“Joseph Smith, Jr. said, every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.”
– Prophet Brigham Young, “History of Brigham Young,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, v. 26, February 20, 1864
For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. (D. & C. 3:4)
This indicates that every person should be a seer to himself and thereby stand or fall by himself not trusting another. Each member should be able to “see” for himself. Orson Pratt infers that the Saints will some day become “more fully” seers.
“Shall we stop here? No, the time will come when this people will become more fully revelators, and prophets, and seers themselves, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, and even out of the mouth of babes and sucklings will the spirit of God reveal things that–have been kept secret from the foundation of the world; they will utter forth the things of God, helping to fill the earth with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the great deep.” (Orson Pratt, J.D. 19:219)
The ability and powers of seership will also be magnified in the next world. Powers of light and seership shall be absorbed into the whole body of man.
“Express Every Idea Without Utterance”
“I long for the time that a point of the finger, or motion of the hand will express every idea without utterance. When a man is full of eternity, then the eye is not only the medium through which he sees, his ear is not the only medium by which he hears, nor the brain the only means by which he understands. When the whole body is full of the Holy Ghost, he can see behind him with as much ease, without turning his head, as he can before him. If you have not that experience, you ought to have. It is not the optic nerve alone that gives the knowledge of surrounding objects to the kind, but it is that which God has placed in man–a system of intelligence that attracts knowledge, as light cleaves to light, intelligence to intelligence, and truth to truth. It is this which lays in man a proper foundation for all education. I shall yet see the time that I can converse with this people, and not speak to them, but the expression of my countenance will tell the congregation what I wish to convey, without opening my mouth.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 1:70-71)
Dieter F. Uchtdorf -Seer Stone’s and Mobile Phones
“Not long ago, the Church published photos and background information on seer stones. People have asked me, “Do you really believe that Joseph Smith translated with seer stones? How would something like this be possible?” And I answer, “Yes! That is exactly what I believe.” This was done as Joseph said: by the gift and power of God.
In reality, most of us use a kind of “seer stone” every day. My mobile phone is like a “seer stone.” I can get the collected knowledge of the world through a few little inputs. I can take a photo or a video with my phone and share it with family on the other side of our planet. I can even translate anything into or from many different languages!
If I can do this with my phone, if human beings can do this with their phones or other devices, who are we to say that God could not help Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, with his translation work? If it is possible for me to access the knowledge of the world through my phone, who can question that seer stones are impossible for God?
Many religions have objects, places, and events that are sacred to them. We respect the sacred beliefs of other religions and hope to be respected for our own beliefs and what is sacred to us. We should never be arrogant, but rather polite and humble. We still should have a natural confidence, because this is the Church of Jesus Christ.” Dieter F Uchtdorf @lds.dieter.f.uchtdorf June 21, 2016
7 People Who Had the Seer Stone in Their Possession
Adapted from the Joseph Smith Papers | Aug. 06, 2015
By now you have probably seen the pictures from the Church of Joseph Smith’s original seer stone, released in conjunction with the printing of an original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. But do you know how the Church came to obtain the stone?
According to David Whitmer, (1) Joseph Smith gave the seer stone he used to (2) Oliver Cowdery after the translation was completed.
Shortly after Oliver Cowdery’s death in 1850, Oliver’s brother-in-law Phineas Young obtained the stone from Oliver’s widow, (3) Elizabeth Whitmer Cowdery.
(4) Phineas Young then gave the stone to his brother (5) Brigham Young, who apparently had no seer stones other than those that had belonged to Joseph Smith. He stated in 1853 that he had “Joseph’s 1st Seer Stone, which I had from O[liver] C[owdery]”. The stone remained with Brigham until his death.
(6) Zina D. H. Young, one of Brigham’s wives, then bought this and one other seer stone from his estate. Zina D.H. Young and her daughter (7) Zina Williams Card then donated the stones to the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This seer stone was accompanied by a handwritten note that explained its history, and was signed by Zina Williams Card.
Later, in 1882, Apostle Franklin D. Richards saw the stone in President John Taylor’s possession and recorded in his journal that “the pouch containing it [the stone] [was] made by Emma,” meaning the wife of Joseph Smith.
Tools of Faith:
“It should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times by those who have the gift and authority to obtain revelation from God in connection with their use. At the same time, scriptural accounts and personal experience show that unauthorized though perhaps well-meaning persons have made inappropriate use of tangible objects while seeking or claiming to receive spiritual guidance. Those who define folk magic to include any use of tangible objects to aid in obtaining spiritual guidance confound the real with the counterfeit. They mislead themselves and their readers.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks From a talk given at Brigham Young University, 6 August 1987.
“I met with the Twelve at Brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone.” (Brigham Young, Mill. Star 26:118)
“Because a man is a seer it does not mean that he must be the president of the Church. A man can be a seer and hold any office in the Church.
Perhaps it may make some of you stumble were I to ask you a question–does a man being a prophet in this church prove that he shall be president of it? I answer no! A man may be a prophet, seer, and revelator and it may have nothing to do with his being president of the church.” (Brigham Young, J.D. 1:133)
Mosiah 8:18 Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.
“On Sunday, Sept. 4, 1870, Martin Harris addressed a congregation of Saints in Salt Lake City. He related an incident which occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone. Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place ; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraved on the plates, precisely in the language then used. Martin said that after continued translation they would become weary, and would go down to the river and exercise by throwing stones out on the river, etc. While so doing, on one occasion, Martin Harris found a stone very much resembling the one used for translating, and on resuming their labor of translation, he put in place the stone that he had found.
He said that the Prophet remained silent, unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no traces of the usual sentences appearing. Much surprised, Joseph exclaimed, “Martin! What is the matter! All is as dark as Egypt!” Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them, etc.
Martin said further that the seer stones differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembling spectacles, only they were larger. Martin said, there were not many pages translated while he wrote, after which Oliver Cowdery and others did the writing. “The result of this vision was a proclamation setting forth the facts enumerated.
“The Urim and Thummim,’ mentioned in the account of the vision were a pair of transparent stone spectacles. Smith would put on the spectacles, when a few words of the text of the Book of Mormon would appear on the lenses. When these were correctly transcribed by Cowdery, who acted as his amanuensis, these words would disappear and others take their place. When 116 pages were completed, Smith entrusted them to Martin Harris, to take to his home with a view to convert his family to the new faith. They were placed at night in a bureau drawer and next morning were missing, having been stolen. They were never found and never replaced, so that the Book of Mormon today is short that number of pages of the original matter. As a chastisement for this carelessness, the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented with a strange oval shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat, which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated. The Prophet would place the stone in a hat, then put his face in the hat and read the words that appeared thereon. This stone was confided to Oliver Cowdery and preserved by him until his death in 1850. After that event Phineas Young succeeded in getting it from Cowdery’s widow, and it is now among the sacred relics preserved at;’ Salt Lake City.” Andrew Jenson Historical Record 1882 Volume VI Page 208-212
Chocolate Colored Stone
The seer stone referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it-as described above-as well as by means of the “Interpreters” found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates. B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:257.
“Because of his spiritual nature and his willingness to learn the truth, Joseph Smith was tested and found worthy to be the translator of the Book of Mormon. To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.”
Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone. The translating was done at Peter Whitmer’s home, a friend of the Prophet’s where Oliver Cowdery, Emma Smith (Joseph’s wife), one of the Whitmers, or Martin Harris wrote down the words spoken by the Prophet as soon as they were made known to him.
Martin Harris said that on the seer stone “sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by [the one writing them down] and when finished [that person] would say ‘written;’ and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another take its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates.” A PEACEFUL HEART The Friend Sept. 1974
“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)
“Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.
“Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:532. Text has been formatted for readability. Original text is as follows: “Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”
With the sanction of David Whitmer, and by his authority, I now state that he does not say that Joseph Smith ever translated in his presence by aid of Urim and Thummim; but by means of one dark colored, opaque stone, called a “Seer Stone,” which was placed in the crown of a hat, into which Joseph put his face, so as to exclude the external light. Then, a spiritual light would shine forth, and parchment would appear before Joseph, upon which was a line of characters from the plates, and under it, the translation in English; at least, so Joseph said. The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald 26/22 (15 November 1879).
“By fervent prayer and by otherwise humbling himself, the prophet, however, again found favor, and was presented with a strange oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat, which, it was promised, should serve the same purpose as the missing urim and thummim (the latter was a pair of transparent stones set in a bow-shaped frame and very much resembled a pair of spectacles). With this stone all of the present Book of Mormon was translated.”
“Mormon Relics,” The Sunday Inter-Ocean, Vol. 15, No. 207 (Chicago, Illinois, 17 Oct. 1886). Also Saints’ Herald 33 (13 November 1886): 706, cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, “The Gift of Seeing,” 53–54.
“Joseph Smith reportedly said in 1826, while under examination in a court of law, that when he first obtained his personal seer stone he placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye.” When Joseph had a revelation he had, as it were, the eyes of the Lord. He saw as the Lord sees.”
Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2003), 167.
“While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information [Page 146]is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes.”
Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–26.
“So that once you spread out this process so that Joseph Smith is not a peculiarly weird version of treasure seeking but that it was widely practiced suddenly it was no longer a blot on his character or his family’s character. It was no more scandalous than say gambling–playing poker today. A little bit discredited and slightly morally disreputable but not really evil; and when it was found that all sorts of treasure seekers were also serious Christians, why not the Smith’s too? So instead of being a puzzle or a contradiction it was just one aspect [Page 164]of the Smith family culture and not really anything to be worried about.”
Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith Miscellany” (Mesa, Arizona: FAIR, 2005 FAIR Conference). http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2005-fair-conference/2005-a-joseph-smith-miscellany.
“He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg-shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates. He did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they faded from sight to be replaced by another line. The translation at my father’s occupied about one month, that is from June 1 to July 1, 1829.” David Whitmer, One of the Eleven Witnesses — His Statement in His Old Age — Interviewed by the Kansas City Journal. Page 25 in “THE PROPHET OF PALMYRA BY T H O M A S G R E G G”
“One of Joseph’s aids in searching out the truths of the record was a peculiar pebble or rock which he called also a seer stone, and which was sometimes used by him in lieu of the Urim and Thummim. This stone had been discovered to himself and his brother Hyrum at the bottom of a well ; and under divine guidance they had brought it forth for use in the work of translation. Martin determined to deprive the Prophet of this stone. He obtained a rock resembling a seer- stone in shape and color, and slyly substituted it for the Prophet’s real medium of translation. When next they were to begin their labor, Joseph was at first silent; and then he exclaimed: “Martin, what is the matter? All is dark.”
Harris with shame confessed what he had attempted. And when the Prophet demanded a reason for such conduct, Martin replied: “I did it to either prove the utterance or stop the mouths of fools who have said to me that you had learned these sentences which you dictate and that you were merely repeating them from memory.”
JOSEPH THE PROPHET. Pg 57 by George Q Cannon
“Soon the Prophet received a reply that through prayer and humility, Oliver and David and Martin should witness this manifestation of the power of God ; that they should view the plates of gold upon which were written the sacred records; that they should see the Urim and Thummim — the breast-plate of gold, and also the seer-stones which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face ; and that they should be permitted to behold the sword of Laban, which Nephi carried away from Jerusalem.” The Prophet Joseph Smith by George Q. Cannon Pg 70
- The Mormon Interpreter Explains Joseph Smith’s Use of Oracles
- “By the Gift and Power of God,” Richard Lloyd Anderson,Ensign, 1977.
- Joseph Smith: The Man and the Seer, 1960, Hyrum L. Andrus.
- Revelations of the Restoration,2000, McConkie and Ostler.
- “Translation of the Book of Mormon,” Stephen Ricks, Maxwell Institute, 1993.
- FairMormon, Joseph’s Use of a “Rock in the Hat.”
- Objects of Revelation & Power in the Scriptures
- The Lord Prepared Stones for the Translation of the Book of Mormon
- Descriptions of the Urim & Thummim Found With the Plates
- Joseph Smith Found and Used at Least One Seer Stone in His Youth
- Joseph Smith’s Use of the Urim & Thummim and Seer Stone in the Book of Mormon Translation
Orson Hyde JD 5: 16
I want to tell a little anecdote which came to my ears. I do not know that I shall be right; but, if I am wrong, there are those present who can correct me. It is said that there is a man in this city, a natural miner, who has a peculiar gift to discover metals of value, though hidden in the earth at any depth. He can point out the very place where they are. He happened in a gentleman’s house in this town one day, and they were discussing his powers to discern any metal in the earth. The lady, doubting his ability, took a piece of lead, and slyly stepped out and buried it, being careful to leave no visible marks by which any other than herself could find it. She returned and told him that in the garden was a piece of lead buried, and wished him to find it if he could. He made the attempt; and, after a little rambling, pointed to the very spot where it was; but the lady, thinking to bluff him off and discourage him, made perfect ridicule of him, and asked what had led him to think it was there. She pretended to regard him as insane, and the poor man came to the conclusion that he might be mistaken, as the lady appeared so sanguine in her ridicule. He gave it up as a mistake, doubting his own gift. Since the time that he was bluffed off from the faith in the natural gift that God had given him—(Pres. H. C. Kimball: And that by a woman!)—yes, and since that, it has been taken away altogether. Before this, he was never mistaken in such matters; but since, has no more powers of discovering than any other.
Hoseah Stout infers that the Prophet Joseph had a stone at the time he “discovered” the plates of the Book of Mormon.
Monday, 25 Feb. 1856: President Young exhibited the seer’s stone with which the Prophet Joseph discovered the plates of the Book of Mormon, to the Regents this evening. It is said to be a silecious granite dark color almost black with light colored stripes somewhat resembling petrified poplar or cotton wood bark. It was about the size but not the shape of a hen’s egg. (Hoseah Stout, 2:593)
- H. Roberts also gave this description of the Prophet’s seer stone:
The SEER STONE referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum, for a Mr. Clark Chase, near Palmyra, N.Y. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it–as described above–as well as by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates. (Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 129
One item mentioned by President Woodruff about the private dedicatory services at Manti is of more than passing interest. `Before leaving,’ he writes, `I consecrated upon the altar the Seer Stone that Joseph Smith found by revelation some thirty feet under the earth, and carried by him through life.’ This is the  very Seer Stone that the Prophet Joseph Smith used part of the time when translating the Book of Mormon; the one he took from the well he was digging with his brother Hyrum, near Palmyra, for Mr. Clark Chase. (C.H.C. 6:230)
The statement has been made that the Urim and Thumim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This Seer stone is now in the possession of the Church. (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225)
Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge…. In the first place, he told me of this stone, and proposed to bind it on his eyes, and run a race with me in the woods. A few days after this, I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth, and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him—I said, “Take your stone,” I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it [out] and placed it in his hat—the old white hat—and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look [to] one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin. Joseph had had this stone for some time.
In 1825 Joseph had been hired by Josiah Stowell to help him look for buried treasure. Some of Stowell’s relatives thought Joseph was duping Mr. Stowell and so pressed charges against him. The trial was held in March 1826, and Joseph was tried on misdemeanor charges for being a disorderly person. This charge was based on a New York law which, at that time, forbade people “to discover where lost goods may be found,” assuming that such activity was fraudulent (Revised Laws of New York (1813), 1:114, section I.). William Purple, a lifelong skeptic of Joseph Smith, was an intimate friend of the Justice, and was invited to take notes of the trial. William’s record of this court case contains many interesting testimonials about Joseph’s abilities to “see” with a stone which he testified he was led to “when he was a lad.”
William Purple (1803-1886)
Mr. Smith was fully examined by the Court. It elicited little but a history of his life from early boyhood, but this is so unique in character, and so much of a key-note to his subsequent career in the world, I am tempted to give it somewhat in entenso. He said when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others; that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass; that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm, situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the Now York and Pennsylvania line. He often had an opportunity to look in the glass, and with the same result. The luminous stone alone attracted his attention. This singular circumstance occupied his mind for some years, when he left his father’s house, and with his youthful zeal traveled west in search of this luminous stone.
He took a few shillings in money and some provisions with him. He stopped on the road with a farmer, and worked three days, and replenished his means of support. After traveling some one hundred and fifty miles he found himself at the mouth of the creek. He did not have the glass with him, but he knew its exact location. He borrowed an old ax and a hoe, and repaired to the tree. With some labor and exertion he found the stone, carried it to the creek, washed and wiped it dry, sat down on the bank, placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing-Eye. He arose with a thankful heart, carried his tools to their owner, turned his feet towards the rising sun, and sought with weary limbs his long deserted home.
On the request of the Court, he exhibited the stone. It was about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.
Joseph Smith, Sr., was present, and sworn as a witness. He confirmed, at great length all that his son had said in his examination. He delineated his characteristics in his youthful days—his vision of the luminous stone in the glass—his visit to Lake Erie in search of the stone—and his wonderful triumphs as a seer. He described very many instances of his finding hidden and stolen goods. He swore that both he and his son were mortified that this wonderful power which God had so miraculously given him should be used only in search of filthy lucre, or its equivalent in earthly treasures, and with a long-faced, “sanctimonious seeming,” he said his constant prayer to his Heavenly Father was to manifest His will concerning this marvelous power. He trusted that the Son of Righteousness would some day illumine the heart of the boy, and enable him to see His will concerning him. These words have ever had a strong impression on my mind….
