At a press conference yesterday the LDS Church released photographs of the chocolate-colored, egg-shaped seer stone that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. For decades the stone has resided in the restricted First Presidency vault, and visitors have rarely seen it.
Until recently the Church also restricted access to sensitive archival documents and occasionally punished historians who publicized problematic Church history. Around the turn of the century the Church began a drive to shed its reputation for secrecy. The mainspring of this effort has been its critically acclaimed Joseph Smith Papers Project, which seeks to publish “Everything of a written nature Joseph Smith generated, or over which he had oversight.”
But while the Church has relaxed its restrictions on archival access, the First Presidency vault has remained closed. For some detractors this has signified a continuing lack of historical transparency. The seer stone’s unveiling is changing all that.
As historian Dan Vogel wrote to me about yesterday’s announcement, “Several months ago when I made [a YouTube video] on the translation process I said I wouldn’t consider the church truly open on the translation issue until they published photos of the stone. I guess I got my wish.”
The stone’s unveiling marks a significant shift in Latter-day Saint discourse about the nature of the translation process.
Past Mormon pedagogy portrayed Joseph Smith translating the plates by looking at them through the “Urim and Thummim”—a priestly artifact mentioned in the Bible (Ex. 28:30 Lev. 8:8; Num. 27:21; Deut. 33:8). Biblical scholars suggest the Urim and Thummim were a pair of stones used in casting lots, but Mormon lore makes them an optical instrument. Book of Mormon witnesses described them as two transparent stones set in a large metal bow—“spectacles” sized for an antediluvian giant.
But historical evidence indicates that neither plates nor spectacles were present for most of the translation process. Smith used the spectacles to translate the “Book of Lehi,” but then Martin Harris lost the manuscript and an angel reportedly took the spectacles away as punishment. Smith received the remainder of the Book of Mormon through a chocolate-colored seer stone. He placed the stone in a hat and put his face in the hat to exclude ambient light. Words then appeared to him on the surface of the stone.
This translation method soon became a source of embarrassment for Smith. Early critics of the Book of Mormon pointed out that he had used the same method earlier in the 1820s to search for buried treasure. His career as prophet seemed to have grown directly out of his early practice of folk magic.
Smith deflected this criticism by concealing his past use of seer stones. When he famously narrated the translation process in 1839, he said only that he had translated by means of the Urim and Thummim. He omitted any mention of the stone in the hat.
Knowledge of Smith’s use of seer stones has never fully disappeared from Mormon discourse, and some Saints say they’ve known about the translation method since childhood. For others, the truth comes as a shock. Not a few disaffected Mormons say they feel the Church lied to them about the mechanics of translation.
That’s why a new cadre of Church leaders and historians are “inoculating” the members by updating the Church’s art and curriculum to reflect the truth about how the Book of Mormon was translated. Proponents argue that this will allow the Church to control the narrative and will prevent members from feeling so betrayed when they learn about the seer stone from outside sources.
That’s why in 2014 the Church published a “Gospel Topics” essay on “Book of Mormon Translation” which described Smith’s use of a seer stone in a hat. It’s also why the Church yesterday unveiled beautiful new photographs of the chocolate-colored stone Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.
But not everyone is excited about the new openness. Opponents of inoculation warn that the Church’s effort to educate members about the seer stone may trigger the very feelings of betrayal it seeks to prevent. Members who have long defended the Church against “anti-Mormon lies” concerning seer stones are now being asked to accept that the lies are true.
That played out in microcosm yesterday on the Facebook page for BuzzFeed News. “Please take this down NOW,” a Church member demanded in the comment feed of an article about the Church’s announcement. “This is very incorrect, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would never display the Urim and Thummim out to the public, even if they were still on the earth right now.” Other commenters replied with links to an article about the seer stone on LDS.org.
But most members will likely recover from their shock with faith intact. In an eloquent post this morning, renowned LDS historian Richard Bushman took an optimistic view of the announcement. “Seerstones don’t trouble me,” Bushman wrote.
I rather like them. They are part of Mormon materiality. They suggest there is a technology of revelation, somewhat resembling ipads, that assist us in getting divine intelligence. I don’t subscribe to Protestant stuffiness about proper ways for God to act and disreputable ones. I am willing to go along with the ways of God even if they are unconventional by enlightenment standards.
Mormon book dealer Hugh McKell even suggested on a mailing list yesterday that the seer stone’s unveiling may be good for the Church. Older folks will likely “view all this new stuff like water off a duck’s back,” he wrote, while young people may find it exciting. “They really need to have it out on display. . . . The Bishops would be organizing trips to the museum for all the youth to see the stone; [the] line would wrap all the way around temple square. Why, it would become more popular than the handcart treks.”
At the very least it’s an opportunity for some enterprising candy maker to release a line of seer-stone-shaped novelty chocolates.