Yes, Joseph Smith Really Did Use a Seer Stone in the Translation of the Book of Mormon

Last week I attended part of the 22nd International Book of Mormon Evidences Conference hosted by the FIRM Foundation. One of the presentations on Friday morning was delivered by James F. and L. Hannah Stoddard of the Joseph Smith Foundation. The title of the presentation was “Urim & Thummim or the Seer Stone & Hat?” The thrust of the argument made by the Stoddards during this presentation was as follows:

  1. Joseph Smith never used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon.
  2. Joseph Smith was never involved in any “occult” activities.
  3. Claims that Joseph Smith ever used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon or was ever involved with folk magic come exclusively from anti-Mormons or apostate dissidents and are therefore untrustworthy.
  4.  Modern Latter-day Saint historians who promote claims of Joseph Smith using a seer stone are peddling dangerous revisionist history.
  5. Latter-day Saint leaders who allow historians to publish narratives which include Joseph Smith using seer stones in official Church publications are victims of manipulation and potentially even outright fraud on the part of these historians, not unlike those Church leaders who were deceived by the forger Mark Hoffmann.1

These claims have been repeated by the Stoddards elsewhere (here and here, for instance). The underlying assumption which appears to be guiding the Stoddards’ arguments is that seer stones are satanic, as is anything else related to the occult, and Joseph Smith, being a true prophet, would never engage in such behavior.

These assumptions and claims deserve some comment.

Joseph Smith never used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

This claim is easily refuted by even a cursory look at the surviving historical record. The history of Joseph Smith’s use of both the Nephite Interpreters and his personal seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, as well as the provenance of Joseph’s seer stone(s), has been clearly delineated by Latter-day Saint historians.2 This history, once confined mostly to academic journals and monographs, has slowly made its way into mainstream and official Church narratives.3

Joseph Smith was never involved in any “occult” activities.

By “occult” what the Stoddards mean is what is otherwise called “folk magic” by historians. As with Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, the Smith family’s involvement in folk magic has been abundantly documented.4 The question is not really whether Joseph Smith participated in this culture, but the extent to which he participated in it and what that might have meant to him and his early prophetic career.5 Contrary to the Stoddards’ assumption, early nineteenth century American folk magic was not seen as incompatible with authentic Christian religion by practitioners.6 Joseph Smith did downplay his involvement in folk magic later in his life, most likely in an attempt to quiet pervasive anti-Mormon accusations of indolence and deceit, but he never outright denied such.7 The Stoddards might be scandalized by the idea that Joseph Smith ever practiced money digging and related “magical” activities, but Joseph Smith himself wasn’t.

Claims that Joseph Smith ever used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon or was ever involved with folk magic come exclusively from anti-Mormons or apostate dissidents and are therefore untrustworthy.

Again, this claim is easily refuted. John W. Welch has helpfully collected most of the known first and secondhand primary historical sources on the translation of the Book of Mormon. The Stoddards, in their FIRM Foundation presentation, singled out Doctor Philastus Hurlbut and David Whitmer as dissidents who are especially responsible for spreading the false and odious claims that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Putting aside the fallaciousness of their argument that dissident sources cannot preserve authentic historical remembrances, by the Stoddard’s own standard there is reason to accept the account of Joseph’s use of a seer stone. Friendly, faithful sources which affirm Joseph Smith used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon include Martin Harris and Emma Smith, to name just two:

[Martin Harris] also stated that the Prophet translated a portion of the Book of Mormon, with the seer stone in his possession. The stone was placed in a hat that was used for that purpose, and with the aid of this seer stone the Prophet would read sentence by sentence as Martin wrote, and if he made any mistake the sentence would remain before the Prophet until corrected, when another sentence would appear. When they became weary, as it was confining work to translate from the plates of gold, they would go down to the river and throw stones into the water for exercise. Martin on one occasion picked up a stone resembling the one with which they were translating, and on resuming their work Martin placed the false stone in the hat. He said that the Prophet looked quietly for a long time, when he raised his head and said: “Martin, what on earth is the matter, all is dark as Egypt.” Martin smiled and the seer discovered that the wrong stone was placed in the hat. When he asked Martin why he had done so he replied, to stop the mouths of fools who had declared that the Prophet knew by heart all that he told him to write, and did not see by the seer stone; when the true stone was placed in the hat, the translation was resumed, as usual.8