The next witness called was Deacon Isaiah Stowell…. He swore that the prisoner possessed all the power he claimed, and declared he could see things fifty feet below the surface of the earth, as plain as the witness could see what was on the Justices’ table, and described very many circumstances to confirm his words. Justice Neeley soberly looked at the witness, and in a solemn, dignified voice said: “Deacon Stowell, do I understand you as swearing before God, under the solemn oath you have taken, that you believe the prisoner can see by the aid of the stone fifty feet below the surface of the earth; as plainly as you can see what is on my table?” “Do I believe it?” says Deacon Stowell; “do I believe it? No, it is not a matter of belief: I positively know it to be true.” (“Joseph Smith, The Originator of Mormonism,” Chenango Union, 2 May 1877, Vol. 30. No. 33; see online version)
Connection of Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones and the Zelph Arrow:
“Under Wilford Woodruff’s presidency, the stone began to be passed down to each of the following Presidents of the Church. Zina Young Card, writing to her cousin, explained that President Wilford Woodruff possessed “two seer-stones and an arrow point.” She explained that they should “ever be the property of the President of the Church” and that when one president dies that “they are not retained as they were before among ‘personal effects,’ but considered ever the legitimate property of God’s mouth-piece.” She felt strongly about the objects and declared, “I trust you will make this a matter of history,” and stated that “President Joseph F. Smith” understood the importance of the objects because she had spoken to him personally.
The Smith family apparently took possession of the brown stone at some point, because by 1933 B. H. Roberts was left confused as to why President Heber J. Grant did not currently have the brown seer stone. He claimed that Lorenzo Young (not Phineas) first obtained the seer stone from Oliver Cowdery in 1848, after which Brigham Young “retained it through out his life.” Roberts had clearly read Wilford Woodruff’s journal, because he knew that President Woodruff had consecrated a seer stone on the altar of the Manti Temple. Roberts explained that Wilford Woodruff passed the seer stone to Joseph F. Smith, whom Roberts had “interviewed” several times about it. Joseph F. Smith told Roberts that he would bring it from the family collection at some point for Roberts to examine. Joseph Smith’s seer stones / Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick.
Seer Stone Scriptures:
Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.
JS H 1:35
Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
Alma 37: 23
And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem (Apparently a name given to an unknown seer BofM study guide), a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.
LDS Church leader Dallin H. Oaks has cautioned, “We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.” Dallin H. Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign (May 1996
Ether 3:23–24, 28. Two Stones of King Mosiah
The Prophet Joseph Smith used the same Urim and Thummim that was “given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face” (D&C 17:1). President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote a brief history regarding the Urim and Thummim:
“King Mosiah possessed ‘two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow,’ called by the Nephites Interpreters, with which he translated the Jaredite record [Mosiah 28:11–14], and these were handed down from generation to generation for the purposes of interpreting languages. How Mosiah came into possession of these two stones or Urim and Thummim the record does not tell us, more than to say that it was a ‘gift from God’ [Mosiah 21:28]. Mosiah had this gift or Urim and Thummimbefore the people of Limhi discovered the record of Ether. They may have been received when the ‘large stone’ was brought to Mosiah with engravings upon it, which he interpreted by the ‘gift and power of God’ [Omni 1:20–21]. They may have been given to him, or to some other prophet before his day, just as the Brother of Jared received them—from the Lord.
“That the Urim and Thummim, or two stones, given to the Brother of Jared were those in the possession of Mosiah appears evident from Book of Mormon teachings. The Brother of Jared was commanded to seal up his writings of the vision he had when Christ appeared to him, so that they could not be read by his people. … The Urim and Thummim were also sealed up so that they could not be used for the purpose of interpreting those sacred writings of this vision, until such time as the Lord should grant to man to interpret them. When they were to be revealed, they were to be interpreted by the aid of the same Urim and Thummim [Ether 3:21–28]. …
“Joseph Smith received with the breastplate and the plates of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim, which were hid up by Moroni to come forth in the last days as a means by which the ancient record might be translated, which Urim and Thummim were given to the Brother of Jared [D&C 17:1]” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:223–25). Book of Mormon Student Manual, (2009), 361–68
SEER STONE OF JOSEPH SMITH
http://www.rickgrunder.com/HistoricalArchive/belchersmithdibble.htm Photograph by Rick Grunder, 1991 – © 1991 RICK GRUNDER — BOOKS
Handed down through private hands to the present day (1991).Apparently acquired by Joseph Smith in the 1820s before translating the Book of Mormon in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.
Greyish-ivory-colored stone of irregular oval shape, approximately 5 cm. in length by 4 cm. thick. Marked with small irregular dark grey indentations and green deposits. With a large hole extending through the stone, terminating in three small apertures created by embedded stone particles. The apertures function like primitive lenses when held close to the eye.
SOLD (1993):: $75,000::
THE FAMOUS BELCHER-SMITH-DIBBLE-PIERCE STONE, said originally to have been found at Salina, New York, taken to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and there purchased from the owner by Joseph Smith before he translated the Book of Mormon. Near the time of the martyrdom, this stone was acquired by a survivor of the Missouri mobs, Philo Dibble, who also made the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum. Dibble later exhibited the stone, death masks and other historical objects on lecture tours which he conducted in Utah Territory.
Early Mormon seer stones are of the greatest rarity and importance. The lure and lore of “magic stones” have of course fascinated people throughout history. According to Brigham Young, Joseph Smith had three seer stones during the early part of his life. Judging from numerous other accounts, these would have been the white, opaque stone, of which nothing has been heard since 1900, the present “green” stone now offered here, and the brown stone which, according to David Whitmer and other friends of the Prophet, was used to translate much of the Book of Mormon and which is kept in the First Presidency’s vault in Salt Lake City. Modern studies based on writings by faithful early members of the Church suggest that Joseph Smith took his seer stones very seriously, and sometimes used them to receive revelations. For documentation and analysis of the above, see Quinn (below, citing statements by Brigham Young and others in the Church Archives), and David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ . . . (Richmond, Missouri, 1887), p.12.
- Anonymous owner, Salina, New York (immediately north of Syracuse).
- Purchased by Jack BELCHER, of Gibson, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (ca. early 1820s).
- Purchased by Joseph SMITH, Jr., of Harmony, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (ca. 1825).
- Acquired from Joseph Smith or the Nauvoo Mansion House near the time of Joseph’s death by Philo DIBBLE.*
- David DIBBLE, son of Philo Dibble.
- James Madison PEIRCE (1850-1934; brother-in-law to Loran Dibble, son of Philo Dibble).
- Louise Workman PEIRCE (widow of James Madison Pierce).
- Norman Clifford PIERCE [surname spelling changed] (1906-76; nephew of James Madison PEIRCE); acquired the seer stone in 1936.
- The children of Norman Clifford PIERCE.
* Based on the description by James B. Buck, prominent early Susquehanna County settler, the original Belcher stone is generally viewed by historians as being the same, Dibble-Pierce Stone which is now offered here for sale. The haunting origins of this stone were recorded in Buck’s account quoted by Emily C. Blackman . . .
- The stone which he afterwards used was then in the possession of Jack Belcher, of Gibson, who obtained it while at Salina, N.Y., engaged in drawing salt. Belcher bought it because it was said to be “a seeing stone.” I have often seen it. It was a green stone, with brown, irregular spots on it. It was a little longer than a goose’s egg, and about the same thickness. When he brought it home and covered it with a hat, Belcher’s little boy was one of the first to look into the hat, and as he did so he said he saw a candle. The second time he looked in he exclaimed, “I’ve found my hatchet!” — (it had been lost two years) — and immediately ran for it to the spot shown him through the stone, and it was there. The boy was soon beset by neighbors far and near to reveal to them hidden things, and he succeeded marvellously. Even the wanderings of a lost child were traced by him — the distracted parents coming to him three times for directions, and in each case finding signs that the child had been in the places he designated, but at last it was found starved to death. Joe Smith . . . bought the stone of Belcher and then began his operations in directing where hidden treasures could be found. His first diggings were near Capt. Buck’s saw-mill, at Red Rock; but, because his followers broke the rule of silence, “the enchantment removed the deposits.”
LITERATURE ON THE BELCHER/DIBBLE STONE
- BLACKMAN, Emily C. History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania . . . Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1873, p. 577.
- BUTLER, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith; Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990, p.244, with illustration.
- KRAUT, Ogden. Seers and Seer Stones. [Salt Lake City, n.d.], pp. 57-9, with two illustrations.
- Millennial Star, Volume 11, pp., 11-12, cited by Kraut.
- PIERCE, Norman C. LETTER to Wilford C. Wood, 5 February 1937, and STATEMENT, 24 November 1934. Reel 16, Film 413, Wood Papers, LDS Church Archives, cited by Quinn.
- QUINN, D. Michael. Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987, pp. 39-41, 195- 200, and illustration Figure 9.
Gazelem Seer Stone
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2009
I have recently been studying about Joseph Smith’s usage of seer stones in place of the Urim & Thummim for the process of translating the Book of Mormon. Since some of the information I encountered was new to me, I thought a few quotes and commentary may help those who read this better understand at least a portion of how the Book of Mormon was translated.
It should be noted that the expression Urim & Thummim is never used in the Book of Mormon, but was likely adopted by the Prophet after becoming familiar with the Old Testament revelatory device through his translation of the Old Testament. Instead, the Urim & Thummim wielded by the Prophet included the Nephite interpreters comprising “two stones” fastened into the “two rims of a bow” as the “interpreters.” (See Mosiah 28:13; Ether 3:23) In other words, the Urim & Thummim known to the Prophet consisted primarily of a couple of seer stones that could be attached to a device for ease of viewing. It eventually became common for members of the Church to call the Nephite interpreters the Urim & Thummim, which isn’t exactly correct.
When he finally received the Nephite interpreters in September of 1827, Joseph was already quite familiar with seer stones and how they worked. In fact, Joseph had discovered at least 2 seer stones, the first in 1822 while digging a well with Willard Chase:
“In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me…. After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat…. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.” (Eber Dudley Howe,Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:2 (Summer 1982): 48–68) (emphasis added).
Of this seer stone, one witness reported that “[i]t was about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket” (W. D. Purple, The Chenango Union (3 May 1877); cited in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959), 2:365). This seer stone was eventually consecrated on an altar in the Manti Temple in 1888 by Wilford Woodruff.
The source of the second seer stone is uncertain, but in 1841 the Prophet showed it to the Council of the 12 in Nauvoo and told them, Brigham Young reported, “that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.” The second seer stone was described as in “the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither on the end or in the sides” (Richard Marcellas Robinson, “The History of a Nephite Coin,” manuscript, 20 December 1834, LDS Church archives; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Master’s Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 264).
During the translation process of the 116 pages, the Prophet used not only the Nephite interpreters but also regularly employed at least one of his seer stones placed in the bottom of a hat. Contrary to frequent Church criticism, our Church leaders have hardly tried to conceal this fact as evidenced by the following recent quote:
“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (Elder Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, p.61) (emphasis added)
Interestingly enough, using a seer stone in this seemingly odd manner was nothing out of the ordinary for Joseph Smith and practically everyone else at this time. (See “Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?,” Brant A. Gardner) In fact, what seems quite strange to us today was a widely accepted practice, even among the highly religious during the early 19th century. Joseph apparently had a gift to use his seer stones to see things others could not, including discerning property and the location of hidden treasure. Hence, Mr. Josiah Stowell’s interest in Joseph Smith to help him search for hidden Spanish treasure (see JSH 1:56).
Since Joseph openly employed the seer stone in the hat for translation, at one point during the translation of the 116 pages, Martin Harris apparently tested the Prophet’s abilities. After translating for a time each day, the two would often take a break and walk to a nearby river and throw rocks into the river to unwind:
“Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, ‘Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.’ Martin then confessed that he wished to ‘stop the mouths of fools’ who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.” (Told in Millennial Star44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, January 1988, p.6)
In an apparent reference to at least one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, the Book of Mormon makes reference to “a stone” as distinct from the Nephite interpreters:
23 And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.
24 And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:
25 I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land. (Alma 37:23-25)
Gazelem is a name given to a servant of God, generally thought to be Joseph Smith. The word appears to have its roots in gaz – a stone, and aleim, a name of God as a revelator, or the interposer in the affairs of men. If this suggestion is correct, its roots admirably agree with its apparent meaning – a seer.
Notice that Alma speaks of a singular “stone” as separate and distinct from the plural Nephite “interpreters,” both of which are to be used for basically the same purpose. The stone, however, was to “shine forth in darkness unto light,” possibly referring to its usage in a hat as was Joseph Smith’s revelatory practice.
While it is not certain how much of the Book of Mormon was eventually translated using the seer stones, it is evident that their usage was typical.
From Darkness Unto Light
“The image of Joseph with his face in the hat as he translates is not so well known and is much less decorous, which may shock some readers. But it is essential that the Church at large become aware of what historians have discovered in the sources.” Foreword, From Darkness Unto Light Michael Hubbard McKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat
“The actual process by which the Book of Mormon was translated, according to the witnesses of the event and the earliest sources, is generally unknown to members of the Church. Because Joseph Smith only explained that “through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God,” little emphasis has been placed upon the actual process of translation.6 Although the well-known “History of Joseph Smith” recounts Joseph Smith’s explanation of the device found with the plates as being composed of two stones, most artists’ renderings depicting these events generally excluded images of the stones entirely, and no attempts were made to show the stones being used in the way witnesses described. These artists’ paintings powerfully conveyed an image to modern Latter-day Saints of Joseph Smith sitting at a table with the plates in front of him, his finger running over the top of the characters, with Oliver Cowdery dutifully seated across from him taking the dictation down. Thus generations of Mormons have come to imagine the translation process in much the same way reflected in these portrayals, a process by which the miracle of translation occurred by Joseph Smith looking at the plates and speaking a translation to Cowdery without the use of any external tools or the seer stones themselves, despite the testimonies of witnesses that the process occurred very differently. Those witnesses make the use of the stones the central aspect of the translation. They give an account of Joseph Smith placing various seer stones into a hat in order to block out the external light. Then God caused words to appear on the shining stones that translated the reformed Egyptian text into English.
Those who are antagonistic toward the Church and Joseph Smith have used this discrepancy between witnesses of the translation and average members of the Church as a cudgel to beat upon the faith of believers. The very use of these witness statements by antagonistic or disrespectful authors or television programs to create a deprecating image of Joseph Smith has further alienated members from a proper understanding of the translation process. These detractors highlight the apparent ridiculousness of a scene that involves Joseph translating with his head buried in a “magic” hat, knowing that such imagery would offend the sensibilities of twenty-first-century Mormons.
Although the witnesses’ explanations of the translation process differ from what is generally understood by Church members, the testimonies of these witnesses affirm that the use of the seer stones—placed as they were in a hat to block out the light so the words of God could be read—was the greatest evidence to them of the miraculous nature of the translation. Detractors make light of the translation process. However, they do so without informing their readers that their very sources for such apparently disdainful evidence stated that because of the use of a seer stone in the translation process, they had a greater testimony of the seership of Joseph Smith.” From Darkness Unto Light Michael Hubbard McKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat
JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES
INTRODUCTION, MORMON PARADIGM SHIFTS, MICHAEL HUBBARD MACKAY SEER STONES IN THE LITERATURE
Below is an abbreviated version of the book titled Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones
It’s amazing that information can be so close yet so far away. But one could argue that these books, popular as they were, were not readily accessible to the worldwide Church. Let me just drive this point home with several examples more available to Latter-day Saints. In September 1974, the Friend magazine stated, “Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone.” Just three years later, Professor Richard Lloyd Anderson described the translation process and mentioned seer stones nearly ten times in the September 1977 Ensign. By June 1993, Elder Russell M. Nelson addressed the translation process in his article “A Treasured Testament” in the July issue of the Ensign. And in 1994, the Church’s Ensign mentioned the seer stones again in “Highlights in the Prophet’s Life.” In January 1997, Elder Neal A. Maxwell delivered a message similar to Professor Anderson’s, including the testimonies of both Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Within the last five years, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has published numerous full accounts of the translation process and the history of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, including the introduction to Documents, Volume One; the introduction to Revelations and Translations, Volume 3; and the Gospel Topics essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Many Latter-day Saint scholars have mentioned the translation of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s seer stones. From Religious Education at Brigham Young University, Susan Easton Black, Joseph Fielding McConkie, Craig Ostler, Larry Porter, Richard Anderson, Alex Baugh, Andrew Hedges, and Gerrit Dirkmaat have all mentioned seer stones, some of whom have researched and written about them prolifically. Other Latter-day Saint scholars have also written about seer stones in their own research about the Book of Mormon. These include Richard Lyman Bushman, Terryl L. Givens, Leonard Arrington, Reid L. Neilson, Richard E. Turley Jr., Brant Gardner, Steven C. Harper, and especially John W. Welch and Royal Skousen.
This amount of documentation seems daunting and perhaps even befuddling. With so many Latter-day Saint scholars acknowledging and studying Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, it is clear that the Church has not been hiding this information. And yet, as with many historically specific topics, without direct references provided in Church teaching materials and curriculum, the average Latter-day Saint would not necessarily encounter the seer stones in the course of his or her devotional study. This point is especially true in the context of a global Church—while many of these resources are available in English, the miraculous (and rapid!) growth of the Church across the world and the resulting urgent need for translation of even the most basic materials such as scriptures, manuals, and magazines makes it understandable how many members could have missed out on previous discussions of the seer stones. That is why the latest appearance of the topic in the October 2015 Ensign (and Liahona) was so important: it underscores how, even while keeping a sacred relic private, the Church continues to be open about the miraculous process of the translation of the Book of Mormon.
… With the variety of literature available on the topic of seer stones, one might wonder if we have chosen to forget or refused to understand. Ironically, the early Saints saw the seer stones differently than we do today. The witnesses of the translation process described Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones as a method of assuring that the Book of Mormon came from God. Emma declared that Joseph Smith did not have a prepared manuscript or book in front of him as he dictated the words of the Book of Mormon to his scribes, and to her this was again evidence of the divine power aiding Joseph in the translation process. Oliver Cowdery reflected back upon his experience as Joseph’s scribe with fond memories, as the “days never to be forgotten.”4 As Joseph Smith read the words delivered to him by God on the seer stones, he did not have time to reference other works or add his own insights into the narrative. The use of seer stones in this context provided the perfect way to prove that Joseph Smith did not invent the content of the Book of Mormon. Yet in the context of our modern age, replete with screens of all sizes displaying words, our expectations of transparency of process, and the value we place on scientifically replicable data for establishing truth claims, this miracle now reads differently in the minds of some Mormons.
