South Park, Peepstones, and Mormon General Knowledge

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 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)?


  1. I think the problem might be art and its undue influence on our perspectives of things. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a painting of Joseph Smith sticking his face in a hat. If there’s one out there, if such a painting exists, I’d like to know about it.

  2. danithew beat me to the punch. Mormon art screws up more people than….I don’t know what, but it’s a lot. Musclebound men, leather sweat bands, Ammon and sheep, Sons of Helaman and the horses, J.S. translating behind a curtain, it goes on and on.

    Plus I think the idea of a peep stone in a hat compared to the U. & T. just doesn’t seem as spiritual. U. & T. ancient scriptual interpreting devices, peep stone in a hat, something done at party games or with an eight-ball turned over. We like to keep our images pure and spiritual.

  3. I don’t remember not knowing about Joseph’s seer stones; though, I didn’t know about the face-in-the-hat thing untill much later. I think this is as you say, somewhat of a strawman. Moreover, if I am not mistaken, Southpark has proclaimed that the Mormons are the true religion anyways!

  4. Magic World View anyone??? :)

    I got the full gamut in Mormon seminary during the high school years. Didn’t bother me at all. Although I think the CTR class is a bit young to be throwing that out. Valiants, maybe.

    As for the artwork, well, the church’s PR machine would have trouble with images akin to the SouthPark images. The only depiction I’ve seen of this prior to your post, Ronan, was a picture (animated .gif file at that!) on a anti website (can’t remember which one) attempting to point out the rediculous nature of such a method of inspiration. Rediculous methodologies or not, man, look what it produced! I’m amazed a dude could get something so extensive and influential from a couple of glowing rocks in a hat. I wish I had some.

  5. The idea that bloggernacle commenters are just “average Mormons” is indeed amusing.

    On a somewhat related note, I recently became aware of Amazon “purchase circles.” The list of books bought at BYU is really shockingly vapid compared to any other major university I checked. I have been a defender of BYU in the past…is mormon culture in general or BYU in particular really that un-intellectual?

  6. danithew, the only seer-stone-in-a-hat translation image that I know of is done by anti-Mormons. But it’s a useful image, nonetheless.

    I can say in full openness that I thought, until about a year and a half ago, that Joseph had translated the Book of Mormon by looking at the gold plates through the spectacles. I am a life-long Mormon, and am a seminary and BYU graduate, and this was all the information I had until recently.

  7. john fowles says:

    David J, Ronan was being facetious when he specifically mentioned CTR class on his blog. I had said that I seemed to remember knowing about the “seer stones” since primary. If, as Ronan has pointed out, numerous references to them appear in the Friend, then that is not an outlandish claim, especially since I actually read the Friend as a kid.

    I think that the more confusing thing for me, as for others, has been the difference between the seer stone and the Urim and Thummim, the uses of the two, when each was used, etc.

    Ronan noted here and on his blog that we were far from representative of “average Mormons.” This might well be true since I think that it was probably my father who taught us about seer stones. In fact, I seem to remember having the opposite experience as RT–that is, based on what I had learned as a kid, I always thought of the translation in terms of the seer stone(s) and hadn’t visualized Joseph strapping on the breastplate and spectacles of the U&T until much later on, probably freshman year at BYU.

    Nevertheless, the 1993 Ensign article by Elder Nelson is pretty straightforward. No hint of a cover-up based on that article.

  8. Nate Oman says:

    I suspect that this is yet another cases where the experiences of individual Mormons are considerably more hetereogeneous than we assume. FWIW, I don’t really recall when I first learned the shocking truth about seer stones. I do remember my seminary teacher discussing them in high school. I didn’t read Quinn’s Magic book until a couple of years ago, but when I read it I don’t remember learning anything about seer stones and translation that I hadn’t basically already heard.

    If there is a master plan by the Church to supress the truth about the Mormon past it hasn’t been especially successful. I think that we often confuse conspiracy and garden variety lack of interest on the part of most members. There were no doubt a lot of things that your Sunday school teacher did not know about Mormon history. This probably had as much to do with the fact that your Sunday School teacher wasn’t all that interested in Mormon history as anything else.

