Seer stone lessons

Last year’s bicentennial celebration and associated bibliophilistic apex made accessible to popular discourse a granularity in 19th century Mormonism that had been lacking for perhaps decades. One of the concepts that has found a voice in this maturation is the Prophet’s tools of divination and revelation. Like many things in our history, these do not translate well to our modern praxis. This disparity forces us to consider the propriety of folk magical approaches to divine communication in our time.

The idea the Joseph used an Urim and Thummim and seer stones in his translation of the Book of Mormon is taught to us from Primary on. While the Urim and Thummim are considered to be in the possession of the angel (along with the plates, sword and director), the Church has still in it’s possession one, but perhaps up to three different seer stones in their vault (1). In his journal, Wilford Woodruff noted a pertinent event during the dedication of the Manti Temple:

Before leaving I consecrated upon the Altar the sears stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 feet under the earth carried by him through life. (2)

Joseph used the stones for treasure seeking, finding lost items, translating the Book of Mormon, receiving revelations, and translating the Book of Abraham. (3) He found the rock upon which the church was built 30 feet under ground. Joseph also believed that his tools were not unique to him.

Most Mormons are familiar with divination in some sort or another. Bibliomancy, the practice of opening scriptures up at random to access divine will, is rather common. Missionaries often experiment in processes that approach casting lots in order to find locations in which to travail. I, however, know of no one who looks into stones to access the divine.

I was recently made aware of a new blog that purports to support the use of seer stones by citing mainstream Mormon scholarship. From the charter post:

This blog is created in order to learn more, and network with individuals that actually use or seek to use seer stones. This is a Christian blog.

I’ll be frank. I’m not quite sure what to think of this. Really, I find all modern divination off-putting. This perspective, however, isn’t particularly consistent with an historical perspective. While I am grateful for a more open and coherent discourse of our origins, I am still uncertain how to accept such anachronisms in our modern communion with God.

________________

  1. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p.195
  2. Wilford Woodruff Diaries vol. 8 pg. 499 (17, 18 May 1888). Thomas Alexander notes in Things in Heaven and Earth that he had previously consecrated it at home. Ibid, vol. 8 pg. 489 (18 Mar. 1888).
  3. For notes on treasure seeking and item finding see Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith, RSR pg. 49-52 and notes therein. For reference to the Book of Abraham see Parley Pratt, Millennial Star (July 1842), vol 3 pg. 47 and Orson Pratt, JD vol. 20 pg. 65

Comments

  1. In my opinion, the reason that Joseph was able to use the seer stones was because he had faith that they would work, and the Lord needed Joseph in that capacity. I think that, if Joseph beleived that he could look into the butt of a turkey and could see things, the lord could have made that happen as well.

    Such things aren’t needed and I don’t think that trying to use a seer stone will be of much use to these people unless the lord wills it. Which I doubt.

  2. I have a seerstone: it’s called Google.

  3. If such things were not needed why do they even exist?

  4. Again, it just makes us look ultra-cultish. That guy’s website is embarrassing. Researching SSs is fine, but Quinn and Kraut have done the grunt-work in it, and to set up a website in devotion to it is, again, cultish.

    I just realized my reply is chiastic.

  5. It’s my impression that your average informed Mormon will reply that seer stones are a crutch for the nascent prophet, something _real_ on which to concentrate in order to achieve the faith necessary for his work. Sort of like the “Micheal Jordan secret stuff” in the movie Space Jam.

    Or perhaps like the clay-and-spit that Jesus used to heal the blind man. Necessary? It boggles the mins to think so. Helpful, as a focus point for where the struggling-to-believe can place some of their faith? Definitely.

  6. Kuykendahl says:

    As an average, but less than informed member, I’ll second Kaimi’s comment.