THE SEER STONE
“Acorn of the Mormon Oak”
Tucker declared that Joseph’s seer stone was the “acorn of the Mormon oak.” He wrote, “The origin of that extraordinary politico-religious institution [Mormonism] is traceable to the insignificant little stone.”3
Critical to Joseph’s transformative revelatory impulse was his use of seer stones. As Tucker suggested, Joseph Smith planted his seer stone like a seed, which grew to become the immovable oak of Mormonism. His seer stone allowed him to initially reap new scripture and eventually harvest a deep theological tradition. Though the seer stone may have been dismissed once it formed into the oak, Joseph consciously crafted Mormon theology with seer stones in mind.
Finally, it will explore how Joseph Smith took his experiences with seer stones and created a doctrine of seer stones that became closely linked with his unique doctrines of exaltation.
MONEY DIGGING AND THE SECOND GREAT AWAKENING
Joseph Smith’s retrieval of the Nephite interpreters and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon did not occur within a vacuum. The interpreters, which were two seer stones bound together like spectacles, were not Joseph Smith’s first seer stones nor was Moroni’s visit the first time he envisioned himself finding ancient artifacts buried near his home.
Early believers did not necessarily struggle with the fusion of Joseph the treasure seeker and Joseph the translator, even if future Church members would.23 In an environment where religious seekers were asking for miracles, drawing lines between one supernatural event and another was often unnecessary.
Despite Joseph’s own later reticence to ascribe supernatural forces to his treasure seeking, he did maintain a connection with the sacred nature of the land. The very land where Joseph found his seer stones held divine providence in the minds of Americans, and Joseph’s claim that the stones came from Native Americans harmonized with a greater public perception of an underlying sacred Native American mythos surrounding the lands in which they now lived.
Joseph bound together the ideas of sacred land, ancient Native American artifacts, and digging for money with seer stones. He believed that he plucked his seer stones from a blessed landscape where they had been buried by ancient inhabitants and under the direction of God. The idea of America as a sacred place was not foreign to Americans, who believed “manifest destiny” was exhibited through the ancient inhabitants, who were considered by many to be Israelites. To Joseph, these ideas were inseparable.
Even as the idea of peoples from ancient Israel currently living in America was challenged, ancient artifacts were being regularly uncovered, and scholars at the American Philosophical Society eagerly compared Native American writing to European, Egyptian, and even Hebrew.37
Like other Americans, Joseph integrated Native Americans into a larger discussion of America’s biblical roots, an act that demonstrates how both treasure seeking and divine religious discovery could be linked in his mind. In particular, Native Americans were seen as the source for much of the treasure believed to be buried in nearby hills. Prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, William Stafford and Roswell Nichols claimed that the Smiths believed the hills around Manchester were “thrown up by human hands.” Joseph Smith Sr. apparently told Roswell Nichols, who lived next to them and later became the tenant of their farm, that “the ancients, half of them melted the ore and made the gold and silver, while the other half buried it deeper in the earth, which account for these hills.”38William Stafford also declared that Joseph Smith Sr. told him similar tales of gold and silver buried in the mounds in and around Manchester. The Smiths apparently knew that these mounds of treasure derived from the ancient inhabitants because Joseph Smith Jr. had discovered the ancient spirits, “whose charge these treasures were,” and recognized that they were “clothed in ancient dress.”39 These reminiscences demonstrate how local residents understood Joseph Smith’s seer stones through the lens of tales regarding the Native Americans, and thus accepted the Smiths’ belief that these transplanted Israelites left treasure and artifacts buried in the ground around Palmyra.40
This connection between Native Americans and Joseph Smith’s religious endeavors extended to his brown and white seer stones. William Stafford claimed that someone might find a stone in brass kettles or certain kinds of pots buried in the mounds, insisting that seer stones were being recovered that had a Native American origin.41 These artifacts were very clearly man-made items, and if a seer stone was found within a kettle, then it must have had some value or purpose as evidenced by the belief that the hands of those who made the kettle must have placed the stone inside. Brigham Young likely had these Native American kettles in mind when he stated that “[Joseph] got [the seer stone] in an Iron kettle 15 feet under ground.”42Apparently, the idea of Joseph Smith’s seer stones being anciently deposited by Native Americans became a natural assumption for some and suggested a similar origin for the Nephite interpreters. According to Joseph’s narrative, the Nephite interpreters originated with the ancient American inhabitants, as the ancient prophet Moroni supposedly placed them in the ground for Joseph to find. At least one of the other two seer stones also shows signs of being prepared anciently.
Before the Book of Mormon provided the narrative, Joseph Smith’s brown and white stones were artifacts of an ancient past and an expression of his religious devotion in the nineteenth century.43
Before the Book of Mormon provided the narrative, Joseph Smith’s brown and white stones were artifacts of an ancient past and an expression of his religious devotion in the nineteenth century.43
Joseph did not leave the seer stones and the supernatural behind but rather molded these tools to fit his Christian religion
WHERE DID JOSEPH SMITH FIND HIS SEER STONES?
THROUGH ANOTHER SEER’S STONE, NEAR THE BANKS OF LAKE ERIE
|He saw his seer stone while looking into another seer’s seer stone.||Near the banks of Lake Erie, south of Buffalo, New York.|
|D. Michael Quinn||
There are two primary stories that are generally told about Joseph Smith’s seer stones. One story explains that Joseph found one of his stones buried near the shores of Lake Erie, while the other tells about how Smith found one of his stones when digging a well near his house. The two stories remain the established narratives.
Brigham Young declared in 1859 that Joseph Smith found his first stone by gazing into someone else’s seer stone. Wilford Woodruff recorded him saying that “the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained …he got it while looking in another seer[’]s stone which a person had.”4
The idea of finding a stone by looking into another person’s seer stone was also described by non-Mormons. In 1870, Historical Magazine printed an interview of Joseph Smith Sr. by Fayette Lapham (who owned land near the Smiths) that gave insights into how Joseph Smith Jr. originally found his first stone.6
Lapham lived in the surrounding area of Palmyra and claimed to know the Smiths in the 1820s. He stated that when Joseph Jr. was around fourteen years old (1819), he “happened to be where a man was looking into a dark stone and telling people, therefrom, where to dig for money and other things.” Lapham implies that Joseph saw his own stone in the man’s seer stone, apparently enabling him to “see whatever he wished to see.”7
Though “glass looking” was relatively common, New York lawmakers could categorize such activities under an 1813 law that allowed courts to prosecute “disorderly persons,” which included “pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry, or like crafty science, or pretending to tell fortunes, or where lost or stolen goods may be found.”10
|fayette lapham account (1870)||william d. purple account (1877)|
|“His son Joseph, whom he called the illiterate, when about fourteen years of age, happened to be where a man was looking into a dark stone and telling people, therefrom, where to dig for money and other things. Joseph requested the privilege of looking into the stone, which he did by putting his face into the hat where the stone was. It proved to be not the right stone for him; but he could see some things, and, among them, he saw the stone, and where it was, in which he could see whatever he wished to see. Smith claims and believes that there is a stone of this quality, somewhere, for every one. The place where he saw the stone was not far from their house; and, under pretence of digging a well, they found water and the stone at a depth of twenty or twenty-two feet.”||“He said when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others; that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass; that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzeled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm, situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the New York and Pennsylvania line.”|
|purple 1826 trial||partridge journal,
27 december 1835
|“he heard of a neighboring girl”||“a young girl”|
|“who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others”||“This girl sees by the help of a stone.”|
|“He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off.”||“She told me she saw a seer’s stone for me.”|
|“situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the New York and Pennsylvania line.”||“not far from the lake shore, a little west of Buffalo on a hill”|
|“He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm”||“a tree growing near the spot”|
|“He borrowed an old ax and a hoe, and repaired to the tree With some labor and exertion he found the stone”||“it was 6 or 8 feet in the ground”|
CHASE FARM: FOUND WHILE DIGGING A WELL OR FOR TREASURE
|Found while digging a well or while digging for buried treasure with Willard Chase, his next door neighbor.||Found in a deep hole on the Clark Chase property, just a half mile from the Smith’s house.|
|D. Michael Quinn||Brown
Even more common than the accounts of Joseph finding his seer stone through the use of another seer’s stone are the accounts of Joseph Smith retrieving his seer stone while digging for buried treasure or while digging a well. Most accounts from local residents seem to assume that Joseph Smith had only one seer stone and so there was only one origin story for his seer stone. Attempting to tease apart the origin stories and identify each stone with a particular retrieval narrative, Mark Ashurst-McGee has assumed that details from overlapping stories are in fact separate stories. This move enables him to argue that Joseph Smith began with a divining rod and then progressively advanced from one seer stone to the next in a hierarchical teleological movement. According to Ashurst-McGee, the final stone, a white stone, was found on the property of Joseph’s neighbor, buried over a dozen feet in the ground.14 Other researchers argue that the white stone was found near Lake Erie, identified while peering into another seer’s stone, as described above.15
The Prophet Joseph Smith had a Peepstone (called in the Book of Doc. & Covenants Gaslum) that he got by digging in a Ladies Garden 25 feet down in the Ground. The Lord Reviled to Joseph that such a stone was 25 feet down in the Ground but he (J. Smith) did not know how to get it; but he went to the Lady there owned the Garden and asked her if she did not wish to have a Well dug in her Garden, she said yes, …the Prophet found the Peepstone 25 feet down.23
Even though there is no clear answer to where Joseph Smith retrieved his seer stones, there is a spotty record offering some possible answers, answers that suggest they were found in the New York landscape. Traditions point to two likely places that Joseph Smith recovered seer stones: near his home in Manchester and near Lake Erie on the far west side of New York. Multiple local narratives emerged, some charging Joseph Smith with magic and others seeing the stones’ recovery as religious in nature. Though the narratives cannot be completely teased apart, there was room for early believers to see Joseph’s recovery of the stones as religious in nature. This was primarily because they believed that the seer stones (the brown stone, the white stone, and the Nephite interpreters) were placed there by God or by ancient Native Americans directed by God. If they had simply been a random geological formation, they no longer deserved to be called a sacred relic or religious item.
CONJURING STORIES IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Not surprisingly, the origin of Joseph Smith’s seer stones has been a topic that intrigues those antagonistic to the Church.
One story intimated that Joseph Smith purchased his seer stone from a stranger in Pennsylvania. A local historian, Emily Blackman, from Pennsylvania, interviewed Joseph Smith’s early neighbors and acquaintances. She included her research in History of Susquehanna County (1873), which also cast Joseph Smith in a negative light. She interviewed J. B. Buck, who told Blackman that Smith had purchased a “green stone, with brown, irregular spots on it” from a local man named Jack Belcher.
SEER STONES AND THE TRANSLATION OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
Seer stones are a part of Joseph Smith’s restoration of the gospel that cannot be ignored.1 He never claimed that he could translate the characters he found inscribed on the gold plates through his own intellect, instead ascribing the translation to “the gift and power of God” and his use of seer stones.2 Due to these miraculous claims, the translation was described by detractors as a hoax and by believers as a “marvelous work and a wonder.”3 Evidence suggests that, like the finger of God that inscribed the Ten Commandments on Moses’ tablets, or the glowing writing that appeared on the wall to Daniel, the seer stones revealed English words to Joseph Smith.4 The accounts from both those who saw the translation and those who heard about the process overwhelmingly agree that Smith translated the Book of Mormon in this remarkable manner.
THEORIES OF TRANSLATION
Scholars who have studied the translation process of the Book of Mormon have traditionally centered their arguments around one question: How much volition did Joseph Smith possess in the translation of the Book of Mormon? In other words, did Joseph Smith have a freedom or liberty in shaping the English text, or did he produce a text from which he and his environment were largely absent? Book of Mormon scholar and linguistics expert Royal Skousen has extensively studied the earliest manuscripts of the Book of Mormon and the statements made by those who witnessed the translation and argues for what he terms “tight control” over the translation. Skousen suggests that “Joseph Smith could actually see (whether in the interpreters themselves or in his mind’s eye) the translated English text—word for word and letter for letter—and that he read off this revealed text to his scribes.”5The implication of this theory is that Joseph Smith was not only not the author of the Book of Mormon,” but also “not even (the author) of its English language translation.”6 Essentially, Skousen sees Joseph functioning more as a “transmitter” than a “translator,” with Joseph audibly reading the English words to Oliver Cowdery, who then wrote down what Joseph had said. Skousen believes that this theory of translation best represents the statements made by the witnesses of the translation described hereafter.7
In his 1842 letter to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth, Joseph described his retrieval of the Nephite interpreters and the translation of the gold plates: “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.”24
The seer stones bound together as Nephite interpreters were, according to his scribes, eventually replaced by another instrument: a single seer stone. In sifting through the accounts of the translation, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which instrument is being referenced due to both the spectacles and the single seer stone being referred to as the Urim and Thummim.25 According to Jonathan Hadley in August 1829, Joseph originally called the device found with the plates “spectacles” (the Nephite interpreters), a term he also used in his 1832 history.26 Though the term Urim and Thummim may have become part of their jargon or lexis as early as 1830 when Joseph began translating the Bible, it was likely not until later that consistent usage of the term began. It appears that the term was in use by January 1833, as the Evening and the Morning Star printer wrote, “[The Book of Mormon] was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).”27Both the interpreters and the single stone apparently functioned in the same way and both were used to translate the Book of Mormon.28
Emma Smith offers a unique perspective about the two instruments because she was a scribe for the translation in both the early phase of the translation (1828) and the later phase (1829). She stated, “Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim [i.e., the spectacles or interpreters], and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”29Here, Emma clearly demarcated between the interpreters Joseph found with the gold plates and his other seer stones, but also explained that the interpreters were used to translate the lost Book of Lehi (the portion of the Book of Mormon lost by Martin Harris), after which he began using the other seer stone. Others, including Martin Harris, also reported Joseph translating a portion of the plates with a stone.30
TRACKING DOWN JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES TODAY
THE BROWN STONE
Out of all of Joseph’s seer stones, the whereabouts of the brown stone are documented the best throughout its history. It now rests with the First Presidency in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City and was recently photographed and published by the Church History Department and the Joseph Smith Papers Project.3 Though there is some confidence about what we know of the brown stone, the recent photograph demonstrates that though it is brown, it would be more accurately described as a striped brown stone. Only a few accounts of the brown stone accurately describe what was depicted in the photograph.4 Making things even more difficult is the fact that when Joseph Smith’s seer stones are described in early records, the brown stone is not distinguished from the white stone. Either those who left records of the stone did not know that there were two stones or they neglected to distinguish between them.
Unfortunately, not all of the accounts of Joseph’s seer stones are consistent in how they describe them physically, especially when it comes to the brown stone. The accounts of the 1826 trial of Joseph Smith include reminiscences of the earliest accounts, which may or may not be accurate, of the physical description of Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone. William D. Purple, who was apparently there to witness Joseph Smith’s testimony, remembered, “On the request of the Court, he [Joseph Smith] exhibited the stone.” Purple recalled Smith displaying the stone for all to see. He wrote, “It was about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shape. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.”5 It is difficult to know exactly what he meant, but he seems to be indicating that it was stepped, or that it had a large indent, like a step. The size of the stone distinguished it from Sally Chase’s green seer stone, which was apparently much smaller than an egg, but its shape made it similar to the white stone described below. According to Purple’s account of Joseph Smith’s testimony, it was “a small stone.”
The brown seer stone was likely retrieved by Joseph Smith in 1822 and kept in his possession until 1830 (see appendix 3). David Whitmer claimed that “after the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished …Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery.”11 Whitmer, who was a founding member and witness of the gold plates, left the Church and initially formed a new church in 1838 that dwindled but then resurged again after Joseph Smith’s death and near the end of Whitmer’s life in the 1880s. In 1887, he wrote a short book that claimed Joseph Smith had gone astray from his original calling even before the church was established in 1830. Though Whitmer also became a leader within the Church and remained a prominent leader until he left the Church in 1838, he claimed in his book that Joseph Smith showed signs of his own apostasy once he gave his stone to Oliver Cowdery. There are no other known records of Joseph Smith using the brown stone after the Book of Mormon was translated in late June 1829, which may indicate that though Whitmer was using the early history for his own theological and ecclesiastical purposes in 1887, he was possibly right about Smith’s gift to Cowdery. Whitmer wrote, “After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more.” Whitmer went on to explain that he and others were told “that [they] would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord. …Revelations after this came through Joseph as ‘mouth piece.’”12 E. D. Howe had apparently been similarly informed and explained that by the summer of 1830 Joseph Smith had “abandoned his spectacles or ‘peep-stone,’ and merely delivered [revelation] with his eyes shut.”13
Oliver Cowdery apparently kept the seer stone in his possession until he died at his home in Richmond, Missouri, on 3 March 1850. Phineas Young visited the Cowderys to mourn their loss, and then he left Missouri with the brown seer stone in his possession, given to him by Oliver’s wife, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery. It is unknown how long Phineas kept the stone in his possession, but it was eventually given to his brother, Brigham Young. Though it is unknown whether Heber C. Kimball was identifying the brown stone or the white stone, by 1853 he publically announced that Brigham Young had Joseph Smith’s “Urim and Thummim.”14 Brigham kept the brown stone in his possession until the end of his life in 1877.15
The Saints in Utah apparently believed that Joseph Smith’s seer stones represented authority too. Heber C. Kimball gave a speech in 1853 in which he assured the Saints that Brigham Young had the Urim and Thummim, which were associated with the authority of the priesthood and the power of God. Addressing a question that had apparently been looming in the minds of many of the Saints, “Has brother Brigham got the Urim and Thummim?” President Kimball declared, “Yes he has got everything.”18 Knowing that Brigham Young took three years to finally become officially appointed as the President of the Church, members who valued the concept of Joseph Smith’s seership and its connection to his seer stones were likely delighted to hear that President Young held in his possession Joseph Smith’s seer stone. Rumors about the seer stone reached the First Presidency, and Heber C. Kimball reassured the Saints that their President did in fact have the seer stone. This may have been the brown seer stone, but as the coloring is not explicitly mentioned, it also may have been a reference to the white seer stone.