  9. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    I grew up in “the mission field” and I too can’t remember _not_ knowing about seer stones. It’s hard for me to imagine missionaries not encountering some of this stuff, since I did, from/with other missionaries.

    While it might seem snobby, I too feel like people that don’t know about these things don’t know about them because they haven’t been curious enough or simply haven’t had a desire to read about the minutiae of church history, not because there is some kind of cover-up going on. So, while the “conspiracy” part of the rhetoric is unfounded and straw-manish, the end result is a valid concern, and I think the effort with the Mormon wiki are to be lauded.

    What happens when folks get this from the wrong source? Particularly because this self-selected group _doesn’t_ read church history, they stumble upon these facts when somebody makes sure that they’re visible. They don’t know where to go to find the whole truth, in context, not having been acquainted with these facts in the past, so the conspiracy theory at least _seems_ plausible. Without some guidance as to where to go, I can see that sewing some seeds of doubt, or at the very least, confusion.

    So, to me, there still seems to be a need to find a way to help “garden variety lack of interest folks” find out about these things in another way. Not that we need some kind of PR campaign, but… the wiki seems like a good starting place, or at least a good idea. At least somebody’s thinking about it.

  10. Aaron Brown says:

    I’m with Roasted Tomatoes on this. I didn’t know anything about seer stones growing up. I first learned about hats and seer stones from a non-Mormon source (can’t remember if it was explicitly anti-Mormon or not), and I had previously pictured the translation process as it is portrayed in Mormon art. I think the most shocking thing for me was to learn that Joseph wasn’t looking at the plates when he translated them, and that at times, they weren’t even in the room!

    I can introduce you to Church members who “know” that Joseph Smith didn’t use a peep stone and a hat, because if he did, the Church would obviously portray it that way. But it doesn’t. So case closed.

    Aaron B

    Aaron B

  11. I think the first place I heard mention of the seerstone in the hat was in a FARMS article about the translation process. But it didn’t really sink in until I read the Emma Smith biography Mormon Enigma, and I remember feeling a little unsettled about it at that time.

  12. I don’t remember when I found out Joseph used a seer stone. It’s been a long time, but never bothered me.
    My wife attended the Palmyra conference about Joseph Smith. Richard Bushman’s closing presentation was about the translation of the Book of Mormon. From the puplit of the Palmyra Stake Centre he described how the translation was done (stones in hat). No one seemed to mind.
    By the way, thanks for the link to the Ensign article.

  13. I heard about the seer stone while growing up, but certainly nothing about where Joseph Smith picked it up. Either the seer stone was equated with the Urim and Thummim or it was said that Moroni gave Joseph the seer stone as a replacement for the Urim and Thummim.

    I somehow missed this 1974 Friend article.

  14. I can’t remember when I learned about the seer stone, but Elder Nelson seems to have missed the memo that he’s supposed to be suppressing this topic :) It’s like the talk I heard from E. Holland (on in which he mentioned polygamy AND mountain meadows in the same breath!

    Just another reason why you shouldn’t derive doctrine or history from Church art.

  15. Dialogue vol 15 no 2 has a drawing of Joseph looking into a hat. It’s the page before an article about Joseph’s seer stone(s).

  16. Seth Rogers says:

    You know, I paid a visit once after one of my acquaintances challenged me to “learn the whole truth about the church.”

    I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting them to be presenting some new and unusual historical tidbits that would present a real dilemma.

    But it was all stuff I’d heard before: stones in a hat; digging for gold; destroying the opposition press in Nauvoo; exposes of temple stuff; Adam-God; etc.

    The only difference is that these guys had a contemptuous and mocking tone whereas the accounts I originally heard were either presented with an air of worship, or were presented with a professional academic dispassion. It seemed that the only contribution these guys were able to make was to take the same material we already have, and attach a snicker to it. Pretty weak stuff.

    But then again, I know of people whose footing in the Church was weak enough that such snickers were enough to shake them.

    So what’s the Church to do?

