Kevin’s recent post on abstaining from commentary (or having seizures, I couldn’t tell from the title), brought to my mind the fact that our current level of discussion about Smith’s use of seerstones in translation hovers around the voyeuristic (rather than exploit my well-intentioned threadjack on Kevin’s thoughtful post, I started a new thread). I would like to think about implications and broader narratives for the mode of Book of Mormon translation. First, though, the “facts”:
The best evidence we have confirms that Smith claimed exclusively supernatural access to the hieroglyphs of the gold plates (this would not remain the case throughout his career, but it was so for the Book of Mormon). Reliable evidence suggests that he used the mode of folk seeric usage for at least some and probably much of the Book of Mormon translation. Specifically, the seerstones were placed in the top of a hat, into which the seer gazed, his face covered by the hat. Classically, the seer saw visions in this pose. Some have felt Smith saw words in the stones, others have felt he connected thereby with the meaning of the glyphs. This has not been settled, and Smith did not give much direct indication for historians. Throughout most of the translation, the plates were covered in a shroud of sorts, a linen tablecloth if late eyewitness accounts are reliable. Smith was not squinting at the hieroglyphic grooves of the plates while he revealed the English text of our foundational scripture, at least not usually.
How shall we interpret the use of seerstones in their traditional seeric mode (at various times denominated Urim and Thummim and often merged with the “spectacles” that are more familiar to modern readers)?
I see a number of possibilities.
The one most compelling to me is a visual image corroborating the deep meaning of seerhood. Though I am still revising the relevant manuscript, I argue in my cultural history work that seerhood, particularly in Joseph Smith’s hands, was an act of recovering the voices of the dead. The most persistent early description of the meaning of the Book of Mormon was an exegesis of Isaiah 29:4. In Smith’s hands, the gold plates provided a communication channel between America’s ancient dead (personified by Moroni, whose voice Smith actually heard) and those then living. Smith, as a seer, was responsible for making sure the living heard from the dead. Though Smith never commented, I easily imagine that he saw the seerstones at the base of the hat as symbolically reburied in the bowels of the earth, the darkness and depth a visual metonyme for the grave. For me spiritually, the story of the stones in the hat is the story of Mormonism, a ritual and eternal reconnection of all the generations of humanity. Not the insipid biological memory of pseudo-religious scientism or merely the poetic discharges of Romanticism, but a robust and nourishing connection of all humanity.
Another, better documented, interpretation of the stones in the hat is a criticism of scholarly modes of knowing. Though Smith and many of the inner circle would later aspire to great scriptural and linguistic erudition, in the late 1820s Smith was unabashedly supernaturalist in his claims to knowing. How did he translate the hieroglyphs from the plates? Certainly not how Mitchell and Anthon attempted and failed. In fact their failure was prophecied according to Mormon exegesis of Isaiah 29. No learned scholar or overschooled divine could hear the voice of truth in lost hieroglyphs. Only a seer, guided by God’s supernatural power could learn those truths. Though many of us will find this uncomfortable, the story of the Stones and the Hat seem to tell us that God can and will reveal things to us that defy our attempts at logical rigor and scholarship, that surprise and sometimes embarrass us. However much God allows me to love him with my mind, there will always be a defiantly supernatural thread in his communication with us.
Another fruitful mode of interpretation of the stones and the hat will rely on the use of physicality in spirituality. Smith (and Young) loved to remind people that the dualistic division into body and soul, mind and spirit, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal was artificial, ad hoc, and ultimately unsupportable. Through this call for unity, he emphasized and amplified the meaning of touch. His descriptions of the resurrection are filled with handclasps and embraces, and whatever the Masonic echoes of these modes of touching, they were also emotionally and spiritually real. Though he rejected more traditional views of [(tran)|(con)]substantiation in the Eucharist, I believe he loved that the emblems of the Lord’s Supper were touched and sensed by the body. For Mormonism’s first seminary, meant to be a microcosm of heaven, Smith adapted Methodist footwashings and Catholic chrism, situating them strongly within New Testament precedent and a Gospel of physicality. To be an early Mormon was to touch and be touched. Smith did not, in his translation of the Book of Mormon, merely channel a spirit’s voice (as some commentators caught in a post-Enlightenment hiccup around the turn of the twentieth century would argue) or pronounce a merely verbal revelation. He held a collection of metal epitaphs in his lap or on the table, while he handled and pushed his face against stones, physical relics that connected him with the mind of God and the words of lost prophets. We oughtn’t forget that in the Book of Mormon narratives of stones, such stones were the recipients of the touch of God’s sacredly physical hand. At Moriancumer’s request, God touched a collection of stones directly, endowing them with the power of illumination and by extension salvation. Through those stones God first (according to the Book of Mormon narrative) connected the scriptures of the Old and New world.
These are the three modes of interpreting the Story of the Stones and the Hat that strike me this morning. I am eager to hear other explanations. While I am sympathetic to other faith walks, my purpose in this post is to explore explanations of the Stones and the Hat other than the journalistic drivel of New Atheism or the schizophrenic railings of anti-Mormonist evangelical critics. (While I recognize that reasonable people can and do believe that the use of folk-seeric implements in the translation of the Book of Mormon discredit the Mormon scripture, proposing that such an interpretation is the only one possible is what I criticize in that small patch of vitriol; I give Steve permission to limit egregious trolling).
Time limitations have limited the annotation of this essay. Feel free to fill in blanks. Others should feel free to revisit the historiography if desired.
The main useful reading on this subject is contained in two sources: Ashurst-McGee’s MA thesis (“A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” USU 2000) and van Wagoner and Walker’s “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing” in Dialogue 15:2:49-68. Quinn’s famous book (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View) lacks interpretive sophistication but is a useful annotated bibliography. Please add others you find of relevance here. Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents is a useful compendium of primary sources as well.