Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone: A Historiographical Glimpse

The recently released images of Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone in the Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon and forthcoming article in the Ensign titled “Joseph the Seer” discussing Smith’s method of translation has become a bona fide social media event. Many are decrying, perhaps rightly, that the church has been less than forthcoming in the past about Smith’s use of seer stones for translating and receiving revelation. Others are critiquing those who were surprised by this information, pointing out a handful of articles in the Ensign and Friend magazines over the past three decades as evidence of transparency.[1] These few articles notwithstanding, it is disingenuous to claim that the church widely accepted and taught Joseph Smith’s method of translation through seer stones.

Taking a brief look at the following officially-sanctioned histories yields mixed results. Furthermore, the historiographical treatment has been to preferentially emphasize the Urim and Thummim over the seer stone as Smith’s method of translation, with the former providing a legitimizing narrative based on scriptural precedent rather than folk-magic.

In Joseph Smith’s History of the Church edited by B.H. Roberts, seer stones are mentioned only in connection with receiving revelation and only in the context of Smith’s eventual disuse of the instruments:

Smith used the Seer stone when inquiring of the Lord, and receiving revelation, but that he was so thoroughly endowed with the inspiration of the Almighty and the spirit of revelation that he often received them without any instrument, or other means than the operation of the spirit upon his mind.[2]

B.H. Roberts later compiled Comprehensive History of the Church, published in 1930. In this work, seer stones are explicitly described and connected with Book of Mormon translation:

Joseph [Smith] and Oliver [Cowdery] both say the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim, which is described by Joseph as being “two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate;” while David Whitmer says that the translation was made by means of a Seer Stone. The apparent contradiction is cleared up, however, by a statement made by Martin Harris. He said that the Prophet possessed a Seer Stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as with the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he sometimes used the Seer Stone. Martin said further that the Seer Stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rimes, very much resembling spectacles, only they were larger. 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 Chace, near Palmyra, N.Y.[3]

In 1972, Leonard Arrington was appointed as the LDS Church Historian and tasked with publishing several important updated histories of the church. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard’s The Story of the Latter-day Saints was published by Deseret Book in 1976 intended as a single-volume general history to replace Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History (1943). Allen and Leonard remained silent on the subject of seer stones, preferring instead the Urim and Thummim account and connecting the “translators” with Old Testament Levite practices.[4] Another single-volume history that emerged from this project was Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, published by University of Illinois Press in 1979 and intended for a more academic audience. However, this volume offers little more information about seer stones in connection with Book of Mormon translation. While Arrington and Bitton did mention seer or “peep” stones in connection with divining, they followed the pattern set forth in History of the Church by focusing on Smith’s eventual disuse of them:

As late as 1841 Joseph Smith displayed a seer stone in Nauvoo, Illinois, although his attachment to such things had become qualified in two directions: he readily said every person was entitled to such a stone, and his own revelations and translations had long since ceased to require such physical aid.[5]

In yet another commissioned volume that emerged from the Arrington era, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, greater detail is provided than what was previously given on the nature of seer stones and divining or translating in connection with the Book of Mormon.[6] In this, Bushman wrote: “Joseph looked in the seerstone or the interpreters, and the plates lay on the table.”[7] Bushman further expanded his description in an endnote, quoting Emma Smith in writing, “The first that my husband translated was translated by the 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 dark in color.”[8]

Although not a complete omission, it is clear that the historical depiction of Smith’s method of translation by seer stone has been inconsistent. An important question to consider is when did the LDS Church adopt this position of reticence? The following statement made by Joseph Fielding Smith in 1956 demonstrates the root of the historiographical emphasis of Urim and Thummim over seer stones:

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 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.[9]

The reality is that Joseph Fielding Smith was mistaken in his historical interpretation, but his influence meant that this incorrect view became status quo for how the LDS Church has treated Smith’s method of translation and its emphasis on the Urim and Thummim. In 1980, the History Division of the Church was shut down and all staff historians under Leonard Arrington were moved to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Church History. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that the new department was dedicated to Joseph Fielding Smith, as it seems his conservative historiography was the template from which staff historians were expected to operate. At this point, one can only speculate as to the internal conversations.

