The Gospel Topics essay Book of Mormon Translation suggests that some significant number of those who are critical of LDS truth-claims do so because they question that God would use such an instrument.1 The essay states:
Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.
The defense presented seems valid,2 but issues with use of the seer stone in producing the Book of Mormon go well beyond whether or not God would or could use physical objects, like a rock, to bring about desired ends.
Problems associated with the seer stone narrative
The primary issues raised by Joseph Smith’s use of the seer stone are:
Use of the seer stone frames the Book of Mormon as a treasure digging extension. Because Joseph found the stone digging a well3 and used it as part of his treasure digging activities,4 then it makes it much easier to view the finding and translation of the Book of Mormon as an extension of his treasure digging activities. It makes it easier to view Moroni as a treasure guardian and the Book of Mormon as part of a strategy (with pious intentions or not) emanating from that perspective.
The stone’s dubious utility in helping find treasure undermines expectations that it would be efficacious in producing genuine translations. We lack evidence that Joseph ultimately helped recover any legitimate treasure with his seer stone,5 and this undermines expectations that the stone might be of aid in producing an accurate translation of an ancient document.
Why was the seer stone unhelpful in recovering the lost 116 pages? If the primary/original function of the seer stone was, as stated by the Book of Mormon Translation history topic, “to look for lost objects and buried treasure,” then why did Joseph not look into the stone to locate the 116 missing pages? And why was he so distraught with their loss if he really could simply re-translate them again with the seer stone?
The resolution of the 116 pages episode, including the explanation in Words of Mormon 1 and the revelation in D&C 10 purporting that wicked men would alter the translation to frustrate the work seems ad hoc and sub-optimal compared to other hypothetical solutions that might have involved efficacious use of the seer stone.6
The stated functional purpose of the interpreters and the plates becomes questionable. The use of the seer stone calls into question the purpose of the interpreters and the plates themselves. BYU professors Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig Ostler explain the related problems:
… the testimony of David Whitmer [Joseph using the seer stone to translate, words appearing on the stone, etc] simply does not accord with the divine pattern. If Joseph Smith translated everything that is now in the Book of Mormon without using the gold plates, we are left to wonder why the plates were necessary in the first place. It will be remembered that possession of the plates placed the Smith family in considerable danger, causing them a host of difficulties. If the plates were not part of the translation process, this would not have been the case. It also leaves us wondering why the Lord directed the writers of the Book of Mormon to make a duplicate record of the plates of Lehi. This provision which compensated for the loss of the 116 pages would have served no purpose either. Further, we would be left to wonder why it was necessary for Moroni to instruct Joseph each year for four years before he was entrusted with the plates. We would also wonder why it was so important for Moroni to show the plates to the three witnesses, including David Whitmer. And why did the Lord have the Prophet show the plates to the eight witnesses? Why all this flap and fuss if the Prophet didn’t really have the plates and if they were not used in the process of translation? What David Whitmer is asking us to believe is that the Lord had Moroni seal up the plates and the means by which they were to be translated hundreds of years before they would come into Joseph Smith’s possession and then decided to have the Prophet use a seer stone found while digging a well so that none of these things would be necessary after all. Is this, we would ask, really a credible explanation of the way the heavens operate?
Problems arising with narrative and promulgation
Besides the events surrounding the use of the seer stone, there are two main issues related to the seer stone narrative itself that can be of concern:
Inconsistencies in translation narratives cast suspicion on one or more of those involved. Various apparent inconsistency in narratives about the tools used to translate the Book of Mormon may undermine confidence in one or more participants in early restoration events. LDS scholar Royal Skousen explains:
The two individuals that could have told us the most about the translation process are Joseph Smith, the translator, and Oliver Cowdery, his primary scribe. Besides stating that the translation was done by “the gift and power of God”, they both explicitly claim that Joseph made the translation using the Urim and Thummim, meaning the interpreters that came with the plates. But in no case did they give any details, nor did they ever mention the seer stone. It appears that their witness statements purposely avoid mentioning the stone in the hat, the method that would have linked Joseph to treasure hunting. And although it is true that Joseph used the interpreters in the very beginning of the translation, there is no firsthand witness who confirms their use after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript. In fact, three witnesses gave evidence that the seer stone was used when Oliver was the scribe: Emma Smith (February 1879), Michael Morse (8 May 1879), and David Whitmer (14 October 1881); Emma’s evidence is indirect, but the two others specifically list Oliver by name. Thus Joseph Smith’s claim that he used the Urim and Thummim is only partially true; and Oliver Cowdery’s statements that Joseph used the original instrument while he, Oliver, was the scribe appear to be intentionally misleading.