In 1853, Brigham Young acknowledged that he had Joseph Smith’s first seer stone and that he had received it from Oliver Cowdery. He also admitted that Joseph Smith had three seer stones and assumed that Emma Smith currently had the others in her possession (see appendices 1 and 2).19 In 1855, President Young also told a group that Oliver Cowdery had sent him Joseph Smith’s first seer stone, which he had kept since Joseph Smith had given it to him.20 Brigham Young presumably kept the seer stone in his possession until his death in 1877, at which time it was found in his possession at an estate sale.
President Taylor apparently showed the stone to others from time to time. For example, in 1887, just before Taylor died, he showed the seer stone to Samuel Bateman, his bodyguard. Bateman, apparently excited about his experience, wrote in his journal that he “saw and handled the seer stone that the Prophet Joseph Smith had.” Describing the stone, he wrote that “it was a dark color, not round on one side.” Searching for an object to compare the stone to, he explained: “It was shaped like the top of a baby’s shoe, one end like the toe of the shoe, and the other round.”23
Under Wilford Woodruff’s presidency, the stone began to be passed down to each of the following Presidents of the Church. Zina Young Card, writing to her cousin, explained that President Wilford Woodruff possessed “two seer-stones and an arrow point.” She explained that they should “ever be the property of the President of the Church” and that when one president dies that “they are not retained as they were before among ‘personal effects,’ but considered ever the legitimate property of God’s mouth-piece.” She felt strongly about the objects and declared, “I trust you will make this a matter of history,” and stated that “President Joseph F. Smith” understood the importance of the objects because she had spoken to him personally.
The Smith family apparently took possession of the brown stone at some point, because by 1933 B. H. Roberts was left confused as to why President Heber J. Grant did not currently have the brown seer stone. He claimed that Lorenzo Young (not Phineas) first obtained the seer stone from Oliver Cowdery in 1848, after which Brigham Young “retained it through out his life.” Roberts had clearly read Wilford Woodruff’s journal, because he knew that President Woodruff had consecrated a seer stone on the altar of the Manti Temple. Roberts explained that Wilford Woodruff passed the seer stone to Joseph F. Smith, whom Roberts had “interviewed” several times about it. Joseph F. Smith told Roberts that he would bring it from the family collection at some point for Roberts to examine.
One of the Smiths eventually brought the seer stone to B. H. Roberts’s office, where they showed it to him and President Ivins. Roberts explained, “While handling it—it is a small stone of chocolate color with milkish white strata running though it and apparently specks of gold here and there.” With fewer details, Roberts included descriptions of Joseph Smith’s seer stone in A Comprehensive History of the Church.24
The Smith family apparently retained the seer stone for decades. Joseph Fielding Smith was the Church Historian from 1921 until 1970, during which time he controlled much of the family’s papers and apparently the brown seer stone. In the mid-1950s, Elder Bruce R. McConkie compiled Joseph Fielding Smith’s three-volume Doctrines of Salvation. Smith wrote, “The Prophet also had a seer stone which was separate and distinct from the the Urim and Thummim, and which (speaking loosely) has been called by some a Urim and Thummim.”25 By 1966, Elder Bruce R. McConkie also reproduced the same statement in the widely distributed Mormon Doctrine.26 In 1970, following the death of David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith became the President of the Church and drew from his family collection to build the First Presidency’s collection. The collection now included the brown seer stone. It is now prominently depicted in the Church History Museum, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
THE WHITE STONE
Sources suggest that Joseph Smith possessed a white seer stone in the 1820s. The earliest possible account comes from the late records of the 1826 trial In 1873, Charles Marshall took notes from a record of the trial and published them with a testimony from two men who claimed Joseph Smith had two stones: one white, one brown. The first man, Arad Stowell, was interested in finding out if Smith deceived people with his gift of seeing, so he went to Smith to watch him use “another stone which was white.” The second man, “McMaster,” was reported to have testified that “Prisoner [Smith] pretended to him that he could discover objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a hat at his dark coloured stone, as he said that it hurt his eyes.”27
Other accounts from individuals who knew Joseph Smith before 1830 emphasized the white stone. Palmyra resident Pomeroy Tucker, who worked on the publication of the Book of Mormon, remembered that Joseph Smith’s seer stone had a “whitish, glassy appearance, though opaque, resembling quartz” in his 1867 book.28 Other late sources claiming to have interviewed early Palmyrans reflected Tucker’s description of the stone, making it difficult to know if they were original observations or mimicking his more informed, publically declared opinion. Nevertheless, they stated that Joseph Smith used a white stone.29 These sources represent a clear indication that people who remembered Smith’s early ministry believed that he possessed a white seer stone and that some even believed he translated the Book of Mormon with his white stone. Unlike his brown stone, Joseph Smith did not give his white stone away. In fact, the Nauvoo Apostles remember him showing them his seer stone, and they imply that he may have been using it in some way. Joseph showed Woodruff his white stone in 1841, years before Woodruff ever saw the brown stone (which was presumably in Cowdery’s possession until 1850). During that time, Joseph had been working on the Book of Abraham and preparing the Nauvoo Temple endowment. On 27 December 1841, Wilford Woodruff wrote that Joseph showed him his seer stone at a meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.30 From the fall of 1841 to the summer of 1842, Wilford Woodruff called Joseph Smith “Joseph the seer” in his journal numerous times.
Joseph also showed the white stone to the Twelve Apostles when they met together, followed by a speech that described the white stone as his own personal stone. Brigham Young recorded, “I met with the Twelve at brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters.” Young also declared that Joseph “showed us his stone.”31 Joseph then explained “that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it.”32 Young would later give a similar speech to the Twelve Apostles in 1855, once he was the President of the Church in Salt Lake City.33
Though the provenance of the white stone is less clear than that of the brown stone, Joseph Smith apparently said nothing of the brown stone to the Apostles in Nauvoo. The fact that Joseph showed them his white stone and then promoted the idea that everyone was entitled to a single stone implies that Joseph’s personal stone was the one he possessed at the meeting. Due to this statement, it is worth asking whether Joseph Smith valued his white stone above the brown stone. It is clear that Joseph had his white stone in the 1820s, along with the brown stone, but he was not willing to give his white stone away; by the time he reached Nauvoo he was no longer concerned with the brown stone. One interpretation of these events is that the brown stone was apparently of less personal value to Joseph Smith. This interpretation is supported by the strong possibility that his successors also valued the white stone more.
However, there is evidence that the white stone was valued over the brown stone. In 1887, Wilford Woodruff succeeded John Taylor and was given possession of the seer stones (apparently the brown and the white). Soon after he became the new President of the Church, Woodruff carried one of the seer stones with him to Manti, Utah, where he consecrated it on the altar of the temple. That evening he revealed in his journal that before leaving the temple, he “Consecrated upon the Altar the seers Stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 feet under the Earth Carried by him through life.”35 In other words, he consecrated the white stone on the altar, not the brown stone. The brown stone was presumably given to Cowdery, then to Phineas Young, and so on, as detailed above. The stone that Woodruff identified was “carried by [Joseph Smith] through life.” Woodruff had to make a conscious choice about which stone he took with him, and it is clear that he consecrated the white seer stone on the altar of the Manti Temple.
Given that many local Palmyra residents remember Joseph with a white stone, and taking into consideration the fact that he gave his brown seer stone away to Oliver, is it also possible that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with the white stone? There are almost no contemporary accounts of the Book of Mormon translation that describe the color of Joseph Smith’s seer stones. The earliest accounts, though they may be few, do not mention Joseph Smith using a brown stone to translate. The earliest source, from the Wayne County Inquirer,reported soon after 6 April 1830 that Joseph Smith used a “white stone” to translate the Book of Mormon.36 The Pennsylvania newspaper printed the account during a time when Joseph was actively evangelizing from Palmyra to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Though it is unknown how the newspaper may have known the color of Joseph Smith’s seer stone, much later accounts made similar claims. By that time, Joseph would have given his brown stone to Cowdery.
On 4 November 1830, a few months later, Joseph Smith purportedly used a seer stone to give the newly baptized future Apostle Orson Pratt a revelation (see D&C 34). Though he may have given Oliver Cowdery his brown stone, he appeared to have possessed another stone that he was actually using. James Van Cleave heard Pratt explain the reception of the revelation. He wrote, “On arriving there Joseph produced a small stone called a seer stone, and putting it into a Hat soon commenced speaking and asked Elder Pratt to write as he would speak.”37 The leap from the newspaper source to Pratt’s account would indicate that Joseph Smith had a white stone that he kept in his possession after he gave his brown stone to Cowdery that may have been the stone he used to translate.
Most of those who emphasize that Joseph translated with a brown stone did not follow Brigham Young to Utah after Joseph Smith’s death. Emma suggested that Joseph Smith used a dark stone to translate after he stopped using the interpreters.38 Her letter is important to the translation of the Book of Mormon due to Emma’s status as a direct witness of the translation. She informed Emma Pilgrim that after Joseph used the “Urim and Thummim” for the lost book of Lehi, “he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but rather a dark color.” Martin Harris also witnessed the switch between the two devices, but he never mentioned the color.39 Emma did not participate as a scribe during the translation of the extant Book of Mormon: in fact, she only wrote for Joseph during the translation of the Book of Lehi and for a brief time in the fall of 1828. Therefore, she may not have felt the need to address the specific coloration of the seer stone that Joseph Smith used while translating with Oliver Cowdery. Additionally, she was at odds with the Church in Utah when she gave her accounts, which could have affected her perception. She knew that Joseph gave Oliver Cowdery his brown stone and presumably that the Church under Brigham Young possessed Joseph’s white stone. In opposition to the Church, she had a political motive to emphasize Joseph Smith’s use of the brown stone because it would lend credence to Mormons who had not followed Brigham Young to Utah. Emma was not alone: David Whitmer also emphasized the importance of the brown stone.40
Lorenzo Snow later took possession of the stone. And it was during Snow’s presidency that someone finally left a full description of the seer stone he possessed. Richard M. Robinson remembered that Snow showed him the seer stone sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. Snow apparently told Robinson that “the Seer Stone” was the stone the “Prophet Joseph used.” Three decades after seeing the stone, Robinson wrote that the “Seer stone was the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running round it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither in the end or in the sides.”42 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
Even though there is only a broken history of who possessed Joseph Smith’s seer stones and which stones were used for what purposes, there was a deliberate attempt to preserve and value them for nearly two hundred years. The prophets who knew Joseph Smith seemed to believe that they should be passed from one prophet to the next. The Smith family, primarily Joseph Fielding Smith, presumably kept them before they were returned to the First Presidency of the Church in 1971. Some of the holes in the provenance may slowly be filled in as seer stones become a more common topic and individuals who saw them or knew about them feel comfortable sharing their stories. Further understanding regarding the use and value of the brown and white stones may also be revealed in the future, but there is evidence that the Book of Mormon translation (done with Oliver Cowdery, covering 1 Nephi to Moroni) could have been done with the white stone rather than the brown stone. Nonetheless, the Church has never taken a stance on this issue. Instead, it has demonstrated respect and interest in keeping the brown stone private and free from the hands of the public.
Though the Church has yet to reveal what is known about the white stone, recent publications in which the Joseph Smith Papers have revealed numerous manuscripts kept in the Presidency’s papers offer the possibility that they may one day reveal a picture of the white stone and possibly records describing its provenance. This could clear up numerous assumptions made within the historical record, yet there is also a question of religious value that would encourage those making the decision to keep items they have deemed sacred free from the eyes of the public. If the Presidency’s papers do not include more historical information about the white stone, they also face the problem of not knowing its provenance with certainty. The brown stone is documented better and made a better candidate for revealing a picture to the public. Therefore, there are two very good reasons to withhold the white stone from public view. First, because it is a sacred item that would maintain its value more by keeping it secret, and second, because those making the decision are unsure of its provenance.
Whitmer’s complaints about Joseph Smith not using the seer stone any longer for translation and revelations are not true. Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 32. Joseph Smith apparently used the white stone to receive the revelation that is now D&C 36 in October 1831, he may have used a seer stone to translate the Book of Abraham in the fall of 1835, and in 1842, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal that he used a stone to translate the remainder of the Book of Abraham. There are also records of Joseph Smith obtaining additional seer stones, even in Nauvoo.
SEER STONES OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
Like Joseph Smith, prophets in the Book of Mormon use sacred objects and ancient relics to translate old records and uncover new revelation from God.
In particular, two characters, the brother of Jared and Mosiah II, demonstrate a propensity for receiving revelation linked to unknown languages, often with the assistance of sacred objects. Joseph Smith eventually claimed that the angel Moroni gave him the Nephite interpreters in order to perform the same kind of translation. Though the Book of Mormon only mentions these seer stones occasionally, it is possible to trace a partial history of the seer stones from person to person. The purpose of this chapter is to provide an evaluation of the textual evidence found in the Book of Mormon itself as it relates to seer stones. Additionally, this chapter will also examine how Joseph Smith and his associates understood the seer stones of the Book of Mormon in their own time.
What happens to the record written by the brother of Jared becomes unclear following the Lord’s admonition to “seal them up” (Ether 3:27). Part of this confusion is due to a second Jaredite record, the plates of Ether. The plates of Ether consisted of twenty-four gold plates upon which Ether, the final Jaredite prophet, wrote a history of the rise and fall of the Jaredite nation. It is possible to trace the possession of the plates of Ether through the Book of Mormon, but the pertinent question is whether or not the record of the brother of Jared was included with the plates of Ether. Generally, Mormon scholars have often grouped the brother of Jared’s visionary record together with the twenty-four gold plates that Ether created, even though they have a separate history of possession and translation.2
As part of his editorial work, Moroni explained that there was a “record of Jared and his brother” (Ether 6:1) written before the twenty-four gold plates. Whether Moroni had that record or whether it was simply copied or abridged in the record of Ether is also unknown, but it apparently included a history of Jared and his brother. Moroni, however, does make it clear that the brother of Jared’s all-seeing vision record was sealed up and was not part of the record of Ether (see Ether 4:1–3).
The vexing question introduced by the transmission of the Jaredite records is whether there was one set of seer stones or two. By extension, which one came into the possession of Joseph Smith as the “Nephite interpreters”? In other words, did Mosiah II possess one set of seer stones and the brother of Jared another? Or did the stones sealed up by the brother of Jared with the all-seeing vision come into the possession of Mosiah II at a point prior to Ammon’s departure for the land of Nephi? Ammon clearly has knowledge of Mosiah II’s abilities as a seer prior to his speaking with Limhi, meaning that the source of Mosiah II’s seer stones must come from a source other than the discovery of the plates of Ether and other Jaredite artifacts by Limhi’s scouts. Both answers (one or two sets of seer stones) are possible and need to be explored further.
TWO SETS OF SEER STONES
Since Mosiah II possessed the all-seeing vision record, the brother of Jared’s seer stones could conceivably be the stones Mosiah II possessed. On the one hand, both instruments are described as “two stones.” According to Mosiah 28:13, Mosiah II “translated them [the plates of Ether] by the means of those two stones,” while the brother of Jared was given “two stones” that would allow a future translator to interpret the record. On the other hand, there are a few key differences between the two interpreters. The Book of Mormon describes Mosiah II’s interpreters as two stones “fastened into two rims of a bow” (Mosiah 28:13). Mosiah II’s interpreters looked like a pair of spectacles, instead of a pair of rocks. The book of Ether may have simply omitted that the brother of Jared’s stones were bound in a metal bow, or Mosiah II could have conceivably added the bow once he got the stones. Nevertheless, the different description (the metal bow) may indicate that there were two sets of seer stones. Additionally, both sets of seer stones have two distinct origin stories. The brother of Jared got his stones from the Lord and buried them with his record; Mosiah II’s were “prepared from the beginning” and passed down from “generation to generation”
The brother of Jared’s seer stones were not only coupled with the all-seeing vision record; they appear to have been created specifically for the purpose of translating the all-seeing vision record. There is no mention in the text that it was possible to use the brother of Jared’s stones to translate additional records. This is in contrast to Mosiah II’s interpreters, which appear to have been used to translate ancient writings of any kind, including the twenty-four Jaredite plates, and thus serve a more general purpose. Ammon explained to Limhi that Mosiah II “has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13; emphasis added).
So what does Mosiah I have to do with the question of one or two sets of seer stones? The answer may come from a variant in the English transmission of the Book of Mormon. As the Book of Mormon now reads, Ether 4:1 records that the all-seeing vision record came into the possession of King Mosiah (which Mosiah is left unclear). However, in every edition of the Book of Mormon prior to 1849, Ether 4:1 stated that it was King Benjamin, not King Mosiah, who possessed the all-seeing vision record. The change from “Benjamin” to “Mosiah” appears to have been made by Orson Pratt, editor of the 1849 edition of the Book of Mormon, perhaps trying to link the all-seeing vision record to Mosiah II’s possession of the plates of Ether.4 However, according to linguistics professor Royal Skousen, the reading of King Benjamin as the possessor of the all-seeing vision record “is not only intended but correct.”5
WHICH OF THE NEPHITE INTERPRETER STONES WAS GIVEN TO JOSEPH SMITH?
With these two different theories in mind, we are now positioned to examine Joseph Smith’s statements about the Nephite interpreters he received from Moroni.
Did Joseph Smith Receive the Brother of Jared’s Seer Stones?