Examining how the topic has been treated within Seminary and Institute manuals as well as Sunday School manuals gives some insight into continued institutional reluctance in connecting seer stones with Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon. Since only the more recently published Seminary, Institute, and Sunday School manuals are being referenced in this article, a more comprehensive study of the historiography of LDS instruction manuals remains open.

The current Seminary instruction manual for the Book of Mormon (published 2012) contains the following description by Elder Neal A. Maxwell of Smith’s method of translation:

David Whitmer indicated that as the Prophet used the divine instrumentalities provided to help him, ‘the hieroglyphics would appear, and also the translation in the English language … in bright luminous letters.’ Then Joseph would read the words to Oliver (quoted in James H. Hart, “About the Book of Mormon,” Deseret Evening News, 25 Mar. 1884, 2). Martin Harris related of the seer stone: ‘Sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin’ (quoted in Edward Stevenson, “One of the Three Witnesses: Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882, 86–87).

Oliver Cowdery is reported to have testified in court that the Urim and Thummim enabled Joseph ‘to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates’ (“Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 Apr. 1831).[10]

However, it should be noted that this information is contained under the section “Commentary and Background Information” intended to provide the instructor with “additional understanding of specific concepts or scripture passages.” The instructor is advised to “Use the information in this section to prepare to answer questions or give additional insights as [they] teach.”[11] In other words, the instructor may use this information at their discretion.

The current Institute manual, Church History in the Fullness of Times (published 2003), provides only a description of the Urim and Thummim in connection with the translation process. Furthermore, it states the following regarding Smith’s temporary loss of the gift and power of translation following Martin Harris’ loss of the initial 116 pages:

Moroni appeared to Joseph and required him to return the plates and the Urim and Thummim, but promised that he could receive them back if he were humble and penitent. Some time later he received a revelation which chastised him for negligence and for “setting at naught the counsels of God” but also comforted him that he was still chosen to perform the work of translation if he repented (see D&C 3:4–10). Joseph did repent and again received the plates and the Urim and Thummim, along with a promise that the Lord would send a scribe to assist him in the translation (emphasis added).[12]

This depiction contradicts most other accounts that indicate Smith began using his brown seer stone following his period of reprobation in completing the rest of the translation. Beginning in 2016, LDS Institute instructors will use the new Foundation of the Restoration Teacher Manual (published 2015) that contains a link to the Gospel Topics essay “Book of Mormon Translation” and advises the instructor to:

Explain that another instrument Joseph Smith used while translating the Book of Mormon was a small oval stone, sometimes referred to as a “seer stone,” that he discovered several years before he obtained the gold plates (see “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, The historical account indicates that the Prophet sometimes used the Urim and Thummim and sometimes used the seer stone to translate.

Furthermore, the new manual advises the instructor to read the following passage to their students:

When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done ‘by the gift and power of God’ and once added, ‘It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.’

Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing ‘a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light’ [Alma 37: 23–24]” (“Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics,[13]

The current Sunday School instruction manual intended for newer members and investigators of the church, Gospel Principles (published 2011), contains one lesson on the LDS scriptural canon and mentions only that the Book of Mormon was “translated … through the gift and power of God.”[14] Although a new edition of the Gospel Principles manual is rumored to be forthcoming, as of this writing no details have been announced on its contents.

Finally, in 1996, under the direction of President Gordon B. Hinckley, a manual titled Our Heritage was issued as supplementary material for the church’s adult Sunday School classes. In discussing the coming forth of the Book of Mormon it states only that “[Moroni] had also buried the Urim and Thummim, which was used by prophets anciently and which Joseph was to use to translate the record” and that the “Urim and Thummim were taken away” from Smith following the loss of the initial 116 pages.[15] The manual makes no mention of seer stones either in connection with translating or receiving revelation.