    Well, you could follow Boyd K. Packer who stated that, like Samuel the Lamanite, we need not “descend from the wall” to engage our critics.

    Or you could follow Neal A. Maxwell who acknowleged that we shouldn’t get too invested in our critics, but we shouldn’t allow them an “unopposed slam-dunk” either.

    Personally, I wish the Church would just take the time to educate members on these facts. Like sex-ed, better to get the facts from a sympathetic and nurturing voice, than from the playground.

  17. Nice comments everyone. So, to sum:

    1. Seer stones are old hat, especially to Mormon geeks like ourselves.

    2. Seer stones are not forbidden knowledge, but not Mormonism 101 either.

    3. Mormon art is guilty of a myriad of sins.

    4. The Friend used to be really edgy.

  18. Left Field says:

    I can’t remember when I first learned about seerstones, but I certainly knew about them by the time I was a teenager. When did I first hear about a seerstone being used in the translation of the BofM? I dunno. The terms seerstone and U&T seem to be often used interchangably, and some church sources identifiy the stones in the U&T as seerstones. So I don’t think I ever thought of translation by seerstone and having any implications different from using a U&T. I don’t understand why using two stones is ok, but if he ever used just one, it’s supposed to be an embarassment that must be suppressed.

    I probably heard about the hat later, but it was just a device to exclude light, like a photographer’s focusing cloth. Matter of fact, I spent a fair bit of time under a focusing cloth in my youth, so the hat probably woudn’t have seemed that peculiar to me.

    At some point we all heard about the seerstone. When we hear something new about church history, I’m wondering what’s the difference between someone who says, “That’s cool; I didn’t know that before,” and someone who says, “I’m appalled that the church has kept that from me”? Personally, I’ve never thought to keep track of where I first learned what I know about church history. Sunday school, seminary, Dialogue, general conference, the internet, a book, BYU religion class, whatever. I don’t really expect all my knowledge to come from correlated sources.

    Where did the term “peepstone” come from? Did any of the historical sources refer to it as a peepstone?

  19. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    5. The wiki is potentially useful, because it provides a place to send folks for information that they might not normally find.

    However, it remains to be seen whether this will actually be useful. In order to be truly useful, it has to be something to which folks who normally wouldn’t read about church history will be drawn. This means it has to have compelling, correct content that is an easily findable/much-hyped resource…

  20. I agree with “church art is guilty of a myriad of sins.” I first heard about the stones in the hat from an anti site, of sorts. I was really, really pissed. The way I interpreted “translate” was pretty literal – that is, look at the plates, translate the language to King James English. Just like in the pictures.

    The face in the hat seemed like magic. I don’t believe in magic.

  21. Aaron Brown says:

    I almost lost my testimony of the Book of Mormon when someone pointed out to me that the Nephites didn’t all have Hulk Hogan-esque biceps.

    Aaron B

  22. My mission president (now Elder H. Ross Workman of the Seventy) banned FARMS publications party because “There is an article by FARMS that claims the golden plates were translated by Joseph Smith putting two stones into a hat and then looking into the hat. Now we all know how stupid of an idea that is, because the scriptures say they were translated by the gift and power of God!!” (The exlamation points are there because he was yelling this, as he did many things).

    I must disagree with Ronan. Though I have no evidence, it seems clear to me that church art is often deliberately used to rewrite history and cover what may appear to others as blemishes and hard to swallow historical truths. Whether it’s translation, visitations, or whatever, excusing such art as protecting the spiritual seems far-fetched. Rather, it’s the growing PR attempts at making the church seem more mainstream and normal.

  23. Bushman has some intriguing pages on the “seer stones” in Rough stone Rolling. He points out in his book, pg. 48 that the Prophet discovered two stones, one in 1822 while digging a well, and the other from an unknown source. According to his mother Lucy, these stones enabled the Prophet to see things that were “invisible” to the eye. This is one of the reasons so many tried to persuade him to dig for buried treasure on their behalf–also a topic covered well by Bushman.

    Bushman then relates how Emma was aware of at least one of the stones and described it as “a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color.” In 1841 Joseph supposedly showed the Quorum of the Twelve his other “whitish” stone and was reported to say:

    “Every any who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.”