Joseph Smith’s possession of the brother of Jared’s interpreters is a significant question due to one of Joseph Smith’s revelations (D&C 17:1) where the Three Witnesses are informed that they would see the seer stones “given to the brother of Jared upon the mount when he talked with the Lord face to face.”7 Valentin Arts has argued “that the interpreters of King Mosiah were the very same that the brother of Jared had received becomes obvious from Doctrine and Covenants 17:1, where we learn that Joseph Smith also had custody of the Urim and Thummim that were given to the brother of Jared.”8 While it is very possible that Joseph Smith did receive the brother of Jared’s interpreters, there is another possibility to consider. The revelation in question (D&C 17) also stated that the Three Witnesses would see the sword of Laban, but it never explained that it was the sword Nephi used to cut off Laban’s head. The revelation also stated that they would see the breastplate, but it never mentioned which breastplate, though it is assumed it was the breastplate buried with the plates. Yet, when the revelation described the seer stones (“Urim and Thummim”), it specified which seer stones they would see—the brother of Jared’s seer stones. Possibly distinguishing those stones from the seer stones Joseph Smith received with the plates, the revelation also does not associate the breastplate with the brother of Jared’s seer stones even though the breastplate was originally intended to be used with seer stones. The revelation seems to be offering them a unique glimpse at physical items described in the Book of Mormon that they had yet to see, such as the Liahona and Laban’s sword. This would have been a remarkable experience, especially if Joseph had never held those stones in his possession. If the Nephite interpreters Joseph received had been those that had belonged to the brother of Jared, then they also would have been the instrument used to translate the Book of Mormon. It would have been far less important for the witnesses to view an instrument they were already familiar with—one that Joseph had in his possession from September 1827 to June 1829.9 While it is generally assumed that this revelation identifies Joseph Smith’s interpreters as the brother of Jared’s seer stones, it may be that the witnesses were promised to see seer stones that they had only read about in the Book of Mormon manuscript, rather than ones they had already encountered in the course of the translation process.
The Liahona was an important artifact that represented Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem, his family’s struggle through the wilderness, and the establishment of the Nephites in the New World. It represented a culture of sacred artifacts, the delivery of the word of God, and the line of prophets who possessed that ball throughout the Book of Mormon. The sword of Laban represented the severing of a small group of the tribe of Israel who founded a new life in the Americas, designed swords in the same manner, and identified the king of the Nephites for generations. The brother of Jared’s seer stones played a similarly important role in the experience of the Three Witnesses. The stones represented the Jaredites, who were a completely separate and distinct civilization. They also represented the possibility of future translations and the coming forth of the sealed portion of the gold plates, while the breastplate was the hidden and unused part of Mosiah II’s interpreters that the witnesses had yet to see.
As we can see, discerning whether there was one set of seer stones or two is not a simple nor clear matter. There is strong evidence for both sides, and each argument has its own interesting implications for Joseph Smith. The existence of multiple sets of stones may help us understand Joseph Smith’s possession of multiple seer stones and highlights that it was the person, not necessarily a single device, that ultimately mattered in occasions of translation. However, if there was only one set of seer stones, it suggests that Joseph identified the Nephite interpreters in a language more reminiscent of Mosiah II than of the brother of Jared. Mosiah II was a translator, and the brother of Jared was the recipient of a divine vision. Joseph Smith was both a translator and the recipient of a divine vision. Either Mosiah II or the brother of Jared would have provided Joseph with a role model and a means of understanding what his own role and mission was. And significantly, he chose the role of translator.
In addition to the descriptions of interpretive devices containing two stones, the Book of Mormon also references an interpretive device that was a singular stone. Alma the Younger, who became the chief judge and high priest, received the Nephite records from Mosiah II and in turn passed the Nephite records, and all the items that came with them, on to his son Helaman (Alma 37:1–2). Alma explained to Helaman “that they should be kept and handed down from one generation to another, and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon” (Alma 37:4). He additionally declared, “These things, which are sacred, which he has kept sacred, …that he may show forth his power unto future generations.” Expressing concern about the future of the Nephite nation, Alma specifically mentioned the twenty-four gold plates that Mosiah II translated. Alma reminds his son that Jared’s descendants were warned by the Lord that if they did not repent they would be “destroyed from off the face of the earth” (Alma 37:22). Alma encouraged Helaman to preserve the Jaredite record so that it may be “manifest unto this people” and allow the Nephites to avoid the fate of the Jaredites.
As part of this discussion about records, Alma also emphasized the importance of Mosiah II’s interpreters. Alma told Helaman, “And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled” (Alma 37:24). Alma then recited a prophecy, possibly from the time of the brother of Jared: “And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the work of their brethren” (Alma 37:23). Alma used this prophecy to emphasize the prophetic role of Mosiah II and his translation of the twenty-four gold plates. He apparently felt that the person “Gazelem” was Mosiah II and that it was relevant that he translated with the two seer stones bound in a metal bow. Alma appears to have believed Mosiah II was the fulfillment of prophecy and that his translation brought “their secret abominations …out of darkness” and made them known to the Nephites (Alma 37:26).
Alma may have thought Mosiah II was Gazelem, but early converts believed that Joseph Smith was Gazelem. Both Joseph Smith and Mosiah II brought forth ancient records through the use of seer stones. While at times Smith used just a single seer stone, at other times he used Mosiah II’s Nephite interpreters, which are what he used to translate the lost book of Lehi. Perhaps noting the connection between seers past and present, members of the early Mormon Church began to refer to Joseph Smith as Gazelem. “Gazelem” was even used as a pseudonym for Joseph Smith in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.10 Notably, while speaking at Joseph Smith’s funeral, William W. Phelps stated that Gazelem was Joseph Smith’s name in the pre-earth life: “Joseph Smith, who was Gazelam in the spirit world, was, and is, and will be in the progress of Eternity: —The Prince of Light.”11
Significantly, the prophecy references only one stone, “which shall shine forth in darkness.” Joseph Smith apparently received Mosiah II’s seer stone interpreters, which had two stones bound together, that he used in the early stages of Book of Mormon translation. Over time, Smith began to use a single stone; the majority of the Book of Mormon was likely translated with a single stone.12 Possibly in an attempt to differentiate between those two interpreters, one of Joseph Smith’s single seer stones eventually became known as “Gazelem.” Perpetuating the idea that the single seer stone could legitimately be called Gazelem, Joseph Smith taught on 2 April 1843 that “a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written” (D&C 130:11; emphasis added). If Joseph Smith’s seer stone had already been given to him, then it may have had his “new name” written on the stone, or at least that is the logic for why Joseph Smith’s single seer stone was named Gazelem. And if W. W. Phelps was correct, then Joseph Smith would be known for the eternities as Gazelem, and his seer stone would have his name written on it.
For the most part, researchers have argued that Gazelem, the stone Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, was a brown stone. D. Michael Quinn, Richard Van Wagner, Steve Walker, and Dan Vogel all argue that the brown stone was Gazelem.13 Central to this argument is a letter Emma Smith wrote to Emma Pilgrim that suggests that Joseph Smith used a dark stone (rather than a white stone) to translate after he stopped using the interpreters. This letter is important to the translation of the Book of Mormon not only because Emma was a direct witness of the translation but also because she describes the seer stone that Joseph Smith used. She informed Emma Pilgrim that after Joseph Smith used the interpreters to translate the lost book of Lehi, “he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but rather a dark color.” Martin Harris also witnessed the switch between the two relics, but he never mentioned the color.14 Emma’s account is one of the only sources that names the color of the stone that Joseph Smith used while translating the Book of Mormon.
However, recently, historian Mark Ashurst-McGee has convincingly argued that Gazelem was Smith’s white stone.15 Addressing Joseph Smith’s comment recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 130 about a name being inscribed in a “white stone,” Ashurst-McGee sorted through dozens of accounts with this new interpretation. In each case, Ashurst-McGee looked at the color of the stone, the place Joseph found the stone, how the stone was used, and who possessed the stone. Each of the arguments hinges in numerous places and builds supposition upon supposition. Nonetheless, Wilford Woodruff seemed to have the same opinion as Ashurst-McGee and believed that Gazelem was the white stone. Having owned Joseph Smith’s seer stones, Woodruff described “the seer stone known as ‘Gazelem’, which was shown of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph to be some thirty feet under ground, and which he obtained by digging under the pretence of excavating for a well.”16 He also wrote in his journal that he took the seer stone that he called “Gazelem” and “consecrated [it] upon the Altar” at the Manti Temple in 1888.17 Woodruff assured readers that the stone he described earlier as Gazelem was the same stone he consecrated by describing that it was found “30 feet under the Earth,” and he also declared that it was the white stone by stating that it was Joseph Smith’s seer stone that he “carried by him through life.” Wilford Woodruff had seen Joseph Smith’s seer stone in Nauvoo and knew that the white stone was the stone that Joseph carried throughout his life because he also knew that Phineas Young had procured the brown stone from Oliver Cowdery in 1850.18 In evaluating between whether the white or the brown stone was used, historians can’t ignore the value of Emma Smith’s statement and her experience as scribe, even when considering Wilford Woodruff’s personal encounter with both the white and brown stones.
In addition to Gazelem being used to describe the brown or the white stone, Gazelem may also have been used to describe a green stone, although the single account has serious problems. Apparently attempting to increase the value of the green stone, Norman Pierce wrote a letter to Wilford Wood negotiating a possible sale of the stone, in which Pierce refers to the green stone as “Gazelem.”19 This identification seems to have been part of Pierce’s family tradition, one tenuously linked to Philo Dibble in Nauvoo.20
This chapter has examined the trajectories throughout the Book of Mormon of the devices Joseph Smith may have used in his translation process. The Book of Mormon describes a clear connection between ancient records written in unknown languages and the divinely appointed seers who alone can provide interpretation through their “gift.” However, due to ambiguous or incomplete descriptions and details, it remains difficult to accurately trace the origin and journey of Joseph Smith’s Nephite interpreters. From a reading of the text, one could come away believing that there were two separate sets of Nephite interpreters—one belonging to the brother of Jared that remained with the all-seeing vision and one belonging to Mosiah II—or believing that there was only one set, passed down from the brother of Jared to Mosiah II until it eventually reached Joseph Smith. The Three Witnesses were shown the interpreters belonging to the brother of Jared, yet Joseph Smith seems to have described the Nephite interpreters in languages that had more in common with Mosiah II’s account. And what of Gazelem and Joseph Smith’s own single seer stone? While the details remain unclear, the Book of Mormon seer stone narratives are important for how thoroughly they provide Joseph Smith with a physical link to the past, a connection to a prophetic heritage that extended backward four millennia. Although he himself may not have fully understood the trajectories of the sacred devices described in the Book of Mormon, it is highly unlikely that Joseph wouldn’t have found meaning and self-understanding in the stories he translated.
“THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL”
This second scenario is the focus of this chapter, wherein we will examine how the Book of Mormon responds to the questions raised through Joseph’s use of seer stones. As a way of highlighting the Book of Mormon’s prescient nature, we will examine two areas where the Book of Mormon presents possible answers to other difficult questions.
QUESTION 1—KING JAMES BIBLE LANGUAGE AND CONTENT
A frustrating question for some readers is the presence of King James English in the Book of Mormon: how can a text written centuries prior to the King James Bible, and supposedly translated through a seer stone, contain so much of it? Hundreds, if not thousands, of unique phrases from the King James Bible can be found in the Book of Mormon, not to mention the lengthy sections of Isaiah or Matthew that appear in 2 and 3 Nephi.3 Readers may read the Book of Mormon and wonder: how can Lehi, a prophet living in 600 BC, have a discussion with his sons in which he quotes from the Gospel of John, a text that is still 700 years in the future (2 Nephi 2:6; cf. John 1:14)?
Nephi’s willingness to not only make allusions to and take quotations from the brass plates, but to also then use the very words and phrases of Isaiah to make his own prophecies concerning the Lehites, shows us a prophet unconcerned with the idea that he is “borrowing” from someone else. In fact, Nephi’s varied forms of borrowing demonstrate his belief that close association with biblical characters and text actually provides evidence for the truthfulness of his record. His use of Isaiah not only strengthens his own prophetic persona, but it also reassures his people that their God continues to speak to them.
It is important to consider the role that the audience’s expectations may have played here in the translation process: many nineteenth-century readers, particularly those involved in the Restorationist movement, would have expected any word from God to sound like the words from God they already had (in other words, the KJV Bible). If the gospel is the same, and if God is eternal, then the expectation would be that any new revelations would show forth an unchanging God.
Restorationists seeking a return to the New Testament church, as many early Mormon converts were, would have likely accepted the Book of Mormon only if it had such explicit rhetorical connections with the Bible.7 Just as Nephi took his accepted scriptures, the brass plates, and used its characters and language to rhetorically strengthen his own story, so too can we see the Book of Mormon’s relationship with the KJV Bible as a type of culturally appropriate reassurance that permitted readers to accept the text as divinely inspired.
In the book of Omni, readers are informed about a stone that was brought to King Mosiah I. The stone was engraved in an ancient language, and Mosiah II interpreted the writing “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). The stone relayed the story of Coriantumr, last of the Jaredites, but also apparently included the following information: “It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward” (Omni 1:22).
Brant Gardner has argued that this stone is best understood as a royal stela, one that recorded the deeds of Coriantumr. But Gardner notes two curiosities. First, it is “virtually unheard of to create a monument to the defeat of one’s people,” and thus the mere existence of the stone is an anomaly. Second, if Coriantumr is the last of the Jaredites, who was the carver of the stone? These incongruities lead Gardner to an intriguing suggestion: “Since the information on Coriantumr comes through Mosiah’s inspired (but perhaps not literal?) reading of the stone, the explanation may be a prophetic/seeric ‘reading’ of the stone, supplying information that does not appear in its inscription. Mosiah would be using the stone as a base text but expanding it with information about the Jaredite destruction.”9 If Gardner is right, then this is evidence of the Book of Mormon supplying a very important example: a seer who is brought a relic and translates the language on the relic not in a literal fashion, but in a way that allows for additional, more important information to be relayed from a divine source. If we view Joseph Smith’s translation projects through this lens, it becomes much easier to understand why the text of the Book of Mormon may not be a perfectly literal translation of characters on the plates, or why nineteenth-century elements could be present in the Book of Mormon.
DIVINE WRITING AND SEER STONES IN THE BIBLE AND THE BOOK OF MORMON
With these thoughts in mind, we can now examine how the Book of Mormon provides readers a lens through which to interpret the function of seer stones and Joseph’s own role as seer. One interesting and often difficult-to-understand facet of the translation process with the seer stones is that Joseph read words from off of the stones. The witnesses of the translation are very clear in their belief that this is how Joseph used the stones; therefore, those studying the Book of Mormon eventually have to address this idea: that words appeared as part of the translation.
While Belshazzar was hosting a feast in which the attendees were defiling the temple by eating with the utensils that had been taken from the temple, Aminadi interpreted writing on the wall of the temple. The Bible-savvy readers of the nineteenth century could hardly miss the parallels between the two stories—connections confirming that the miraculous appearance of writing to a prophet was not unique to Joseph Smith, but actually a biblically established method of prophetic transmission.
The function of the Urim and Thummim in these verses was to obtain divine revelation.11 The Urim and Thummim was apparently used in conjunction with the priestly breastplate, which held twelve stones that would glow forth in representation of the twelve tribes of Israel. In the book of Revelation, John promises to the Church at Pergamum that “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” (Revelation 2:17; see appendix 6). Though this reference is clouded with the hermeneutics surrounding the book of Revelation, it is notable here for actually describing the appearance of words upon a stone. Joseph clearly found significant meaning in the image of words written on a “white stone,” as by the end of his life he publically declared that those who entered the celestial kingdom would possess a stone with their new name on it (see D&C 130:11).
Additionally, the Book of Mormon narrative makes great use of biblical artifacts, turning objects mentioned in passing in the Bible, like the Urim and Thummim, into key components of its narrative. In terms of the Urim and Thummim, the Book of Mormon complements the biblical mentions by presenting two stones given to the brother of Jared and Mosiah II. The text further explains that Mosiah II was able to translate because he was a seer, and “he [had] wherewith that he [could] look, and translate all records that are of ancient date” (Mosiah 8:13; emphasis added). Here, the text suggests that the interpreters worked for only those who were commanded to look in them, and that the seer that used them did not look through them, but at them to find the translation of the ancient records. Thus, like the biblical Urim and Thummim, the instruments discussed in the book of Mosiah can only be used by certain authorized individuals.
IS THE LIAHONA A SEER STONE?
The Liahona had two spindles, one that would point toward food in the desert and another that would point toward the way out of the wilderness. Additionally, like the Nephite interpreters, the Liahona provided the prophet with revelation from the Lord through words that would appear and disappear upon the device. The Lord commanded Lehi to “look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.” After Lehi had seen the prophetic words that were on the ball, “there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord.” The text continued by stating that “it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it” (1 Nephi 16:26–29).
The words that appeared on the Liahona were described in similar terms as the ones Joseph Knight Sr. gave for Smith’s translation. Knight claimed that Smith would see “bright Roman letters” appear on the seer stones, which represented the translation of the Book of Mormon.12These similarities raise the question of how the Liahona relates to the seer stones. It is certainly possible that the Book of Mormon is describing two completely different types of objects that both managed to relay specific words. But perhaps the close similarities are meant to indicate a closer link, such as the possibility that the Liahona was actually a seer stone that had been placed within a golden metallic ball, similar to how stones were “fastened into the two rims of a bow” (Mosiah 28:13).
Regardless of its exact nature, it is hard to imagine that readers are not meant to notice the resemblances between the Liahona and the instruments of translation. Similarly to the Liahona, Joseph Knight and David Whitmer claimed that words would appear on Joseph’s seer stone and then disappear after he had dictated the words to a scribe.13 Furthermore, just as the Liahona functioned by faith and righteousness, so did the seer stones Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon. By highlighting these similarities, the Book of Mormon authors have provided for their readers an affirmation of divine translation, that while to a modern audience the prospect of words appearing on mystical devices sounds outside the realm of logic, it is one prominent manner in which God communicates with his people. In a way, this self-reflexive tendency situates the Book of Mormon text as the earliest account describing the translation process.