Although the case can be made that Joseph Smith’s usage of seer stones for revelation and translation was not entirely absent from the church’s officially-sanctioned histories and instruction manuals, treatment of the topic has been inconsistent, with many of the most wide-reaching publications making little to no reference to seer stones until recently. The historiography has for the past half-century been a conservative model that emphasizes the Urim and Thummim over seer stones, apparently stemming from the desire to promote a scriptural rather than folk magic foundation in connection with translating through the “gift and power of God.” It is not unthinkable that a member of the LDS Church could have spent their life without having been made aware of Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones in connection with translating the Book of Mormon or receiving revelations. On a positive note, this lack of clarity is changing as witnessed by the forthcoming Ensign article as well as the revised youth manuals for Seminaries and Institutes. Undoubtedly, institutionally-commissioned work will continue to add lucidity to topics that have been addressed inconsistently, if not altogether ignored.

[1] See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; “A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sept. 1974.

[2] Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Vols., B.H. Roberts, ed. (Deseret News Press, 1902-1912), 1:294.

[3] Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 Vols. (Deseret News Press. 1930), 1:128.

[4] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Deseret Book, 1976), 43-44.

[5] Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (University of Illinois Press, 1979), 12.

[6] Under the direction of LDS Church leadership and Leonard Arrington, it was originally intended that Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism would be one in a sixteen volume updated history of the church. Deseret Book scheduled publication of the new volumes for the Church’s sesquicentennial year in 1980; however, the project severely lagged behind production schedule and was ultimately abandoned as “unrealistic.” Some of the volumes besides Bushman’s that were eventually published independently are Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838 (Deseret Book, 1983); Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1890-1930 (University of Illinois, 1996); Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Deseret Book, 2002).

[7] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (University of Illinois Press, 1984), 97.

[8] Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 221n5. Bushman revisited and expanded his description of Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones for revelation and translation in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

[9] Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 Vols. (Bookcraft, 1954-1955), 3:225–26.

[10] Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual (Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2012), “Lesson 4: Title Page, Introduction, and Testimony of Witnesses.”

[11] See “Introduction to the Book of Mormon Seminary Teacher Manual.”

[12] Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual (Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2003), 37-51.

[13] Foundation of the Restoration Teacher Manual (Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2015), “Lesson 3: the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon.”

[14] Gospel Principles (Intellectual Reserve, Inc. 2011), 44-49.

[15] Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Intellectual Reserve, Inc. 1996), 5-19.


Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone: A Historiographical Glimpse — 8 Comments

  1. In all the furor and fuss about the seerstone, why has no historian pointed out the somewhat unreliable chain of custody?

    Not everyone in that chain has been entirely reliable in their recollections in the past; there is no doubt that Joseph’s seerstone existed, and resembled the stone which has been in the Church’s possession for over a century, but that this is the actual seerstone, I think, is not entirely without question.

  2. It’s a fair question, Mary. I think partly we just haven’t seen much documentation on chain of custody because the volume hasn’t been released yet. The stone does appear to fit the description of Joseph Smith’s stone in the early sources, so I’m inclined to think it’s the right one. However, I know H. Michael Marquardt has some doubts and is doing some work on the chain of custody question. Perhaps we will see something from him on that question soon.

  3. I think adding to the confusion Chris, is that often the seer stones were called Urim & Thummim. For those not as familiar with the details of the history a reference to the U&T referring to the seer stone could easily be confused as referring to the U&T two stone item.

  4. Really can’t thank you enough for chasing this stuff down, Brian. This is some sound work that sheds light on how the seer stone was framed in the past.

  5. Pingback: Mormon News, August 10–14 | Signature Books

  6. The book tracks the provenance, which is why this particular stone was chosen to be highlighted according to the editors.

  7. Why all this fuss from people who look into silica stones everyday. If mortals could come up with the where with all to fabricate such stones in 30 or so years think of what God could do over eons!

  8. By 1833, Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including both the Nephite interpreters and the single seer stone. This imprecise terminology has complicated attempts to reconstruct the exact method by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.