    Finally Bushman notes on pg. 49 that Wilford Woodruff consecrated a seerstone upon a temple altar in Manti, Utah, claiming it was the stone:

    “that Joseph Smith found by revelation some thirty feet under the earth (ground) and carried by him throughout life.”

    Apparently there is ample evidence of seer stones in the early history of the Church–which is just as clearly not being hidden by anyone. It is interesting, however, that it’s not something usually related in Gospel Doctrine class when talking about translating the Book of Mormon. I don’t see why we need to be ashamed or uncomfortable about the topic at all.

  24. Have you ever seen a Nephite, Aaron? Maybe they DO all look like bronzed Arnold Schwarzeneggers. The person who told you they don’t all look like that was probably just testing you.

  25. Left Field says:

    TWO stones in a hat? I’ve not heard that one before. I thought all the accounts refered to a single stone.

  26. “…I too feel like people that don’t know about these things don’t know about them because they haven’t been curious enough or simply haven’t had a desire to read about the minutiae of church history…”

    And I think this would describe about 80% of the members in the church. They accept what they hear at church as the whole truth – end of story. Researching church history is not really a very popular past-time, generally speaking.

    I have quite a few “issues” with church history and doctrine right now, and all of my attempts to try to get help from family members have been met with blank looks, and then a warning that I’ve probably been getting information from anti-sources. For the most part they have no idea what I’m talking about. (And my family and inlaws aren’t stupid – we have two doctors, a lawyer, an accountant, a molecular biologist, and a college professor, etc., etc., etc.) Even my bishop had never heard of half the issues I raised, and he’s no slouch either.

    I’ve found that anything that differs from what they have heard at church, if it is not faith promoting or if it is startling, is immediately discounted as something written by antis.

    When I tried to talk to my husband, brothers and sisters about my questions re: the Book of Abraham, they were sure I’d crossed over to the dark side – they’d never heard anything about it before. Temple ceremony problems? Completely made up by antis. Issues raised in books like Mormon Enigma, Rough Stone Rolling, etc.? Clearly all written by antis in league with Satan, because after all, they’d never heard any of those things about Joseph.

    I don’t think you can infer anything from what people in the bloggernaccle know. Obviously, they have access to or have come across more information than most of the people in the church.

  27. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    Sue, I didn’t mean that to seem snobby, although I know it did. Sorry… I know lots of incredibly bright members of the church who simply aren’t interested into delving into the details, too…

    However, I must say that I’ve never really encountered anybody who took my bringing up little weird church history things as being anti-mormon. Also, most of what I’ve learned has come from reading books owned by the church (church libraries, BYU or Ward building libraries) or written/published by active, faithful church members with deep conviction or in gospel doctrine classes, from church authorities (mission presidents, general authorities) or institute/seminary/religion classes at BYU. My comment wasn’t meant to sound like I’m talking down to folks who haven’t had this exposure, but it’s just hard for me to understand where you’re coming from simply because it’s so different from my own experience in the church… I think part of the key is the fact that, like Mr. Oman noted above, so much of each individual’s experience with these kinds of things is different from everybody else’s experience.

    This difference in our experiences is the reason why I think the wiki idea _is_ such a good one. Folks just don’t know where to go to find good solid research and facts about what’s going on. FAIR and FARMS (or sunstone or dialogue, or BYU studies or what have you) can be good, but for some reason people, like the mission president cited above or folks whose testimonies are in turmoil, don’t trust apologetic literature, or sometimes simply don’t know where to go to get things that are relevant. Something like what John Dehlin has suggested would be incredibly helpful for people in those situations, I think, and I really, truly hope it succeeds, simply because of the amount of spiritual help it can potentially bring folks.

  28. Since I’m the “reveller” to which Ronan referred, I’ll add my 2 cents.

    –I definitely don’t beleive that the Church is guilty of hiding the facts. As my friend John Lynch is fond to say, 98% of anti-Mormon literature quotes church publications.