Significantly, with the similarities between the Liahona and Joseph’s seer stones, the Book of Mormon may be making an additional point about the translation process—if Joseph’s seer stones functioned in a similar capacity to the Liahona, then he was not using the stones as an object meant to inspire visions, but as the source of divine writings and messages. Notably, the Book of Mormon seems to be very specific about separating the concept of translation of texts from the notion of reception of visions.
Significantly, these other prophets experienced an all-seeing vision, but the Book of Mormon does not ascribe these visions as occurring through the use of seer stones.
In the case of the Book of Mormon story of the brother of Jared, he saw a remarkable vision which he was commanded to record, at which point the Lord provided two stones that would allow future generations to translate his record (see Ether 3:25–26). In his circumstance, the vision was not provided by the seer stones; instead, they were prepared for someone to translate the record at a future time. Thus, this restriction on the purpose of the brother of Jared’s interpreters is another example of this strict distinction in the Book of Mormon between vision and translation, and may help Latter-day Saints understand why the translation of the Book of Mormon is described so practically, rather than with the mystical nuances of a visionary experience.
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon and especially the translation process were miraculous in nature, with the reality of Joseph dictating words as they appeared and disappeared on the seer stones potentially being a problem for 21st century readers of the Book of Mormon. However, the authors of the Book of Mormon seemed to have recognized the struggles that some readers might encounter as they wrestled with seer stones and miraculous writing and provided helpful interpretive elements within the text itself, essentially rendering the Book of Mormon as the key to interpreting its own emergence. It is also possible that these interpretive elements were intended not only for readers of the Book of Mormon but for its author as well. Joseph may have only understood what he was facing by comparing his phenomenological experience with similar practices found in the Book of Mormon (and the Bible). In other words, he may not have been fully able to explain the process until after the text of the Book of Mormon explained how ancient seers used God’s devices.
Remarkably, the pages of the Book of Mormon contain the answers to many of the puzzles and questions, both internal and external, that surround the text. The Book of Mormon demonstrates that God communicates through the written word, whether upon a wall, a ball, or a stone. Like Lehi and his use of the Liahona, these words were apparently “plain to be read” (1 Nephi 16:26–27, 29). Nephi prophesies that the Lord would bring to Joseph Smith “the words of a book, and they shall be the words of them which have slumbered” (2 Nephi 25:18, 21; emphasis added). Perhaps the reason why Joseph didn’t elaborate more on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon was that he knew the answers were not his to give. Rather, they lay within the text itself, waiting for readers to trust the text enough to accept the answers it gave.
A THEOLOGY OF SEER STONES
In an anxious attempt to justify Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, apologists have typically described them as mundane objects that only hold cultural significance. They have generally disregarded them as if they were unrelated to the Nephite interpreters and the seer stones described in the Book of Mormon by generations of prophets who valued them. This chapter will tie the threads of the previous chapters together in order to demonstrate that Joseph Smith’s seer stones were sacred objects, connected to a broader Mormon understanding of the nature of God, ultimately making the argument that Joseph could not transcend the use of his seer stones.
THE DIDACTIC MODEL
Some Mormon historians have argued that Joseph Smith used his seer stones as a crutch before he was able to receive revelation directly from God by inspiration without a device to help him. By implication, even though God apparently sanctioned seer stones, they were described as cultural tools, essentially prophetic “training wheels.”
The implications of this line of reasoning would first and foremost mean that Mormonism’s founding scripture, the Book of Mormon, was delivered to Joseph by lesser means. It would also require a theological hierarchy for receiving revelation from God, such as inspiration is better than seeing an angel, and speaking with an angel is not as powerful as hearing the voice of Christ.
Addressing the first implication, the previous chapters have demonstrated that Joseph Smith never stopped valuing his seer stones, and though he decreased how much he used them after 1830, he never completely stopped using them.3 In the summer of 1829, Joseph gave the Nephite interpreters back to the angel, and then in 1830 Joseph apparently gave Oliver Cowdery the brown seer stone, events which have been represented as markers to some that he stopped using his seer stones. During that same time, Hiram Page was deceived by his own seer stone.
Once the Book of Mormon was translated, it appears that Joseph Smith reduced his use of the seer stones, even telling Orson Pratt while he was making inspired changes to the Bible that he “did not need the assistance of that instrument” to make those changes.5 Nonetheless, there is at least one account that indicates that Joseph used a seer stone to initiate the Bible translation. Lorenzo Brown remembered Joseph stating, “After I got through translating the Book of Mormon, I took up the Bible to read with the Urim and Thummim. I read the first chapter of Genesis and I saw the things as they were done. I turned over the next and the next, and the whole passed before me like a grand panorama; and so on chapter after chapter until I read the whole of it. I saw it all!”6
Related by Lorenzo Brown in 1880, “Sayings of Joseph, by Those Who Heard Him at Different Times,” Joseph Smith, Jr., Papers, Church History Library. For a discussion of the validity of this source, see Robert J. Matthews, “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 25–26n13.
Joseph Smith still valued his seer stones as one way of receiving revelation from God. As the previous chapters have shown, Joseph was known to have kept his white stone with him throughout his life, and there is no evidence of him devaluing it or questioning whether seer stones should be used by him or other leaders of the Church. According to Orson Pratt, he received Doctrine and Covenants 34 with a white stone in the fall of 1830.7 James R. B. Van Cleave, Richmond, MO, to Joseph Smith III, Plano, IL, 29 September 1878, CCLA.
During the Kirtland period, the first bishop, Edward Partridge, was told by a seer where to find his own seer stone, and Joseph Smith received at least one patriarchal blessing through his seer stone.8 (Patriarchal blessing by Joseph Smith for Newel K. Whitney, Patriarchal Blessing Book 1, 7 October 1835, 33–34. It states, “The following blessing was given by president Joseph Smith, Jr. through the Urim and Thummim, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation.”)
Though there is little known about the process of the translation of the Book of Abraham, some of Joseph Smith’s closest associates believed that at least part of the book was translated with the use of a seer stone. In the summer of 1835, as the Doctrine and Covenantswas hot off the press, one Cleveland newspaper heard about the Egyptian papyri from W. W. Phelps and wrote, “We are credibly informed that the Mormons have purchased of Mr. Chandler, three of the mummies, which he recently exhibited in this village; and that the prophet Joe has ascertained, by examining the papyrus through his spectacles, that they are the bodies of Joseph (the son of Abraham,) and King Abimeleck and his daughter.”9 (“Another Humbug,” Cleveland Whig 1, no. 49 (5 August 1835): 2; emphasis added.)
Phelps was intricately involved with the translation of the papyri. The work he and others did on the papyri suggests that there was far more involved with the process of translation of the Book of Abraham than just peering into a seer stone, but later sources suggest that this early account should be taken seriously.
There are numerous signs that Joseph Smith had not transcended his use of seer stones in Nauvoo. For example, on 27 December 1841, Joseph showed his seer stone to the Twelve Apostles,10 (Woodruff, Journal, 27 December 1841; “History of Brigham Young,” 118–19.) and Wilford Woodruff mentioned that Joseph carried a seer stone throughout his life.11 (Woodruff, Journal, 18 May 1888.) He even encouraged the Twelve Apostles to find their own seer stones and introduced the concept of the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17 in the temple endowment. Once Joseph Smith began the translation of the Book of Abraham again in 1842, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal, “The Lord is blessing us with power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim ancient records and heiroglyphics old as Abraham or Adam which caused our hearts to burn within us when we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.”12 (Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 19 February 1842, Church History Library.) Just a month later, Parley P. Pratt wrote, “The record is now in course of translation by the means of the Urim and Thummim, and proves to be a record written partly by the father of the faithful, Abraham, and finished by Joseph when in Egypt.”13 (Parley P. Pratt, “Editorial Remarks,” Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star 3 (3 July 1842): 46; emphasis added.)
Rest of the chapter word for word below
In addition to translating at least a portion of every scriptural text of the Restoration with a seer stone, it is significant that at least some of Joseph’s contemporaries believed that revelation through a seer stone was the surest way of receiving revelation from God. As early as 1830 and 1831, members of the Church tried to separate Joseph Smith’s prophetic voice from his own personal voice, especially when challenging new revelations or commandments. John Whitmer, for example, was reluctant to accept a calling as the Historian and Recorder of the Church in March 1831. When Joseph delivered the calling, he initially declined, saying, “I would rather not do it but observed that the will of the Lord be done, and if he desires it, I desire that he would manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”14 In consequence, Joseph Smith delivered Doctrine and Covenants 47, and John Whitmer accepted the calling. In Nauvoo, Emma Smith struggled with the commandment to practice polygamy. Aware of the issue and deeply concerned about her well-being, Hyrum and Joseph Smith walked down the banks of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1843, contemplating how they would help her accept the Lord’s commandment. Hyrum suggested, “If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth.” Joseph had apparently received the revelation before Hyrum asked for it and stated, “Well, I will write the revelation and we will see.” Excited about the situation, William Clayton sat ready to record the words that fell from the prophet’s mouth, but before he could do so, Hyrum emphatically requested that Joseph use his seer stone to receive the revelation. Clayton wrote in his journal that Hyrum “urgently requested Joseph to write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim.”15 Joseph Smith’s own brother believed that the seer stones assured them that the revelation came directly from God and not partially from Joseph. His request also demonstrated that they had not devalued the use of seer stones after the Book of Mormon was translated in 1829. John Whitmer and Hyrum Smith both viewed the seer stone as having a crucial function to the revelatory process, a validation of Joseph’s prophetic pronouncements, and their sentiments seriously challenge the didactic model.
Joseph Smith embraced the idea of seer stones within his prophetic calling, eventually infusing them with deeper religious meaning that affected Mormon theology more broadly. Even if not every prophet or member would use a seer stone on earth, everyone in the celestial kingdom would. Joseph Smith’s seer stone theology implicitly rejects any scenario that makes Joseph Smith’s seer stones mundane objects, especially considering the prophetic provenance and prophecies of his seer stones.16 Though some historians point toward folk religion and magic cultures to understand them and others see the seer stones as cultural artifacts that God used to his advantage, Joseph Smith and his Restoration scripture provided an ancient provenance to the seer stones with major theological implications about how we understand the nature of God and how sacred scripture is delivered to prophets.
By dismissing the misguided didactic model, we begin to see seer stones not as the first step in Joseph’s prophetic path, but as the path itself. The stones not only represented authority and prophetic seership, they also provided a completely new epistemology that guided Joseph’s prophetic duties. This path would lead to a point in Joseph’s thought where seer stones were not simply a tool to receive the word of God but they also represented an element of knowing all things, which defined the nature of God. The seer stones themselves took on divine cosmological meaning as the epistemology of the Gods in the next life.
IDENTIFIER: PROPHETS, PROPHECIES, AND TRANSLATIONS
Joseph Smith’s Restoration scripture projected Mormonism back to an ancient religious past that justified, prophesied, and promised he would restore the gospel in the last days before Christ returned. In particular, the Book of Mormon revealed founding figures in an ancient past who prophesied of Joseph Smith and his role in the Restoration17 (see 2 Nephi 3; 2 Nephi 27). Joseph Smith’s revelations also showed how the authority he was given connected him to an ancient tradition and authority that went back to Adam (see D&C 84; 86; 88). For example, in the fall of 1830, Joseph revealed in the Book of Moses, “Now this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also” (Moses 6:7). The essence of a restoration of all things insists that Joseph Smith reveal an ancient past to a modern world. It was a doctrine that empowered Mormonism and offered them that which had been lost—often through seer stones.
The translation of texts like the Book of Mormon demonstrated the reality of the Restoration, but there were other signs as well. Religious studies scholar Craig Martin argues, “The authority of figures in a social hierarchy is almost always maintained by some set of visual markers or social practices.”18 Joseph Smith’s seer stones were tangible identifiers, and the monumental translation of the Book of Mormon marked him as a seer and a prophet. The text of the Book of Mormon also created a sacred narrative that linked the seer stones to Joseph Smith, much like the priesthood authority bestowed upon him by Peter, James, and John.
Statements from the Book of Mormon not only construct a divine lineage for the seer stones, but they also directly sanction their use. The narrative of the brother of Jared demonstrates that seer stones can and have been delivered by God to mankind. The book of Ether states, “These stones will I give unto thee…[which] shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (Ether 3:24). If God was the creator of the brother of Jared’s seer stones, was he also responsible for Joseph Smith’s? Joseph certainly thought so, and the text supports him. It didn’t matter whether he found the stones in the Chases’ well or buried near Lake Erie: Joseph used them to bring forth ancient scripture. The Book of Mormon narratives provided a means for believers to understand Joseph Smith’s money-digging past as a fortuitous development that enabled Joseph Smith to have access to his own divine seer stones.
The brother of Jared’s narrative further suggests that God intended seer stones to be used by chosen prophets and for specific purposes. Mosiah II simply “kept” the panoptic record, for example, and the Lord declared the record would come forth in his “own due time” through the use of seer stones (Ether 4:24). Though it was revealed when the resurrected Christ ministered to the people of Nephi, Moroni eventually translated the record and sealed it up with the gold plates. He wrote, “I have written upon these plates the very things which the brother of Jared saw. …Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them” (Ether 4:4–5). This explanation not only justifies Joseph Smith using his seer stones primarily to translate the Book of Mormon, but it also explains the reason why other prophets have not used seer stones. Though most of the prophets in the Book of Mormon after Mosiah II possessed the brother of Jared’s all-seeing record, they never translated it because God never commanded them to do so. The same is true for those prophets who followed Joseph Smith. If the brass plates or the sealed portion are to be revealed in the future, it seems likely that those records will be brought forth through seer stones prepared for the specific seers called to translate.
Finally, the narrative of the brother of Jared’s seer stones demonstrates a pattern for delivering ancient devices, like seer stones, to their intended recipient. Hundreds of years after the brother of Jared had his vision and was given the two stones by God, Moroni eventually transcribed the panoptic record. Such an elaborate process of preserving the record and the stones points toward a certain purposeful utility for both record and stones. Joseph Smith was at the end of a long line of prophets who apparently possessed Mosiah II’s interpreters, delivered into his hands by Moroni. The interpreters were not only a practical device used to translate ancient records. Rather, like the high priest’s ephod or the nail prints in Christ’s hands, they served as sacred identifiers or signifiers. Ammon explained to Limhi that “the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded. …And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer” (Mosiah 8:13). Ammon explained that it was a “high gift from God,” and a “seer is a revelator and a prophet also.” What Mosiah II—and by implication Joseph Smith—possessed showed that “God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings” (Mosiah 8:18). Thus, according to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s seer stones were not cultural artifacts, but rather sacred relics that identified him as seer, revelator, and prophet.
AN EPISTEMOLOGY OF SEER STONES
Seer stones represent a unique, but essential, way of obtaining and knowing God’s revealed word in Mormonism. They provide a means by which things that may never have been made known are provided to believers. Moreover, they do so in an explicitly material manner, something theologically central to Mormonism’s understanding of the universe. Moroni’s final words explained that the Book of Mormon could not have been produced without God’s intervention. Moroni implied that even if a scholarly translation were possible, his “imperfections” in writing would have made it difficult to reproduce his intended message. He wrote, “But the Lord knoweth that which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language…therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:34). In the brother of Jared’s experience, “there never were greater things made manifest than those which were made manifest unto” him, and the things that he saw were intended to be known through the two seer stones the Lord provided (Ether 3:23; 4:1). In other words, the Book of Mormon insists that some of the things that the Lord wants to reveal to humankind will only be known through the medium of seer stones.
Part of the doctrine defining Mormon scripture is that scripture has been produced by seer stones in the past and it will be revealed through seer stones in the future. Scriptures produced through seer stones constitute a major part of the Mormon canon, including the Book of Mormon and parts of the Doctrine and Covenants. Ancient scripture and modern revealed scripture were produced through the use of seer stones and demonstrate the Church’s claim to restoration and represent the foundational doctrine of continued revelation which the Church embraces as an essential doctrine. Though there will inevitably be periods, like those in the Book of Mormon narrative, that prophets do not reveal the word of God through seer stones, the brother of Jared’s record will eventually be translated and revealed through the seer stones God provided for that purpose (2 Nephi 27:11). This emphasis on the continued importance of the material stone points toward a specifically Mormon theological emphasis on the physical, material dimensions of our eternal existence.
Scripture that has been revealed through seer stones also requires a different kind of evaluation than the Bible, which was compiled and translated. Mormonism relies upon the Book of Mormon as evidence for its truth claims, and seer stones offer a miraculous delivery of the text that insists upon a spiritual, rather than scholarly, examination of its validity. The text produced by God through the seer stones cannot be checked or examined for accuracy but must be taken at face value. Moroni insisted in his final words that it had to be evaluated personally and confirmation of its validity would come by the Holy Ghost (see Moroni 10:4–5). Joseph Smith’s eighth article of faith explains that Latter-day Saints believe in the Bible, as far as it is translated correctly, but in the case of the scripture produced through seer stones, it does not have to be translated correctly because it was delivered to them directly from God.
A COSMOLOGY OF SEER STONES
Seer stones were the window that seers peered through to see the mysteries of God. Through the seer stones, Ammon explained, “a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known” (Mosiah 8:17). Seer stones apparently allowed prophets to glimpse the recesses of past, present, and future and understand the expanse of God’s cosmology. In the brother of Jared’s case, he saw “all the inhabitants of the earth which had been, and also all that would be; and [God] withheld them not from his sight, even unto the ends of the earth. …The Lord could not withhold anything from him, for he knew that the Lord could show him all things” (Ether 3:25–26). A key to accessing a knowledge of “all things” was the seer stones prepared by the Lord.
