At the recent SLC Bloggernacle party, one reveller lamented that "Mormons shouldn’t learn about Joseph’s seer stone from South Park." He was referring to the famous South Park episode that offered a comic tour through Mormonism’s founding. One scene shows Joseph Smith putting two seer stones into a hat, then burying his face in the hat and dictating words to Martin Harris. For the post 116-page translation of the Book of Mormon this is a pretty accurate (although irreverently lampooned) depiction of events. Our friend thought that most Mormons don’t know about this; that they would be horrified to find out; and that they would be doubly shocked to find out the truth via South Park.
There are several problems here.
First, Church art usually provides a simplified, sans seer stone portrait of the Book of Mormon translation. That said, I think most Mormons are aware that the Book of Mormon was translated by means of some kind of miraculous device, usually called the "Urim and Thummim." That fact is a central and well-known part of the translation story. Its absence in most Church art seems like more of an issue of depicting the sacred than evasion.
Second, "Urim and Thummim" is used in a confused manner in the early sources to describe both the spectacles buried with the plates and Joseph’s own seer stone. It is no wonder then that we remain confused today.
Third is the question of the availability today of accurate, Church-sponsored accounts of the seer stone. In other words, is there really silence on this issue? The answer is no–you do not need to rely on South Park, the Ensign will do:
“The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. [Oliver Cowdery's brother-in-law] David Whitmer wrote:
‘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, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.’ (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12.)”
- Elder Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament, Ensign, July 1993, 61)
I remember my father pointing this article out to me when I was a kid (aged 17 in 1993). I think it was new information for me then but I don’t remember "having a problem" with it (except a certain confusion about the nature of the Urim and Thummim compared to the seer stone). For me, anything South Park told me was old hat (pun intended).
This was also the near-consensus at the SLC party. Everyone claimed to have known about the seer stone since their youth. So our South Park-averse friend could be accused of creating a straw-man here: the issue is simply not as stark as he would suggest.
But perhaps it is a tad more complicated than that. The SLC group was full of distinctly well-informed Mormons (as Ryan Bell has amusingly pointed out). One Ensign article from 1993 might not be on the radar for many members of the Church.
So I did a search at lds.org for "seer stone" (try it!). 20 mentions in the Friend (the Friend!), the New Era and the Ensign suggest that whilst not always at the fore of our descriptions of the Book of Mormon translation, there has hardly been a cover-up.
So, what’s going on? Is there a problem here, or is it being overstated? Are 20 references over the last 30 years not really enough to inform the "average Mormon?" Did you know about the seer stone? How did you find out? Did it bother you? And do we need a Mormon wiki/FAQ that deals with these issues lest people leave the Church in droves because of a cartoon? Are there other issues like this that relate to Mormon general knowledge (or a lack thereof)?