Now, the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of 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.9

I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the Church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.10

As with Joseph Smith’s involvement with folk magic, the issue at hand isn’t whether the Prophet ever used a seer stone, but when he used it, how he used it, and how to parse the terminology (“stone[s],” “spectacles,” “Urim and Thummim,” etc.) used in the historical sources, since this terminology is sometimes conflated in later recollections. Contrary to what the Stoddards claimed in their FIRM Foundation presentation, this is not a matter of historians just blindly believing whatever fits their revisionist theories, but applying the tools of critical historical scholarship to make sense of the surviving data.

Modern Latter-day Saint historians who promote claims of Joseph Smith using a seer stone are peddling dangerous revisionist history.

What the Stoddards are really fearful of here is credible historical scholarship which challenges their fundamentalist beliefs. Because the Stoddards cannot countenance the idea that Joseph Smith was involved with the “occult,” or that Joseph Fielding Smith was mistaken in his outdated assessment of the history of the translation of the Book of Mormon, they are desperate to discount any new scholarship which contributes to their cognitive dissonance. But because they cannot refute the careful scholarship of professional historians, they instead seek to pathologize it. Hence their solemn warning during their FIRM Foundation presentation that narratives about the translation of the Book of Mormon which include talk of seer stones will confuse and demoralize the youth of the Church, and ultimately cause them to doubt their testimonies. But this is mere alarmist rhetoric, and does not actually address the issue at hand.

Latter-day Saint leaders who allow historians to publish narratives which include Joseph Smith using seer stones in official Church publications are victims of manipulation and potentially even outright fraud on the part of these historians, not unlike those Church leaders who were deceived by the forger Mark Hoffmann.

In order to explain how it is that seer stones are being incorporated into the official historical narrative of the Church, the Stoddards have promoted conspiracy theories about a sort of deep state of dangerous intellectuals within the Church who are, effectively, pulling the wool over the prophets’ eyes. We shouldn’t blame or criticize the current prophets who erroneously allow talk of seer stones get mainstream traction, the Stoddards clarify, because they just don’t know any better. And besides, prophets (except, it seems, besides Joseph Fielding Smith) aren’t infallible, so they’re allowed mortal failings like the rest of us. Failings like not being able to detect a cabal of rogue historians leading the youth of the Church astray with claims that Joseph Smith used seer stones and practiced folk magic, evidently.

In other words, to put a fine point on it, the Stoddards are seriously suggesting that when Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sat two feet away from Dr. Kate Holbrook in last month’s Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults as she went on in detail about how the translation of the Book of Mormon involved a seer stone, he was oblivious to the truth, and Dr. Holbrook is either a naive useful idiot or nefarious agent of this deep state.

 

The Stoddards are also seriously suggesting that the collective discernment of the First Presidency is so faulty that when it endorsed the first volume of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, an official Church history which explicitly describes Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone, it was unaware of the apostate schemes brewing right under its nose in the Church History Department.

This may rightly seem absurd to most, but I observed plenty of anxious audience members at the FIRM Foundation conference who nervously groaned when they heard about the irresponsibility of the “intellectuals” (a pejorative used freely throughout not just the Stoddards’ presentation, but other presentations at the conference as well) at the Church History Department. Rod Meldrum himself, after the Stoddards spoke, took the stand and lamented that seer stones had made their way into historical site guides for missionaries and institute and seminary curricula.

Rest assured, dear reader, that the good men and women at the Church History Department are not party to a nefarious conspiracy to undermine the Brethren or confuse you about Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint history. They are, rather, honestly attempting to communicate what we know about early Church history from surviving sources in a way that is both academically responsible and faith affirming.

