of Church members embrace all members of mankind as candidates for full fellowship.
In similar fashion we now live in a time when most Church members would reject God’s ability to reveal to us our distant kindred dead through miraculous means.
I hope the work of MacKay and Frederick will open our minds and hearts to the possibility that God has prepared a way for all His children to be saved in accordance with the biblical conditions, specifically baptism. Whether God’s miracle will involve seer stones or some other equally miraculous method, it appears evident that our faith must increase to admit such miracles if we are ever to allow God to work such miracles among us.