This is a guest post written by Justin, a blogger at Secular-Reality.com.
To those who may not know the origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. The Mormons), nor have seen The Book of Mormon musical, nor viewed the “All About Mormons” episode of South Park, here’s an ultra-quick history:
In the early 1820s, New York resident Joseph Smith claimed that an angel came to him and told him of the existence of golden plates, upon which were engraved the account of ancient Jews who came to North America via boats. According to Joseph, the angel (Moroni) revealed that the plates were conveniently buried in a nearby hill. Joseph dug up the plates and promptly set about translating them.
According to Joseph, the plates were written in something he called “Reformed Egyptian,” so he needed divine assistance in order to accomplish the magical task of translating them into a version of English that sounded very much like the King James Version of the Bible. For this purpose, he had the help of special “seer stones” called the Urim and Thummim, which were buried along with the plates. The stones gave him the help he needed, so the story goes, and the resulting translation was eventually published as The Book of Mormon.
Yesterday, the LDS Church, in collaboration with The Community of Christ (formerly The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), released a new volume of “The Joseph Smith Papers Project” that included a full-color photo of the magical “seer stone.”
It’s a solid brown, smooth stone with lighter brown bands.
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) August 4, 2015
I am now a “retired Mormon” and an atheist. Growing up within the LDS Church, there are so many apocryphal and rumored stories about these “seer stones.” I was often told that they were crystal clear and placed into a device similar to a set of spectacles, allowing Joseph Smith to wear them as he looked over the plates and translated them. I was never made aware, as a believing member, that early LDS member, financier, and authority David Whitmer described the method this way:
Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery…
I know I am no longer amongst the fold and more prone to “skepticism,” but I could not be more underwhelmed, not to mention perplexed, by the photo of the stone.
As a child, I was always told they were crystal clear, making it easier for Joseph to read the Reformed Egyptian text. This stone is obviously not clear, which puts that story into even more doubt. It also does not glow in the dark, as the Brother of Jared stones should. Finally, I was surprised to find while researching this piece that LDS historian and former member D. Michael Quinn claims that the LDS Church actually holds three different “seer stones.” Only one was shown in the photographs.
It’s worth noting that Joseph Smith, previous to his career as a prophet, regularly practiced a form of divination commonly known as “scrying” in which the seer would look into a special stone to learn the location of gold, buried treasure, or other valuables. In 1826, Smith was arrested in New York for being “a disorderly person and an imposter.” He was referred to as “The Glass Looker” in the proceedings. The analysis of available documents in 1972 by Marvin S. Hill reads:
Just recently, however, Reverend Wesley P. Walters of the United Presbyterian church in Marissa, Illinois, discovered some records in the basement of the sheriff’s office in Norwich, New York, which he maintains demonstrate the actuality of the 1826 trial and go far to substantiate that Joseph Smith spent part of his early career in southern New York as a money digger and seer of hidden treasures. A periodical in Salt Lake City which heralded Walters’s findings said they “undermine Mormonism” and repeated a statement by Hugh Nibley in The Myth Makers, “if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.”
To believers, the publication of the seer stone photo is likely joy-inducing and faith avowing. To those who have heard the various myths before, it is underwhelming in the extreme and just further evidence that Joseph Smith was “a disorderly person” not to be trusted.