    –I know for a fact that lots and lots and lots of people make it to the post-mission stage without knowing some of the even most basic facts about Mormon history. That Joseph had 30 wives, a few of them married to other men at the time of the sealing. A few of them under the age of 16. That Joseph’s peep stoning caused Emma’s dad to distrust him, leading to their elopement. That the 1835 D&C renounces polygamy, after Joseph is supposed to have received the revelation. That Joseph did ordain a black man to the priesthood. That the Book of Abraham apparently bears little resemblance to its original source documents. That the temple ceremony bears great resemblance to the Masonic ceremony (or at least used to). That Brigham Young had Lucy Mack Smith’s autobiography destroyed, and then commissioned a committee to rewrite it….her autobiography. That Brigham Young used hatefully racist speech (at times). That the Hill Cumorah may not be. That the Lamanites may not be. That polygamy is no longer “doctrinal”, and that we don’t teach or emphasize that God was once a man? And on, and on, and on, and on.

    Now…do I think any of these things prove the church is false? No freaking way. Not in the slightest. My testimony remains in tact–through it all. Do I think the early church leaders were bad men? Heck no–they were incredible men. Far, far more good than flawed. Amazing men and women.

    But don’t tell me that the average church member knows these things. They don’t. A few ivy leagued, lawyered out, upper crust yuppies know (of whom I am becoming very fond), and a smattering of quiet, plugged-in elderly folk know…but the vast majority of the masses have no clue–and frankly don’t care, and likely never will.

    But I will tell you this. There is a small handful of honest, seeking, sincere folk out there who get called as seminary or sunday school teachers each year, who want to become better teachers….and they go to the Internet to deepen their understanding of the gospel…and they quickly stumble onto this stuff–and their entire worlds fall apart. Most of you have been immunized…but the majority of the church membership has not.

    These folks sometimes feel deceived. They feel lied to. Not by the “bretheren”, but by the amalgamation of church culture, and process, and indoctrination. No one is to blame….as you might recall from “The Grapes of Wrath”…there’s no one to “shoot”. It’s just the way it is. In all its naked, wonderful glory.

    And so it’s for these small handful of people that I am dedicating a big chunk of my life. One person at a time. To help ameliorate at least a small part of the sadness…the disillusionment….the marriages….the misery.

    How do I know they exist? Because I was one of them…and so was my Dad….and I have been gathering emails from others as well…I get about an email a week from someone across the world who shares their story with me because of Mormon Stories.

    And because someone helped me through the mist and fog, I now want to help others, too.

    I know it sounds cheesy, and likely mellodramatic (sp?), but it’s what I feel I was sent on this earth to do.

    John Dehlin

  29. Mark me on the side of the ledger without peepstone knowledge. I knew there were peepstones, but I didn’t know that they were used to translate the BoM, and I certainly had never heard of the hat. I grew up in Utah, attended four years of seminary and served a mission. I didn’t learn about the translation process until last year when I picked up Givens’ “By the Hand of Mormon” on a whim. I was pretty surprised.

    I think the big deal about one peepstone versus the Urim and Thummim is that the U&T were part and parcel of the whole miraculous BoM story. They were in the box with the plates. Joseph found the peepstone digging a well. There’s nothing too miraculous about that. Anyone can find a “peepstone.” That’s why most people (I would assume) prefer the traditional U&T story.

    I also think it’s quite a bit disingenuous to claim that the translation in the hat story is actively taught in the Church but we were too stupid to realize it. Sure, it pops up occasionally in church publications and once a millennium in a talk, but it’s not in the JS-History and it’s not in any lesson that I was ever taught.

    While the Church may not be _actively_ supressing the Stone in the Hat, it certainly keeps it awfully quiet.

  30. A Nonny Mouse – I didn’t take it that way at ALL – I just wanted to point out that my experience has been very different. And I also think the wiki is a great idea.

    “But I will tell you this. There is a small handful of honest, seeking, sincere folk out there who get called as seminary or sunday school teachers each year, who want to become better teachers….and they go to the Internet to deepen their understanding of the gospel…and they quickly stumble onto this stuff–and their entire worlds fall apart.”

