Book Review: Joseph’s Seer Stones

Book cover contains artist’s painting of Joseph’s white seer stone

I was pleased that Deseret Book sent me a copy of Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones to review.  I know a lot of people have complained church members have complained that we always reference the Urim and Thummim, but not seer stones.  There is also the complaint that the artwork is incorrect concerning Joseph translating the plates.  It appears Deseret Book is out to change that perception and give more information regarding this topic with this new book.  It is a welcome book that is easy to read, and uses footnotes to give the reader scholarly information on Joseph’s Seer stones (plural).  While the Church recently published a photo of the brown, chocolate colored stone, the cover of the book shows an artist’s rendition of a white seer stone Joseph used, and there was also talk of a green seer stone used by Joseph.  Apparently Joseph preferred the white one over the brown one (that he used to translate the Book of Mormon), and gave the brown one to Oliver Cowdery in 1830.  He kept the white one throughout his life, and some of the revelations from the D&C were received through this white seer stone!  A chart on page 128-9 indicates Joseph got the brown stone sometime between 1822 and 1830 (there are 4 theories that do not mesh well), got the “Nephite interpreters” between 1827-1829, and had possession of the white stone between 1822-1844.  There is talk of a green stone, but not sure when he had it.

LDS.org published a photo of the brown seer stone

The ownership of the brown stone is best documented.  After the church was organized in 1830, Joseph gave it to Oliver who kept it until his death.  Phineas Young secured the stone from Oliver’s widow and then gave it to his brother Brigham in 1857 who owned it until 1877.  One of Brigham’s widows had it for a time, and it ended up with John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff.  It was then given to the Smith family (I was unclear which Smith family, but I believe it was descendants of Hyrum.)  In 1970 it was in the possession of Joseph Fielding Smith, and has been kept with the First Presidency since.

The provenance of the white stone isn’t quite as clear. This stone was used to receive revelations 3, 6, 7, 11, 14, 17, and 132!  (The brown stone was used for the Book of Mormon translation, according to Emma, and was also used for the revelation to obtain a Canadian copyright on the Book of Mormon.)  It is known that Wilford Woodruff had the white stone, and laid it upon the altar of the Manti Temple during the dedication.  It may have been used for parts of the Book of Abraham.

Appendix 2 discusses Joseph Smith’s green and Nauvoo stones.

Some antagonists have called the right painting dishonest, while the left one is more historically accurate

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

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, Jospeh 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 descendents 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 ha 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 apparently given to Princeton University upon passing of Normal Pierce along with all 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.

I was surprised how freely the book quoted Michael Quinn and Dan Vogel, two scholars that have often been viewed as less than faith-promoting in their studies of Mormon history.  I was also surprised how often the word “occult” was used at the beginning of the book to describe Joseph’s treasure seeking activities prior to his discovery of the Book of Mormon.  I’ll give the authors a lot of credit here–occult is a loaded term in today’s world, yet they didn’t shy away from it (nor give a definition of exactly what they meant.)  From literally pages 1-2,

The book shows this painting. The caption states he is looking in a hat, blocking out light, but the light is sure getting in easily.

The book shows this painting. The caption states he is looking in a hat, blocking out light, but the light is sure getting in easily.

As Tucker and others have contemplated Joseph Smith’s early years of money digging and his interest in the supernatural of the occult, they would have unnaturally created a divide between supernatural interests an other early nineteenth century religious experiences.4  Where they saw a deep divide, Joseph saw an environment where the ecstatic religious experiences ever present in revivalism were exhibited in folk religion and the occult.  For Joseph, Christianity worked together with folk religion, medicine, and common folklore….The non-institutionalized characteristics of folk religion and the occult was rarely incorporated into genteel religion or declared publicly, but those who participated did not firmly distinguish between their own Christian beliefs and the occult.  Historian Robert Fuller argues, “Americans have had a persistent interest in religious ideas that fall well outside the parameters of Bible-centered theology….In order to meet their spiritual needs, … [they] switched back and forth between magical and Christian beliefs without any sense of guilt or intellectual inconsistency.”

The book tries to normalize this kind of magical thinking in Joseph’s day, while at the same time acknowledging that Joseph was charged with being a “disorderly person” in 1826 in Pennsylvania on account of his using seer stones to find buried treasure.  From page 32,

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

The authors also note that Joseph Smith was unique in that he was the only one who claimed to see actual words in his seer stones, and that others, including Willard Chase and Oliver Cowdery used seer stones, or dowsing for water.  In fact, from page 20

Even after the church was organized in 1830, the overlap of religious and occult experiences, now Doctrine and Covenants 8, provides a perfect example of the occult’s religious nature and why it is so difficult to separate the occult from biblical Christianity in nineteenth-century America.  In it, Oliver Cowdery was told he had two gifts.  The first gift as the “spirit of revelation,” which was “the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel though the Red Sea on dry ground.”  The second was less descriptive, but the printed version of the revelation explained that Cowdery was given the “gift of Aaron” by God.  The printed version made the parallel between the gifts associated with Moses and Aaron, but early versions of the revelation were less explicit about this parallel.  In the original manuscript, the second gift was described as “the gift of working with the sprout” instead of the gift of Aaron.”  The second gift apparently had two overlapping meanings.  The idea of a “sprout” could have easily represented the miracle in Numbers 17:2, in which the rod of Aaron budded or sprouted.  Yet it was also a reference that indicated Cowdery was known for his ability to find subterranean minerals and water with a divining rod.  The term “sprout” was often used to describe divining rods in the 1820s and ’30s.52  Once Cowdery’s revelation was printed, Sidney Rigdon changed the word “sprout” to “rod.”  Eventually, the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants replaced the original term with “the gift of Aaron.”53  It is possible that the revelation was intended to reference the rod of Aaron originally, since it was given alongside a description of the gift of revelation which Moses possessed, but its parallel meaning which references Cowdery’s gift of using a divining rod demonstrates the indistinguishable tie between the occult and religion.  A diviner would have been pleased with this parallel between biblical teachings and teh supernatural, and a Christian at that time would have been happy to know divining had a biblical precedent.54

still shows a hat, but wow I don't think that much light came out.