Both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, each in two instances, maintained a narrative that the Book of Mormon was translated by means of the Urim and Thummim, which was obtained with the plates.7 Hence, to accept accounts of the seer stone being used for the Book of Mormon translation (in whole or part) at best casts doubt on Oliver and Joseph’s abilities or motivation to be accurate in relating restoration events and at worst undermines confidence in their integrity generally.
Poor promulgation by the LDS Church suggests a failure in transparency or handling. Fairmormon acknowledges that the stone is “rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork.” The seer stone’s use in translation is referenced a handful of times in Church related resources and a few times in official sources,8 but efforts to exhaustively catalog all mentions only serve to better make the case for poor handling: if a leading LDS historian, Richard Lloyd Anderson, was freely acknowledging use of the seer stone in the Book of Mormon translation in an Ensign article from 1977, why did this fail to find its way into standard curricula9 in the intervening decades?
It is sometimes suggested that former members who were unaware of the use of the seer stone were simply uninformed. But the historical record indicates that the ignorance (or misinformation) extended upwards at least to someone like Clay Norton, a six missions served, former Mission President who felt confident enough in their gospel scholarship to publicly field questions about the Church as “Ask Gramps.” In 2006, when asked about the seer stone, he published a response indicating that “there is no evidence that [Joseph Smith] used such an object in his translation o[f] the Book of Mormon.”10
The historical reasons behind the disfavor for the idea that Joseph used the seer stone in translation are now well established,11 but the failure of the Church to clarify and teach what has been an accepted historical fact for close to three or four decades may be troubling to some. One can admit, for instance, that finding a way to consistently merge witness testimonies into a single narrative is difficult,12 the narratives themselves are muddied by unclear terminology, and leaders of yesteryear did not necessarily have access to the copious information on the topic that we do today, even while appreciating the implications of the failure. Whether from an inability to gain clarity on the history itself, a reluctance to spread a narrative that members might find uncomfortable for the aforementioned reasons, or an inability to effectively promulgate the data, it seems reasonable that such a failure might weaken confidence in the Church’s ability to handle and promulgate core aspects of the historical record.
- The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon (book chapter from Welch’s “Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844”)
- Eyewitnesses claiming the seer stone was used to translate the Book of Mormon (A Careful Examination)
- The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation (Roger Nicholson’s 2013 analysis in The Interpreter)
- mormonscholar.org Seer Stone Related Materials (Certina)
- FAIR response to Joseph Fielding Smith view on the seer stone
- Misinformation/Lack of Information About the Book of Mormon Translation Process in Disseminated Church Material (google doc)
The argument is captured more colloquially in this FairMormon video.
You know what I don’t get? How people act like the seer stone part of the translation process is like the deal breaker … it starts off with Moroni, an ancient Native American who dies and goes to heaven and comes back as a glowing angel—that’s fine, right—literally an Indian flying through time and space to get Palmyra, New York is okay, but once you put a rock in a hat oh that’s where it just gets crazy. … since Joseph was the Prophet of the Restoration he would be spiritual numbered among ancient people like the priests of the Old Testament who used the Urim & Thummim, aka magic rocks, to perform the will of God or even Aaron who used a magic stick. … He did use seer stones to translate but by the process of logic it’s bizarre that someone would use this as a weapon against the Church. Joseph Smith’s first divine claim was that God and Jesus appeared to him. If you don’t believe in God or Jesus, then you don’t believe Joseph’s claim. The seer stone divinity is operating under the umbrella of God existing. The CES Letter is atheistic and examining the seer stone under an umbrella in which there isn’t a God is meaningless. If you do believe in God and Jesus then you’ve opened the door for angels, spirits, and all sorts of supernatural things. It’s not as if this is technically weirder than those things. If you don’t believe in anything supernatural or divine, then obviously you wouldn’t beleive that God could use objects for divine purposes, so essentially we’re saying, “who cares?”
The vast majority of believing Latter-day Saints do tend to already accept the idea that various inanimate objects may be used as part of God’s work.13 The argument for accepting the use of physical objects in God’s handiwork can be formalized:
- Premise 1: The God of the Bible exists.