    Gosh. That’s me exactly. When you know nothing, then stumble upon item after item after item after item after item, all at once, it is faith destroying. Thank you, John.

  31. Sue, re: comment #26, I think your perspective is all wrong. You referred to a bunch of seemingly smart people who were entirely unaware of the stuff you have learned about LDS history, then determined there’s something fishy because they are not slouches. I think they are slouches: they are gospel slouches, people with two or three degrees but who are largely ignorant of the history and doctrinal roots of their own religion beyond the level that is taught to 12-year-olds in Sunday School. God gave them a healthy brain and a talented mind, and they use it for everything except educating themselves about their own religion.

    If you just come around to seeing youself as having self-educated yourself on these topics (you made the choice and put forth some effort) and the other people you referred to as being willfully ignorant, you’ll be a lot less troubled. You’ll probably become more patient and understanding with them. It’s their problem, not yours.

  32. I was once bouncing some ideas off my roommate about divining rods among the Smiths and Cowderys and the role they might play in getting a different reading of Nephi’s vision with the iron rod. (Hold to the rod, it leads the way, etc.)

    He found found it really interesting and decided to toss it into his Sunday School lesson the next day. Yeah, that turned awkard really fast.

  33. No Dave, I think you misunderstand – I haven’t determined that there is something fishy because of their reactions – my doubts come from what I know, not from what they do not know. Their lack of knowledge just makes it all the more frustrating.

    My points were (and I apologize for not stating them more clearly) that 1) there are many members of the church who are not aware of many/most of the troubling or confusing parts of church history and doctrine, and that 2) recognizing that many members do not know anything about the issues, and recognizing that the material is now “out there” on the internet where people are much more likely to stumble across it, and still having very few church sponsored or faith promoting resources for them to turn to in order to resolve their doubts when/if they come – is a recipie for trouble.

  34. I also think it’s interesting that we have no problem blaming the art, but not so much the people who commission, direct, and distribute the art. If the First Presidency wanted a more accurate painting of Joseph translating the BoM, they could have it tomorrow. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the artists.

  35. True Ned…but the more I study and think about the issue, the more I’m inclined to feel like we can’t really blame the “bretheren” either. In so many ways, they’re “Damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”

    They either undermine their own authority and a decent chunk of testimonies/lives by clearing the air, or they get accused of “hiding” and “whitewashing” if they don’t emphasize it. It’s a very tough predicament for them (I believe).

    If you read “Adventures of a Church History” (for those of you who haven’t), about the Leonard Arrington years, you’ll realize that–to the bretheren’s credit–they tried the experiment of openness and honesty and candor in the 1970s and early 1980s.

    It was simply deemed a failure, in that it ultimately lost more people than it saved.

    And since the bretheren are all about saving souls…they have to make the decision, “what can I do to lose the least number of souls today”, and I think that “coming clean” isn’t part of that equation….at least as it comes from their own mouths/tongues.

    But it also seems clear to me (through Bushman) that they’re now seeming to support again (at an arm’s length) more openness/candor in others (again).

    Let’s just hope it’s not another “100 flowers” campaign (see Mao/China for details).

    I, for one, am optimistic. What other choice do we have?


  36. #35 John, calling Arrington’s camelot years in the Historical offices a failure is hardly accurate. Benson, Packer and others were against the opening of the office from the very beginning. It was Hunter and Kimball that made it possible and encouraged their work. It was when Kimball’s health began to fade and his death, that Benson was able to get his wish and close the office.

  37. espositaaron says:

    What an interesting topic? I do think, as a product of Utah Mormon culture, but with parents who were interested in Mormon history, I had kind of a dual experience. First, culturally I know the peepstone story was never discussed or broached in any kind of official setting I was in. But I had heard enough, or maybe acquired enough through osmosis of the peepstone-in-a-hat origin of the BoM that it shocked me only once, when my companion from New York state taught one of our investigators about it on my mission. I don’t think, as a product of the culture, that I would’ve ever thought to teach it. Not as conscious deception or omittance but merely as continuance of the mores governing Church teaching.