By 1843, Joseph Smith explained to the Twelve Apostles that seer stones and the ability to use them were not limited strictly to prophets. He displayed his seer stone for all of the Twelve to see, declaring “every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone.”19 This was only after he had recently placed the concept of seer stones into a much larger, far more cosmological context than he had before. He declared, “The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim” (D&C 130:8). Those who belong to that place, which was “like a sea of glass and fire,” could see “all things” past, present, and future. Interestingly, he explained that our earth would eventually be transformed into a similar kind of place: “In its sanctified and immortal state …[it will] be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon” (D&C 130:9). People who populate that earth could “see all things” pertaining to “inferior” or “kingdoms of a lower order.” Temporality and spatiality will be unlimited for all who live upon these earths. Just as Ammon spoke of Mosiah II, those who live on these earths will “see all things.” Furthermore, like God’s immortal earth that exists in a higher order, this earth will eventually be made immortal and “will be Christ’s” (D&C 130:9).
Describing a cosmological divine governance, Joseph Smith also revealed how individuals would know of the higher orders of immortal earths. He stated that each white stone would become a “Urim and Thummim …whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known” (D&C 130:9). Joseph Smith gave this explanation with reference to John the Revelator’s statement “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” (Revelation 2:17). Apparently, the bestowal of a white stone was not only a designation for those entering the celestial kingdom but also allowed them to transcend the orders of immortal earths to see all things.
Abraham’s experience with seer stones demonstrates the potential of such a God-like gift here on earth. He wrote, “I saw the stars …and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God.” Through his seer stones, the Lord showed him “the governing” stars, and one of the greatest stars he saw was “Kolob.” The Lord explained that Kolob was the star set “to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3). He then was shown the reckoning of time and the relationship of each of the stars to each other, describing a hierarchy of stars “one above the other” (Abraham 3:16–17). The promise Joseph Smith made to the Twelve Apostles was that they too could see what Abraham had seen, possibly similar to what Joseph Smith saw in Doctrine and Covenants 76,20 but that “they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.”21
Though Smith’s neighbors could only understand his actions in the context of money digging and folk magic, Mormon theology rejects the idea that Joseph Smith’s seer stones were simply cultural artifacts. According to Joseph Smith’s modern scripture, God’s will was the impetus for Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones. Even if Joseph found his stones with Sally and Willard Chase, others, including Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Joseph Smith himself, believed that God placed them there for his discovery. With an interpretive eye focused on the text of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith gave theological meaning to his seer stones. Joseph experienced years of religious writing and published scriptural text which uncovered an ancient and sacred past of seer stone use that transformed local folklore in a new kind of religious epistemology. The Book of Mormon insists that God prepared seer stones for his chosen prophets, and Joseph Smith revealed late in his life that the Urim and Thummim would play a part in the celestial kingdom—seer stones had a much broader epistemological implication. Though Pomeroy Tucker pejoratively called Joseph Smith’s seer stone simply “the acorn of the Mormon oak,” Mormon scripture declared that God planted and nourished that seed.
WHO WAS THE OTHER SEER, AND WHICH OF JOSEPH SMITH’S NEIGHBORS OWNED A SEER STONE?
COMPLETE CHAPTER BELOW
Identifying whose seer stone Joseph Smith peered into to find one of his own seer stones has been a topic of dispute, but an examination of his neighbors who owned seer stones is enlightening. Many of Joseph’s adjacent neighbors apparently owned seer stones. D. Michael Quinn wrote, “A number of village seers dotted the vicinity of Palmyra, New York” who may have influenced Joseph Smith and could have potentially offered him the chance of gazing into their stones.1 Northeast of Palmyra, in Rose, New York, Quinn identifies a preacher’s son who possessed a seer stone with the ability to find buried treasure. Nearly twenty miles down the Erie Canal and another five to six miles walk or coach ride, makes the preacher’s son an inconvenient possibility. Yet there were also two other known seers in Rochester, one of whom was Zimri Allen mentioned above, though the distance was similar, but in the opposite direction up the Erie Canal.2 Because Palmyra was situated on the banks of the busy canal, visitors were frequent, and merchants from Canandaigua transported goods northward to Palmyra to access the canal. There were likely others in the surrounding area who do not factor into any historical records, but the most likely place to find the seer was near Palmyra or Manchester.
Abner Cole wrote in the Palmyra Freeman about a Palmyra magician (also a doctor, hypnotist, possibly trained in Mesmerism) named Luman Walters as Cole mocked the Book of Mormon with a satirical series of articles about the Book of Pukei (mimicking the book of Nephi). Walters dug for buried treasure on Abner Cole’s property, which was lot number two on the 1820 tax assessment, adjacent to lot number one where the Smiths lived. Lorenzo Saunders claimed to see Joseph Smith Sr. with Luman Walters digging for buried treasure on Cole’s property. Though Saunders did not connect Joseph Smith Jr. with Walters’s search for treasure, Alvah Beaman (who later married Mormon Apostle Erastus Snow) apparently told stories about Joseph and Walters. As Quinn points out, Alvah told Elizabeth Kane that Walters believed there was treasure in the Hill Cumorah for which he searched and dug for on three separate occasions. Alvah apparently explained that Walters declared publically in a local tavern with Joseph Smith Jr. present that Joseph was the only person who could access the treasure on the hill.3 Though Walters lived in Pultneyville or Sodus, New York, which was around twenty-five miles away, he apparently visited Palmyra on numerous occasions. His visits and conceivable connection with Joseph Smith Sr. make it very possible that he could have shown Joseph Smith Jr. his seer stone at some point, and he could have been the man Joseph Smith Sr. mentioned according to the memory of Fayette Lapham.4 Quinn goes as far to argue that Luman Walters was Joseph’s occult mentor, but drawing upon loose familial connections between the Smiths and their Vermont and New York background, the possibility seems suspect.5 Speaking of Joseph looking into a stone to find his seer stone, Quinn wrote, “Conceivably the seer alluded to was Walters,” suggesting that it was an undetermined possibility.6 Abner Cole, on the other hand, was excited to associate Smith with a quack as notorious as Walters the Magician in the Palmyra Freeman. Cole was the first to associate the use of seer stones with magic, pejoratively associating Smith with a known quack and magician.
|local resident with a seer stone||seer stone|
|Luman Walters||“magic stone”7|
|William Stafford||“magic stone”8|
|Joshua Stafford||“peepstone,” “White marble …a hole through the center”9|
|John Stafford||Possibly, he dug with Joshua|
|Willard Chase||“the size and shape of an egg”10|
|Lucy Chase||Green glass in a paddle|
|Jack Belcher||“dark stone”11|
|Luck Mack Smith family||“a peculiarly shaped stone that resembled a child’s foot in its outlines” “little stone”12|
|Samuel Lawrence||“his stone”13|
To see the links listed in the table above, please click here:
“White marble …a hole through the center”9
“the size and shape of an egg”10
Even closer to Joseph Smith, several local teenagers also possessed seer stones that Joseph may have had access to during his teenage years. Three families were known to have seer stones (Chase, Stafford, and Lawrence) and their teenaged sons likely searched for buried treasure with Joseph Smith. Upon reflection, most of them denied having seer stones, like Stafford’s father, William, who Pomeroy Tucker identified and claimed as possessing his own stone. According to Joshua Stafford, his father had a seer stone that Lucy Smith had tried to procure, without success.14 Giving his account as a retired physician in 1881, Joshua did not describe himself or his father as a seer or a money digger, but instead carefully stated that others claimed they could see in his seer stone—begging the question of whether Joseph Smith was one of those who claimed he could see in the stone. Though Joshua tactfully avoided implying that his family used seer stones, another local resident, Caroline Rockwell, remembered, “I saw Joshua Stafford’s peepstone which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.”15 Additionally, Isaac Butts recalls “that young Jo Smith and Joshua dug for money in his orchard and elsewhere nights.”16 Joshua’s young cousin C. R. Stafford also remembered that he “saw Uncle John and Cousin Joshua Stafford dig a hole …claim[ing] that they were digging for money.”17 It is interesting to note that father William signed an early affidavit that was published in Mormonism Unvailed stating that he had dug for money with Joseph Smith Sr. and young Joseph Smith Jr.18
Just east of the Smith home, the Chase family also possessed seer stones and dug for buried treasure with Joseph Smith. They were devout Methodists, but as others in the Burned-Over District faithful to Protestantism, they were privately interested in money digging during the early 1820s. Seven years older than Joseph Smith, Willard Chase remembered his involvement with caution, even hiding it when Philastus Hurlbut approached him in 1833. Nonetheless, his brother-in-law Lorenzo Saunders later revealed that he had dug for treasure with Joseph Smith’s older brother Alvin Smith.19 S. F. Anderick later declared to Arthur Deming “Willard Chase …found a smooth stone about the size and shape of an egg.”20Lacking personal interaction with the Chases or the Smiths, Anderick may have been referring to a stone Smith took from Chase. Chase did not seem to have a stone any longer because John Stafford remembered that “Willard Chase use to dig when she [his sister Sally] found where the money was” rather than using the seer stone to find the money himself.21Lucy Mack Smith remembered that Sally Chase “had found a green glass & by looking thrugh it she could see many wonderful things and among the rest of her discoveries she said she had found out the exact place where Joe Smith kept his gold bible hid.”22 Anderick declared in 1887 that Sally Chase told her “several times that young Jo Smith, who became the Mormon prophet, often came to inquire of her [Chase] where to dig for treasure.”23
Samuel Lawrence also possessed a seer stone and apparently searched for treasure with Joseph Smith. Willard Chase remembered that Smith believed Lawrence was supposed to visit the hill where the gold plates were buried. He stated that Lawrence “went with him to a singular looking hill, in Manchester, and shewed him where the treasure was,” where Smith then “asked him to look in his stone.” According to Chase, Lawrence gazed into his own seer stone and saw the gold plates and eventually the interpreters that were buried with them.24 A close friend to the Smiths, Joseph Knight Sr. of Colesville, New York, remembered Lawrence by name and by his reputation. He wrote, “I will say there [was] a man near By the name Samuel Lawrance. He was a Seear [Seer] and he had Bin to the hill and knew about the things in the hill and he was trying to obtain them.”25
Joseph Smith’s relationship with other local residents interested in finding buried treasure and believing they could find it with seer stones opens a cultural window through which he may have found his seer stones or been educated on how to find them. Ashurst-McGee argues that individuals used seer stones and divining rods to find other seer stones—in the same way they found buried treasure. He marks two interesting examples from within Mormonism and from Rochester that demonstrate this possibility. On 27 December 1835, after speaking that day, Edward Partridge was approached by a young woman who told him that she had seen him and his family in her seer stone. Partridge was astonished how she described his daughter Eliza. He wrote in his journal, “This girl sees by the help of a stone.” He declared that she “told [him] she saw a seer’s stone for [him], it was a small blue stone with a hole in one corner.”26 Ashurst-McGee also describes Zimri Allen’s experience, in which he “said that he had learned through the means of this ‘diamond’ of the existence of a larger and better seer-stone, that was buried in his father’s garden.”27 With these examples in mind, Ashurst-McGee argues, “these are the methods Joseph Smith used in his acquisition of seer stones.”28Quinn goes as far to argue that “Treasure-digging in Palmyra was an extension of kinship between the Rockwells and Lawrences extending back to the Connecticut neighborhood of Luman Walter’s family.”29
JOSEPH SMITH’S GREEN AND NAUVOO STONES
There is only one nineteenth-century account describing what is known as Joseph Smith’s green seer stone. In 1873, Emily C. Blackman published a statement by J. B. Buck, who apparently described Joseph Smith’s green stone. Buck pronounced the story of Joseph Smith purchasing the stone from Jack Belcher, which was described in chapter 4. Buck apparently told Blackman, “It was a green stone, with brown, irregular spots on it. It was a little smaller than a goose’s egg, and about the same thickness.”1 Giving a similar description, William Smith, who may have been the son of Jonas Smith of Great Ben, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, claimed he saw Joseph Smith’s seer stone. In 1905, the Montrose Democrat published that William Smith remembered that the stone “was similar to the speckled stones which are still to be found along the river shore.”2 Though this account should likely be qualified, it and Buck’s accounts seem to suggest that the stone they are referencing was associated with Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, not New York. Buck’s account is also unique because of the fact that he calls the stone a “seeing stone,” while even other accounts within Blackman’s history use other terminology. Yet he also compares its shape and size with an egg, which is one of the more common ways of describing Joseph Smith’s other stones.
There are no accounts of Joseph Smith using the green stone, nor are there any accounts that offer firsthand knowledge that Joseph Smith actually possessed a green stone. Though historians have been skeptical of Buck’s account, Joseph may have actually had a stone that fit the description of Belcher’s original seer stone. Known only from correspondence to Wilford C. Wood in the mid-1930s, a green geode had apparently been preserved by the descendants of Philo Dibble, a close friend of Joseph Smith. In 1934, Norman C. Pierce wrote to Wood that he had acquired a green geode seer stone at the death of his wife’s aunt, spouse of David Dibble.3 D. Michael Quinn wrote to Edwin S. Dibble in 1986, who explained that he had never known about the green seer stone, nor was there anyone in his family who knew about it, but Pierce had apparently taken possession of the stone in the early twentieth century (1936), possibly demonstrating why there was no strong tradition about the stone in the Dibble family.4 The stone was given to Princeton University upon the passing of Norman Pierce along with all of his papers. Princeton apparently maintained possession of the stone for some time before it was sold in 1993, according to Rick Grunder (for $75,000). The buyer is unknown, but it is likely that a friendly member of the Church purchased the stone and donated it to the LDS Church. According to Quinn, the Church possesses three Joseph Smith seer stones. Grunder still advertises his involvement in the sale of the stone on the Internet and claims that there is a direct connection between the stone he sold and the stone Jack Belcher allegedly sold to Joseph Smith. Greg Kofford Books also published Brant A. Gardner’s The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon with an image of the stone taken by Grunder on the cover. Grunder has thus made that stone the most publicized stone purportedly owned by Joseph Smith. Quinn also published an image of the stone before it was sold and in the possession of Grunder with permission from Princeton University Library.5
There is reason to suspect the provenance of this seer stone. First, Pierce claims that the stone came to him by way of his uncle’s widow. James Madison Pierce, Norman Pierce’s uncle, apparently did not purchase the stone, and he was not a blood relative of Philo Dibble. James apparently got the stone from his brother-in-law Loran Dibble. Though Loran was the son of Philo Dibble, there is no reason why Loran would turn the stone over to James if it was a demonstrable Joseph Smith relic. Second, Norman Pierce wrote a few letters to Wilford Wood about the seer stone, in which he claims that the geode is Joseph Smith’s seer stone called Gazelem. Brigham Young claimed to possess it, and it was apparently dark brown or white, not green. The green stone seems to lack the same religious value that Joseph Smith’s white and brown stones have been given, but it will remain an important third stone until it is proven otherwise.
LARGE STONE, CRYSTAL
Like the green stone, there are a few other stones that have garnered attention from Latter-day Saints, but they too should be seen under an eye of skepticism. Thomas Bullock recorded comments by Brigham Young to the Twelve Apostles in a meeting on 30 September 1855 in which Young described Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Apparently trying to elaborate upon the point that anyone could have a seer stone, Young explained that Joseph had found five stones in his lifetime. Though this is not consistent with other accounts, he described three pre-1840 stones (none of which seem to represent the supposed green stone) and then two walnut sized stones he found in Nauvoo. Though little is known about most of these stones, and they were apparently never valued like the white and the brown seer stones, it is worth mentioning them here, as drawn from D. Michael Quinn’s research.6
As for the first three stones, Young explained, “Joseph’s first seer stone, Oliver always kept it …the second seer stone Dr. Williams had—the third one was very large.”7 The third stone is curious and may be connected to a legendary Egyptian crystal, argues D. Michael Quinn. At the end of the nineteenth century, a fascinating story emerged about Joseph Smith owning a large crystal at one point in his life:
The article in the Leader last week about Helen Gould’s magnificent rock crystal has brought out the information that right here in Merrillan we have one of those gems, which while it is not so large as Miss Gould’s; has a history that reaches far back into mystic past, and is connected with priests, prophets and seers whose names are famous in the world’s annals. This crystal is owned by C. E. Boynton, who has had it for twenty years or more. It is said to have been stolen originally from an Egyptian near at the time of the driving out of the monks about A. D. 400 and fell into the hands of Scottish family, descending from father to son for many generations, until one emigrated to America and Brought the precious crystal with him. He settled in New York and became intimately acquainted with Joseph Smith, the discoverer and founder of the Mormon church who saw in its infinite depths the rise and progress of his sect and finally became it possessor. After the discovery of the famous tablets of the Mormon faith, Smith was assisted by a Mr. Roberts, to whom in reward for his assistance, he gave this crystal.
After keeping it many years, he left it to his son Robert, and when the son was an old man ready to depart this life he gave it to his intimate friend, Mr. Boynton. This was twenty year ago or more, and during that time and for many years previous it has not been touched with mare hands, always being handled with a silk handkerchief. It is magnificent specimen, nine inches in circumference, weighing 22 ½ oz., and it luminous depths have given forth many visions to those who have been able to read its secrets. Mr. B. holds it almost priceless, and guards it very carefully. Very few of these perfect crystals are known to be in existence, and their polishing means many years of weary work, and almost more than human skill.—Wisconsin Leader.8
Though this connection is tenuous, there are no other accounts about Joseph Smith’s seer stones that describe them as “large,” like Young indicated in 1855. Mark Ashurst-McGee used the descriptions of the Boynton crystal to demonstrate that the author of the article was making important cultural connections to the occult, like Egyptian derivation, but never accepted the claims that Joseph Smith actually owned the crystal.9
Grant Palmer claimed that he saw the seer stones in possession of the LDS First Presidency, one of which being the size of “a baseball.”10 Quinn loosely speculated that the baseball-size stone could be the “large” stone spoken of by President Young. Palmer claimed that he saw the First Presidency Vault in 1977 as part of a course at the University of Utah taught by Professor James Clayton. He claimed that Earl Olson, who was the standing Assistant Church Historian, took their whole class to the archives where he displayed all of the seer stones to them. Mark Ashurst-McGee, however, interviewed both Clayton and Olson, who both deny that the visit Palmer described ever happened.11
NAUVOO SEER STONE(S)
Brigham Young also indicated that there were two other Joseph Smith stones found in Nauvoo. In 1855, Young stated to the Twelve that “Joseph found two small ones on the beach in Nauvoo—a little larger than a black walnut without the shock on.”12 These too are a mystery, but Quinn speculates that “one of them was probably used to manufacture the sandy-colored seer stone preserved by descendants of Charles Bidamon’s half sister,” now in the Wilford Wood collection.13 Ashurst-McGee passively dismissed this idea and categorized the Wilford Wood stone within “a particular class of stone artifacts tooled by pre-Columbian Indians and deposited in burial mounds.” He stated, “Joseph owned a disk-shaped gorget with a hole in the center, which he apparently found in Illinois and used as a seer stone.”14 The Wilford Wood Museum is still in possession of the quarter-sized gorget preserved by the Bidamons and attributed to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, yet evidence to demonstrate any of the claims above is not available.