    I don’t view any of seer stones, U&T, Liahona, annointing oil, garments, divining rods, etc. as having any intrinsic “magic” or other spiritual or phyical capabilities.
    Instead, to the extent any of these items add value, it is because they are a means of focussing one’s faith. Since a seer stone, the U&T, and a divining rod are enough outside of my cultural experience (though I used a water witch in scout activities several times growing up), they wouldn’t help me.
    On the other hand, prayer, annointing oil, fasting, laying on of hands, these are items that do have some ritual resonance for me, and so can be spiritually productive.

    Whatever type of “translation” or “revelation” Joseph did or received with the seer stones, I think could be done without them.

  7. Kaimi, I liked your spit and mud comparison.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Nibley addresses this issue to some extent in the introductory chapters to his magnum opus, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, which has just been reissued in a new edition by FARMS. It has been too long since I read it for me to recall specifically what he says, but I vividly recall the great caption he gave this material:

    “Are Gadgets Necessary?”

    (By “gadgets” he included revelatory helps such as seer stones.)

    I think the answer was along the lines of what Kaimi writes above.

    On another note, our church artwork (showing Joseph laboring over the plates and such) doesn’t do a very good job of preparing the Saints for the reality that Joseph dictated what we have of the BoM with his face buried in a hat gazing at the seerstone. A lot of people cough up a hairball when they first learn what the procedure really was.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    BTW, one of my favorite articles on this topic is:

    Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15/2 (Summer 1982), pp. 48-68.

    http://content.lib.utah.edu/cgi-bin/docviewer.exe?CISOROOT=/dialogue&CISOPTR=16574

  10. Agreed, Kevin, that is a great article. I will probably do a review once I have read it, but I just ordered the following thesis from UMI that looks quite splendid:

    A pathway to prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as rodsman, village seer, and Judeo-Christian prophet. Ashurst-McGee, Mark, MA. UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY, 2000. 387 pp. Advisor: Toelken, Barre

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    It should be good. Mark Ashurst-McGee has made himself the expert on this topic, and has presented on it at MHA.

  12. I’m with y’all. In addition to the analogies Kaimi brought up I have also compared such “gadgets” to Dumbo’s feather in the past.

  13. Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted Seers in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

    It appears that the possession of “gadgets” is essential to be a Seer, and furthermore, that the translation of the BOM would not have been possible without them, as they were specifically prepared for the translation of the book.

    Does the possession of a Seer stone, constitute a Seer in present times? I take this passage to mean that if the Church (ie. The Prophet and 12) did not have the use of Seer stones we would only sustain them as Prophets and Revelators, rather than Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.

  14. I wish I could remember the source – perhaps the article mentioned above – but Joseph Smith mentioned later in life he no longer needed seer stones. He had becomes advanced enough in the workings of the spirit that he internalized the functions of a seer stone. So yes, a seer stone is a “gadget”, but a very useful one for the vast majority seeking further light and knowledge. They certainly seemed a very useful ladder for Smith to get to where he needed to go. How many of us can say we’re that advanced?

  15. Urim and Thummin are directly from hebrew, they were first mentioned by aaron. It is unlikely that J.Smith Jr. at an early age in backwater N.Y. at the time, had much knowledge of U&T from any formal training. Use of the U&T as well as other “gadgets” is very common in ancient Judeo-Christian hertige, ie. Temple of Solomon. The question one has to ask of any religion at the end of the day is, by looking at the adherents, is their life style “christian”? People do not live in a good way for decades in an evil empire. Even Mormons don’t believe that they will be the only ones in heaven, just that they get a little head start in self preparation to get there, that at some time others will follow the same path. I personally find just about every so called Christian religion has a closet full of strange beginnings, starting with the Catholics and on to the corner Evangelical. I would not expect anything different when dealing with the mystic divinity. Moses and the Israelites are a case in point. Really weird stuff there, but it is well accepted by everyone. ie. Moses’ staff, Manna, water rocks, pillar of fire. So, in conclusion, it is quite reasonable for Mormons to claim a U&T connection.

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