    I can understand why people might be upset though, I remember as my companion started tracing an air-hat (stove-pipe, I imagined) it seemed truly bizarre. (Just as I imagine most mysticism in religious history perplexes the modern mind when confronted with its literal fact.) I see why Parker and Stone chose that as a point of parody.

    One other thing, I think it is worthwhile that so many have remarked how the bloggernacle is not “average Mormon.” In a sense, it is very transgressive because this is where many of us come to puzzle out these things in our mind. In fact, if the bloggernacle didn’t exist, we’d have to create it.
    But seriously, I think of the bloggernacle as a liminal space for liminal mormons like myself. Anyway, thank you Ronan for a great post.

  38. A few ivy leagued, lawyered out, upper crust yuppies

    John D, that’s the best description of T&S I’ve ever heard…:)

    I think that consensus #5 is that John’s wiki is a great idea and I hope the bloggernacle supports it.

    For those not yet aware of the power of google to destroy testimonies, google “Mormon temple.”

  39. I think JD’s characterization of T&S betrays a misleading assumption: that well-educated Mormons tend to be more informed regarding these rather unedifying historical facts about early Mormonism. If that is true, it’s a weak correlation. You only have to sample some of the boards out there that constantly rehash the unflatering historical stuff to appreciate that the set of informed Mormons (and ex-Mormons) spans the educational and social spectrum.

    Which raises an interesting question: What exactly is it that impels a fairly small percentage of Mormons to dig up and read this stuff? Why does it matter to a few people but seemingly not matter to the large majority of LDS?

  40. “That Brigham Young used hatefully racist speech (at times).” Racist, certainly, especially in retrospec. But I don’t think BY hated black people. I really dislike the word “hateful” because it doesn’t convey anything except disapproval on the part of the speaker.

    Re: art, I don’t think you can blame “The Brethren” unless you assume that all art that appears in Church sources was commissioned, and I really don’t think this is the case. A bunch of the classic church art wasn’t even LDS, but done by a 7th Day Adventist artist, Harry Anderson.

    I do know of one case of art comissioned by some Apostles who specifically requested more historical accuracy in certain respects, but these were NT paintings (and I’m not sure they’ve appeared yet.)

  41. To be fair Dave (#39), I think JD’s comment was meant to describe more than just T&S (I made that spiteful correlation!)

    I agree, though, that degrees and professions have little to do with this. Some very smart people are wholly ignorant as to Mormon minutiae, and happily so.

  42. A couple of things…

    –I certainly don’t view Arrington’s years as a failure. I view them as glorious, and he is one of my heroes in life. I was only saying that the experiment was DEEMED a failure (by those who lived long enough to make the change).

    –I don’t believe BY hated people…but I do believe that his language inspired and justified hate, and can be considered hateful speech (at least in how it was interpreted and used to justify things like segregation, etc.).

    This is a cool board, btw. I should stop by more. :)


  43. Wow. It’s interesting how we have a variety of experiences growing up in the church.

    I grew up in a rural part of Utah where at least a third of the people in the ward made their living from farming. Not a lawyer or yuppie or Quinn groupie among them. But I clearly remember a scout campout where the campfire skit involved a hat with rocks in it, and each boy would look into the hat and have a “revelation”. It was always something lightminded and banal, like beware of the cooking or how to find Bigfoot. As I recall, the adults participated as well. I think we all understood that it had something to do with Joseph Smith, and I don’t think it occurred to any of us at the time that we were doing anything wrong. But if I were scoutmaster now, I would steer away from a skit like that.

  44. Mark,

    That’s a crazy skit. I just remembered another lampoon of the “interpreters”: in Angels in America the angel gives the gay prophet some magic spectacles, clearly meant to refer to the U&T.


    Finally you have found out the truth: BCC is the coolest board in the nacle.


    I would be interested in your opinion about the dynamic between the seer stone and the U&T. Why did Joseph use both? I don’t have my Bushman with me–can someone look up what he said? (My memory suggests that Joseph only used the U&T/breastplate-spectacles/”interpreters” for the 116 pages. Why the change?) Are our sources simply hopelessly confused?