So when you think of the translation of the Book of Mormon, heed not the uninformed historical claims of the Stoddards, nor their bizarre conspiracies. Rather, envision the translation of the Book of Mormon in this manner:

  1. This summary is based on notes I kept while listening to the presentation. I am not sure if the presentation was recorded or will ever be made available online.
  2. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God’,” Ensign, September 1977, 78–85; Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing’,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 49–68; Stephen D. Ricks, “Notes and Communications—Translation of the Book of Mormon: Interpreting the Evidence,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 2 (1993): 201–206; Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 61–93; Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2003); John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestation, 1820–1844 (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: BYU Press and Deseret Book, 2005), 77–213; Don Bradley, “Written by the Finger of God? Claims and Controversies of Book of Mormon Translation,” Sunstone, December 2010, 20–29; Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford, 2011); Roger Nicholson, “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 121–190; Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, “Firsthand Witness Accounts of the Translation Process,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey et al. (Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2015), 61–79; From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2015); Stanford Carmack, “Joseph Smith Read the Words,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 18 (2016): 41–64; Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2016); Stan Spencer, “Seers and Stones: The Translation of the Book of Mormon as Divine Visions of an Old-Time Seer,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 24 (2017): 27–98;
  3. See additionally B. H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Translation,” Improvement Era, July 1906, 706–713; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God’,” Ensign, January 1997, 36–41; Steven E. Snow, “Joseph Smith in Harmony,” Ensign, September 2015, 51–57.
  4. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd edition (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998); John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Mark Ashurst-McGee, A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 2000).
  5. See John Gee, “‘An Obstacle to Deeper Understanding’,” FARMS Review of Books 12, no. 2 (2000): 185–224; William J. Hamblin, “That Old Black Magic,” FARMS Review of Books 12, no. 2 (2000): 225–393; William J. Hamblin, Daniel C. Peterson, and George L. Mitton, “Mormon in the Fiery Furnace: Or, Loftes Tryk Goes to Cambridge,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6, no. 2 (1994): 3–58; Samuel M. Brown, “The Reluctant Metaphysicians,” Mormon Studies Review 1 (2014): 115–131; Richard Lyman Bushman, “Joseph Smith and Money Digging,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Provo, UT and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2016), 1–6; Eric A. Eliason, “Seer Stones, Salamanders, and Early Mormon ‘Folk Magic’ in the Light of Folklore Studies and Bible Scholarship,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2016): 73–93.
  6. On this point see especially Kerry Muhlestein, “Seeking Divine Interaction: Joseph Smith’s Varying Searches for the Supernatural,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 77–91.
  7. In response to the question “Was not Jo Smith a money digger?” the Prophet joked, “Yes, but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 43, The Joseph Smith Papers, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/elders-journal-july-1838/11.
  8. Martin Harris, as interviewed by Edward Stevenson (1886), in Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” 136.
  9. Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim (1870), in Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” 129, emphasis in original.
  10. Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Joseph Smith III (1879), in Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” 130.

3 thoughts on “Yes, Joseph Smith Really Did Use a Seer Stone in the Translation of the Book of Mormon”

  1. Great article. This reminds me of those who support the Heartland model of the Book of Mormon. It becomes almost it’s own religion in their passion and zeal for such an idea. I have seen massive 300 post plus arguments when BoM geography is discussed. These are all from active Latter-Day Saints mind you. If you are remotely critical of the idea the hornets nest is unleashed.

  2. Thank you for this article. I did not know that a counter argument existed for this “new narrative’. I am glad you linked the articles on LDS Answers. Those articles helped me to see that my hesitancy to believe this “new history” really did come from the Holy Ghost. I liked how LDS Answers emphasized the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Christ’s doctrine found in scriptures. What a breath of fresh air to see that I am not the only one that thinks it best to stick with what the scriptures reveal and not jump onto someone else’s interpretation.

  3. I for one welcome more lines and precepts to enlighten the [near-Pollyanna-like] wart-free official histories. “Saints is a fantastic step in this direction. If anything, it makes the people involved more real, and fixes them in a specific time and place, as opposed to their being storybook characters (caricatures?) in a morality tale, when they behave in the same ways that ‘normal’ people do. Hopefully, the new CFM curriculum, utilizing what appears to me to be the Socratic Method, will encourage more critical thinking, and intellectual *and* spiritual growth as regards scripture, Church history and [folk] doctrine.

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