- Premise 2: The Bible is roughly accurate in conveying stories of God working through miraculous objects to accomplish his will.
- Premise 3: Joseph was instructed or inspired by the God of the Bible.
- Then: It is reasonable and consistent with past events described in the Bible for Joseph Smith to have used an object (in this case, the seer stone) to translate the Book of Mormon in bringing about God’s purposes.
Hence, for anyone who accepts the Bible as an accurate or reliable representation of how God functions or is willing to contemplate an interventionist God in general, these arguments seem sound. ↩
According to footnote #11 of Church history and doctrine professor Alexander Baugh’s BYU devotional: “Joseph Smith obtained the stone, described as dark brown in color, while digging a well for Willard Chase around 1822 (see Willard Chase, “Testimony of William Chase,” in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville, Ohio: Eber D. Howe, 1834], 240–41). This discovery occurred only two years after the First Vision but five years before Joseph obtained the plates and the interpreters from Moroni in 1827.” The Church History study topic Book of Mormon Translation corroborates: “The other instrument, which Joseph discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the plates, was a small oval stone, or ‘seer stone.’” ↩
The Church History study topic Book of Mormon Translation corroborates (emphasis added): “The other instrument, which Joseph discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the plates, was a small oval stone, or ‘seer stone.’ As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As he grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture. ↩
There are a handful of accounts suggesting that Joseph was able to see things with his stone. For instance, in 1884 David Whitmer recounted that Oliver “had asked Joseph to look in the Seer stone, that he did so, and told him all these particulars of my journey.” (As conveyed by James Hart to the Deseret News and to the Bear Lake Democrat). However, the only physical objects recorded to have been recovered by Joseph Smith consist of a “pin” used as a toothpick recovered from a pile of straw and shavings (as cited in the Meridian magazine), a piece of ore that resembled gold, and a “stump 5 feet from the surface” and with it a “a tail feather” which ended up being the only remnant of a treasure that purportedly “moved down” so as to be unrecoverable. (see Josiah Stowell’s testimony in The Docket Entry to the 20 March 1826 trial People of the State of New York vs. Joseph Smith records Joseph Smith Papers). ↩
The revelation in D&C 10 claims that wicked men had stolen the manuscript and had altered the words in an effort to trap Joseph in a potential re-translation effort. The revelation hints at a potentially greater concern if Joseph were to produce a re-translation and it did not match the first 116 pages: “they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself.” A reproduced document that only varied in a few ways would allow the lost/altered pages to be scrutinized and alterations would likely be obvious on inspection. In such a manner, the original scripture could have been preserved, Joseph Smith’s ability to accurately (re-)produce a translation validated, and any (purported) evil designs frustrated. ↩
Royal Skousen reproduces two communications by Joseph Smith stating that he translated “the book of Mormon” or “the record” using the “Urim and Thummim” which he had found with the plates. First, Joseph Smith’s “Answers to Questions”, 8 May 1838, published in the Elders’ Journal in July 1838:
Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?
Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again there- from, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.
Also, his letter to John Wentworth, published on 1 March 1842 in the Times and Seasons:
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.
Skousen also reproduces two communications by Oliver Cowdery which describe the translation via the “Urim and Thummim” which he associated with the Nephite interpreters. The first from a letter to W.W. Phelps, 7 September 1834, published the next month in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate:
Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites whould have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or record, called “The book of Mormon.”
And as recorded by Reuben Miller in his journal, 21 October 1848, published in 1859 in the Deseret News (quotation reproduced in this 2015 Deseret News article):
I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, “Holy Interpreters.”
The Book of Mormon Translation Gospel Topics essay states: “Two accounts of the translation process, including the use of a seer stone, have been written by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and published in Church magazines. Historians have also written about the seer stone in Church publications, both in the Ensign and in The Joseph Smith Papers.” Fairmormon catalogs some other usage, too. ↩
There are several variances, but the most significant apparent contradiction is that Joseph Smith and Oliver said that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummim, which had been obtained with the plates, whereas Emma Smith, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris all clearly separate the seer stone from the Urim and Thummim and describe Joseph using the seer stone after the loss of the 116 pages (Emma Smith and David Whitmer) or after use of the Urim and Thummim (Martin Harris). ↩