still shows a hat, but wow I don’t think that much light came out.

I think it is interesting how honest the authors are about the occult.  I expect this discussion still may make modern people a little uncomfortable, but once again, they are trying to describe Joseph’s understanding, not ours.  One area I thought they were a little weak on was the discussion of the King James Bible in the Book of Mormon.  They did discuss 4 theories about the translation of the Book of Mormon, briefly describing the (1) Royal Skousen, (2) Solomon Spaulding, (3) Blake Ostler, and (4) Grant Hardy theories on the composition of the Book of Mormon.  Briefly, Royal Skousen (page 46)

suggests that “Joseph Smith could actually see (whether in the interpreters themselves or in the mind’s eye) the translated English text–word for word and letter for letter–and that he read off the revealed text to his scribes.”5  The 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.”

I’ve already discussed the Spaulding Theory which states that Joseph plagiarized a novel by Solomon Spaulding.  I think you should actually read the novel (see part 1 and part 2) to see how badly written the novel is, but some people are still trying to prove the Spaulding theory, but I think has been thoroughly debunked.  I also think the original Jokkers wordprint study was successfully refuted by BYU.

Concerning option 3 (Blake Ostler), the authors write (page 47)

Some Mormon scholars have reached a middle ground and want to allow for both divine inspiration and Joseph’s own active role in the final English text.  One such scholar, Blake T. Ostler, argued, “The Book of Mormon is best interpreted as an ancient text has been translated, explained, and expanded within a nineteenth-century framework.”  It is important to see that the issue is not whether Joseph Smith interpreted the Book of Mormon, but to what extent.”13  Those who favor Joseph’s own creative role in the project reject the idea of him simply reading the English words from seer stones and instead prefer  an inspirational or visionary model of the translation process.”

Then there is option 4, Grant Hardy.  Page 48

Other scholars, such as Grant Hardy, have tried to examine the Book of Mormon on its own terms, asking what it says about itself (and what that implies about its own textual transmission, including translation) rather than how it stands up against ancient and modern history.  This method avoids the dichotomized worlds of those who accept its claims the phenomological experiences of Joseph Smith and his scribes and the effects of the Book of Mormon as a lived sui generis work.

With regard to option 4, it is important to note seer stones within the Book of Mormon, and the authors wonder if the Liahona was a sort of seer stone.  Concerning other stones mentioned in the Book of Mormon (page 117)

once again, there's a lot of light coming in that hat, but it is a better portrayal of the translation process

once again, there’s a lot of light coming in that hat, but it is a better portrayal of the translation process

Brant Gardner has argued that this stone [mentioned in Omni 1:22] 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 own 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 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.

Could Joseph Smith have done the same thing with regards to adding the King James Bible to the Book of Mormon.  It is argued that 19th century people would have expected to read KJV English which would therefore confirm the book’s authenticity since it reads exactly the same as their bibles.  It seems like this idea supports Ostler more than Royal Skousen, yet Skousen refers to David Whitmer’s explanation that words appear on the rock and then disappear.  I just find it hard to reconcile and didn’t find this argument all that convincing.

The authors also write off the didactic model of revelation–the idea that Joseph used seer stones at first and then quit using them once he learned how to get revelation.  Yet Joseph apparently used the white seer stone late in life for D&C 132, and said the white stone mentioned in the Book of Revelations would be given to all church members for their own personal seer stones.  (I certainly wasn’t aware that a seer stone was used for 132!)

I applaud both Deseret Book, as well as authors Michael Hubbard Mackay and Nicholas J. Frederick for their attempt to shed much more light on seer stones.  I know some people will think these guys are apologists, but I think they’ve created a good book with a lot of scholarly summaries.  It is a wonder if people will buy this book and read it, or simply stick it on their shelf without reading it.  What are your thoughts about this book?  Were you aware Joseph had more seer stones than just the one shown last  year at LDS.org?  Are you comfortable with how often Joseph used occult magic within his religious life?


2 comments on “Book Review: Joseph’s Seer Stones

  1. Yep! I’m comfortable. I think the truth is much stranger and far out there than we think. I believe we will be flabbergasted when we find out the truth about the Savior’s life, the lives of the prophets, how things are translated, etc.

    I mean, our religion at it’s restoration was extremely strange. We have shied away as a church from most of the strangests aspects and do not but faintly resemble having had “all things” restored. The dispensation of the fullness of times is barely glimpsed currently. Brigham Young’s teachings were rejected by the church as a whole when they began entering territory that couldn’t be supported by the bible

  2. I’ll take you one further. I’m trying to find some of these stones myself.

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