HIRAM PAGE STONE AND CONTINUED USE OF SEER STONES BY LATTER-DAY SAINTS
On 10 November 1825, Hiram Page married Catherine Whitmer, the daughter of Peter Whitmer Sr. and Mary Musselman Whitmer.1 As an in-law to the Whitmer family he saw the earliest developments of the Church, and he was even one of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. Soon after the Church of Christ was established on 6 April 1830, Hiram began to use a seer stone to receive revelations like Joseph Smith. For someone other than Joseph to use a seer stone came as no surprise. According to David Whitmer, this was at the same period that Joseph Smith gave Oliver Cowdery his brown stone and just a year after one of Joseph’s revelations told Oliver that he had a gift that was “like unto” Joseph’s gift to translate (D&C 6).
We do not know when Hiram began using his seer stone, but the outcome of his experience was negative and marks one of the first challenges to Joseph Smith’s religious authority just months after the Church was organized. Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers began to challenge Joseph Smith about a detail described in the Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ. Cowdery boldly wrote to Joseph, demanding, “I command you in the name of God to erase those words, that no priestcraft be amongst us.” Joseph quickly traveled to Fayette, New York, to assuage the problem. His presence did not stop a heated debate, but Christian Whitmer eventually supported Joseph Smith’s prophetic stance.2
Just weeks later, another controversy arose among the Whitmers and the Fayette members, this time sparked by the revelations of Hiram Page. Joseph Smith’s history stated that Page had “got in his possession, a certain stone, by which he had obtained …revelations, concerning the upbuilding of Zion, the order of the Church, etc., all of which were entirely at variance with the order of God’s house, as laid down in the new Testament, as well as in our late revelations.”3 Reflecting back upon what members had said about the event, Ezra Booth wrote that Page “found a smooth stone, upon which there appeared to be a writing, which when transcribed upon paper, disappeared from the stone, and another impression appeared in its place. This when copied, vanished as the former had done, and so it continued alternately appearing and disappearing; in the meanwhile, he continued to write, until he had written over considerable paper.”4 Newel Knight remembered that he “had quite a roll of papers full of these revelations, and many in the church were led astray by them. Even Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer family had given heed to them.”5 However, Joseph Smith eventually declared Page’s revelations to be “a Satanic fraud.”6
DESCRIPTIONS OF THE HIRAM PAGE SEER STONE
|account||description of the hiram page stone|
|Joseph Smith7 (1839)||“a certain stone”|
|Ezra Booth8 (1831)||“a smooth stone”|
|Newel Knight9 (1846)||a stone|
|Emer Harris10 (1856)||“dug it out of the earth,” “black stone,” it was “broke to powder”|
|George A. Smith11 (1864)||“black stone”|
To see the links listed in the table above, please click here:
George A. Smith11
Because contemporary records do not indicate what happened to Page’s stone, it has been a source of some interest since the 1830s. Intrigue about Page’s stone has primarily developed around the Community of Christ Library and Archives’ one-time supposition that they possessed the Hiram Page seer stone and a claim by Alvin R. Dyer that the descendants of John Whitmer possessed the stone. In fact, the Community of Christ does possess two early Mormon Indian gorgets, associated with a collection procured from George Schweich, David J. Whitmer’s nephew, who also sold the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon to the Community of Christ.12 As Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, along with others, pointed out in 2000, “There are conflicting accounts of where Hiram Page’s stone was located and what it looked like; perhaps more than one stone was claimed as Page’s.”13
Alvin R. Dyer famously declared that he had discovered Page’s seer stone. He championed the idea that a seer stone passed down through Jacob Whitmer’s family was the Hiram Page stone.14 In 1955, he rediscovered a stone in the possession of Mayme Janetta Whitmer Koontz, the daughter of John C. Whitmer. Though she did not know the exact ownership history from John Whitmer to her, she was confident that it was a sacred item, though she was willing to sell it. David C. Martin purchased the stone and met with Richard Howard, the historian of the RLDS Church in 1971. Howard compared the stone with the Schweich stone in the RLDS Archives, then explained to Martin that they were Indian gorgets, not seer stones.15 According to Rick Grunder, Martin eventually used the seer stone as collateral in a bank loan that he eventually could not pay back. Grunder approached the bank, purchased the seer stone from them, sold the stone to Steven F. Christensen, and then brokered a sale to the current private owner.16
There has been no evidence that can verifiably refute Koontz’s claim that she possessed the Hiram Page seer stone. However, there is good reason to question its validity. If one assumes that it had been in Jacob Whitmer’s possession, there is no known purpose for why it fell into his hands and why he would keep it after a Joseph Smith revelation declared Satan used the stone to deceive Hiram Page (see D&C 28:11). Additionally, it is similar to the Indian gorgets the Community of Christ Library and Archives possess. David Whitmer apparently had them in his possession at one time, and they too were mistakenly considered to be the Hiram Page seer stones, then later seen as a personal item of David’s and not the Page stone. The common shape and form between the brother’s seer stones may suggest a common origin.
Hiram Page’s seer stone was more likely destroyed rather than preserved through generations of the Whitmer family.17 To protect a necromantic instrument for decades at a time and to bequeath it to future generations of the family does not fit the character of any of the Whitmers. If Koontz believed that it was sacred, she did not know much about its tainted past. More to its character and building upon the Saints’ negative experience with the seer stone, one early member of the Church, Emer Harris, who was the brother of Martin Harris, gave a speech in 1856 that provided details about the Hiram Page controversy. Emer Harris declared that Joseph “got revelation that the Stone was of the Devil; …then it was Broke to powder and the writings Burnt.”18 Harris seemed confident that the seer stone had been destroyed, but he never revealed whether this was common knowledge or if he had witnessed the event. It is unlikely that Emer attended the meeting where the Hiram Page controversy was resolved because he was not listed in the meeting minutes and he was not baptized until February 1831.19 On the other hand, the whole Harris family had been interested in Martin Harris’s involvement with the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon since early 1828. Emer was also apparently devoted to the Church well before he was baptized in 1831 because he named his short-lived son Joseph Mormon Harris in the summer of 1830.20Therefore, there is good reason to believe Emer Harris had at least secondhand knowledge of the fate of the Hiram Page seer stone, and it is possible that he attended the meeting in September 1830.
After the Page incident, one might think that seer stones would be taboo or just less valued in Latter-day Saint culture, but there was a minor tradition of seer stone use from 1830 until the turn of the twentieth century. The following chart identifies the individuals and situations in which seer stone culture remained part of the Latter-day Saint tradition throughout the nineteenth century. The turn of the twentieth century accompanied a major transition in the Church’s past that essentially left seer stone theology to the previous generations. The changes that took place included major political, economic, administrative, and doctrinal modifications that created a new Mormon worldview.21 Some of the leaders, such as B. H. Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and James E. Talmage, addressed the overwhelming currents of scientific knowledge that began to flood Mormon theology. Radical teachings like the Adam-God doctrine and polygamy were slowly massaged out of the Church’s mainstream beliefs just as new boundaries were formed as the Church identified its new relationship with the broader world. One of the natural developments was to ignore or qualify occult experiences of the past. B. H. Roberts, for example, tried to explain that the words appeared in the seer stone by radioactive decay.22 After a century of secular pressures, seer stones had largely been ignored, though Doctrine and Covenants 130 had been canonized since the 1870s.
REPORTED SEER STONES
|account||other stones identified by d. michael quinn, ogden kraut, and ian barber23|
|The Sun (Philadelphia)24||Some Mormons were known to have a white stone in 1831.|
|Samuel F. Whitney25||Elizabeth A. Whitney had a personal seer stone that Samuel Whitney borrowed.|
|Edward Partridge26||Town seer in Kirtland, offered to guide Edward Partridge to find his seer stone near Lake Erie. John Thorp’s daughter.27|
|Elaine Mullins28||Kirtland stone, Elias Pulsipher stone used by daughter.|
|Times and Seasons29||James Brewster’s seer stone, in Kirtland and Nauvoo.30|
|Alfred Cordon31||William Mountford of Staffordshire, England and other local members of the Church possessed seer stones.32|
|Wilford Woodruff33||Women in the Stafford, England area using peepstones.34|
|Oliver B. Huntington35||Mary Leather Anderton, Staffordshire seeress, glass-like egg.|
|George Albert Smith36||Edwin Rushton, Staffordshire convert in Nauvoo and Utah. Claimed to have the white stone John the Revelator described in Revelation 2:17.37|
|Mary Ellen Abel Kimball38||Thomas Butterfield’s son had a seer stone, tested by Heber C. Kimball.|
|Priddy Meeks||Numerous seer stones to be known in Parawon.39|
|Priddy Meeks||William Titt of Parawon, was natural seer.40|
|Samuel R. Parkinson||Kaysville, Utah. “Went to see a man who had a peep stone.” He understood there were a few people who could use a peep stone in the area.41|
|J. Golden Kimball in Kraut||Someone who could help find cattle.42|
|Christian Anderson||Sister Russell of Salt Lake City had a seer stone.43|
37- Kraut, Seers and Seer Stones, 53–55. Rushton wrote in the journal, “As I stood in contemplation, the earth on the right side of me opened to the depth of about five feet, and I beheld a pot of treasure on top of which was a beautiful seer stone, clear as crystal, which I was told belonged to me. At the time I received the vision, I did not know anything about a seer stone and had never sought for a vision …the following day I proceeded to hunt for the stone, taking three of my relatives with me. After digging for a short time, the stone was thrown out with a shovel of dirt. It is my firm conviction that this stone is one of the stones spoken of by John the Revelator.”
To see the links listed in the table above, please click here:
Other stones identified by D. Michael Quinn, Ogden Kraut, and Ian Barber23
The Sun (Philadelphia)24
Samuel F. Whitney25
John Thorp’s daughter.27
Times and Seasons29
James Brewster’s seer stone, in Kirtland and Nauvoo.30
William Mountford of Staffordshire, England and other local members of the Church possessed seer stones.32
Women in the Stafford, England area using peepstones.34
Oliver B. Huntington35
George Albert Smith36
Mary Ellen Abel Kimball38
Numerous seer stones to be known in Parawon.39
William Titt of Parawon, was natural seer.40
Someone who could help find cattle.42
Sister Russell of Salt Lake City had a seer stone.43
WHEN DID JOSEPH SMITH RETRIEVE HIS SEER STONES?
Identifying when Joseph Smith found his seer stones is a difficult task. Unless additional sources are found in the future, dates and relationships between dates will be left up to speculation. Three researchers have attempted to account for the dating, but they have each created different theories without much accord. A consensus cannot be made, but the following will briefly recreate their theories and display the boundaries for creating a timeline for when Joseph Smith discovered his seer stones.
There are at least four factors that must be considered when determining the dating of each seer stone retrieval: where, when, which stone, and whom Joseph was with. There are many accounts that address one or two of these factors and only a handful that deal with all four in one account. Unfortunately, the accounts do not complement each other and there is very little consistency throughout the sources. For example, sometimes the brown stone is described as being shaped like a baby’s shoe and sometimes the white stone is described the same way, but to further complicate the problem, sometimes the white stone is implied to be found near Lake Erie, and it is possible that it was the stone found on the Chase property. To further complicate the issue, many of the accounts have problems themselves.
There are five accounts that offer dates for when Joseph Smith retrieved his seer stones. The earliest retrieval date is 1819, given by local residents Pomeroy Tucker and Fayette Lapham, whereas the later dates claim Joseph found his seer stones around 1822 (see chart below). Neither Lapham nor Tucker witnessed Joseph Smith retrieve a seer stone; they also never claimed that they asked Joseph directly where he found his seer stones. Lapham tried to piece together a conversation he had with Joseph Smith Sr. around 1830—his account was given secondhand after forty years had passed away, in 1870. Tucker did not reveal where he obtained his information, but he published it in 1867. Though the information they provided and their claims that Joseph found his first seer stone in 1819 could be accurate, there is very little to substantiate their assertions. Historians have been much more willing to accept William D. Purple’s account and Willard Chase’s 1833 affidavit that claim the seer stones were discovered sometime around 1822. Chase was a firsthand witness, and Purple claimed to have recorded Joseph Smith’s history about the retrieval of the seer stone.
PRIMARY SOURCES DESCRIBING WHEN JOSEPH SMITH FOUND HIS SEER STONES
|Brigham Young1||Lake Erie scenario||First stone||“another seer”|
|Fayette Lapham2||Lake Erie scenario||14 yrs old (1819 to 1820)||Dark stone||“a man”|
|William D. Purple3||Lake Erie scenario||1819 to 1820 and 18224||layered5||“neighboring girl”|
|Willard Chase6||Well scenario||1822||Willard Chase|
|Pomeroy Tucker7||Well scenario||Sept 1819||whitish|
To see the links listed in the table above, please click here:
William D. Purple3
1819 to 1820 and 18224
Using the accounts above and contextual evidence, D. Michael Quinn gathered numerous sources together to begin the dialogue about dating when Joseph found his seer stones. Dan Vogel criticized Quinn’s work, challenging dates before 1822, while Mark Ashurst-McGee later formulated a creative and informative model using both early and later dates.
Quinn dates the retrieval of Joseph Smith’s seer stones far earlier than any other historian. He leans heavily upon the accounts of both Fayette Lapham and Pomeroy Tucker in his conclusions that the white seer stone was retrieved in 1819 near Lake Erie.8 He also argues that Joseph Smith could have been in Pennsylvania near 1818 and could have retrieved the green stone from Jack Belcher by 1822. After that Quinn argues that Joseph found the brown stone with Willard Chase in 1822, which became his primary seer stone.
- MICHAEL QUINN TIMELINE FOR JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES
Mark Ashurst-McGee argues that Joseph looked into Sally Chase’s green seer stone soon after they moved near the Chase farm on the boarder of Palmyra and Manchester in 1819. He peered in the stone and saw where to find it on the banks of Lake Erie, over 150 miles away. Using late accounts, particularly Dr. Purple’s version of the 1826 trial, Ashurst-McGee argues that years separated Joseph’s first vision in the stone before he retrieved his stone near Lake Erie. Once he returned he began digging with Willard Chase for buried treasure, under the pretense of digging a well, where Joseph found his second seer stone in 1822. As for the green seer stone, he argues Joseph never went to Pennsylvania until the fall of 1825.
MARK ASHURST-MCGEE TIMELINE FOR JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES, IN “PATHWAY TO PROPHETHOOD,” 213–14.
Dan Vogel, on the other hand, dates the retrieval of the seer stones soon after 1822. He determined this date because Willard Chase declared that he was with Joseph Smith when he retrieved a seer stone from a hole on their property. Vogel also determines this to be a little early because Joseph Smith’s testimony in Purple’s version of the 1826 trial explained that Joseph had only been digging for buried treasure for around three years.
DAN VOGEL TIMELINE FOR JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES.
RETRIEVAL THEORIES COMPARED (ASHURST-MCGEE, VOGEL, AND QUINN)
|mark ashurst-mcgee||1. 1819 and 1822 (Lake Erie)||2. 1822 (Chase farm)||3. After 1825 (Belcher)|
|dan vogel||1. After 1822 (Chase farm)||2. Between 1822 and 1826 (Lake Erie)||3. Between 1825 and 1826 (Belcher)|
|d. michael quinn||3. 1822 (Chase farm)||1. 1819 (Lake Erie)||2. ca. 1822 (Belcher)|
- 1. Woodruff, Journal, 5:382:3. “President Young also said that the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained he got in an Iron kettle 15 feet under ground. He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had. He went right to the spot & dug & found it.”
- 2. Lapham, “Interview with Father Smith,” Historical Magazine,May 1870, 306. Joseph “happened to be where a man was looking into a dark stone and telling people, therefrom, where to dig for money. …Joseph requested the privilege of looking into the stone, which he did by putting his face into the hat where the stone was. It proved to be not the right stone for him; but he could see somethings, and among them he saw the stone, and where it was, in which he could see whatever he wished to see.”
- 3. Purple, “Originator of Mormonism,” 3. “He said when he was a lad, he heard of a neighboring girl some three miles from him, who could look into a glass and see anything however hidden from others; that he was seized with a strong desire to see her and her glass; that after much effort he induced his parents to let him visit her. He did so, and was permitted to look in the glass, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light. He was greatly surprised to see but one thing, which was a small stone, a great way off. It soon became luminous, and dazzeled his eyes, and after a short time it became as intense as the mid-day sun. He said that the stone was under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm, situated about a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie, not far from the New York and Pennsylvania line. He often had an opportunity to look in the glass, and with the same result. The luminous stone alone attracted his attention. This singular circumstance occupied his mind for some years, when he left his father’s house, and with his youthful zeal traveled west in search of this luminous stone.”
- 4. Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 211. Purple’s account indicates that the seer stone vision in the other seer’s stone “occupied his mind for some years.”
- 5. “On the request of the Court, he exhibited the stone. It was about the size of a small hen’s egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shape. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket.”
- 6. Willard Chase, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240–48.
- 7. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism.
- 8. Quinn, Early Mormonism, 43.
The above is abbreviated information from the book titled Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick
http://www.deilataylor.com/lds-quotes-about-seer-stones/ Reference website about seer stones.