  45. I never talked about peepstones on mission when teaching the Book of Mormon. I am trying to figure out how I would say “peepstone” in Korean. “Poinun-dol” maybe?

    This discussion does convince me that Mormon experience is a lot more heterogeneous than most Mormons admit.

    BTW, as I recall Neal A. Maxwell referenced the hat a couple of years ago in conference, chiding those who were more concerned about the details of the “light-shielding hat” that Joseph used than about the spiritual content of the Book of Mormon.

  46. I don’t know how reliable he is, but a commentor at T&S related some fascinating notes from A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Villiage Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Masters Thesis 2000, USU. I’ve been meaning to my hans on a copy, myself.

  47. I don’t know about in Bushman, but in Mormon Enigma – Emma Hale Smith, it says that the U&T were only used for the 116 lost pages and the seer stone for the rest. This was new information for me. I know little about church history (and I think I’m pretty intelligent), and have found Mormon Enigma (book club reading for FMH at the moment) eye opening.

  48. Rebecca,

    “Knowing about Mormon history” and “intelligence” are two different things, alas. Not a cover-up, IMO, but simply due to the fact that history in general is poorly taught in school and in churches. The “History Channel” (aka Cheesy Reenactment Channel) hardly improves things!

    BTW, I highly doubt they tell Baptists about “Q” in New Testament class.

  49. “I would be interested in your opinion about the dynamic between the seer stone and the U&T. Why did Joseph use both?”

    Ditto, what/why/when were one or the other used?

    I grew up in a CES home, and I remember hearing about the seer stone/hat early on, and its discovery in a well, but I don’t recall ever hearing about its primary use in translating the BoM. I’ll have to ask my dad why, and how deep the “cover-up” goes.

    Also, my understanding is that that the seer stone(s) in question is/are still in the Church’s possession. Does anyone have any anecdotal, unsubstantiated, hair brained stories about how these stones are being used today? Does it cause discomfort for anyone to imagine Pres. Hinckley with his face buried in a hat seeking revelation? If so why, if not why?

    The Angel Moroni told the Prophet that “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.” Since we sustain the Prophet and the Twelve as Prophets, Seers, and Revelators, does this mean that they all have access to the stone(s)?

    And if the Urim and Thummim were prepared for the translation of the BoM, why weren’t they used? Or were they?

    Questions, questions…

  50. I also didn’t know about the hat until well after my mission (although I’m pretty sure I’d heard of seer stones).

    What I find even stranger and potentially more troubling than the hat is the idea that the plates weren’t even in the room durin much of the translation. One wonders, why did Joseph even need to get the plates?

  51. #45
    I couldn’t find it on, but found it at
    “Even so, some discount the Book of Mormon because they cannot see the plates from which it was translated. Furthermore, they say that we do not know enough about the process of translation. But Moroni’s promise to serious readers, to be discussed shortly, involves reading and praying over the book’s substance, not over the process of its production. We are “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), therefore, when, figuratively speaking, we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than what was achieved thereon by Jesus. Or, when we neglect Alma’s words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light- shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon.”
    The Book of Mormon: A Great Answer to “The Great Question”
    by Neal A. Maxwell
    December 31, 2003
    Printed from Mormon Life (

  52. I had heard about the hat and the seerstones while a youth. 2 months ago I laid out the seer stones and the U&T for my teachers quorum and they all said that they had heard that before in seminary and from their parents.

    Is my Exp not typical? Everytime BCC has a post about some “controversial aspect” of LDS history its been mentioned in my Quorum recently and the kids already knew about it. (OK Twice JS polygamy and now the seerstones,UT)

  53. Bell’s comment also mirrors my experience- that most of the “controversial” issues posted here (and especially in the ex-mo discussion forums) are complete non-issues to me- I have been exposed to most of those things long ago both from my parents and teachers at church.

    And many of these issues are also familiar to fellow Latter-day Saints in my priesthood quorums. Which is what I was trying to say during our discussion with Ronan, John*4, and Ryan on Friday night.

  54. I think that if we were exposed to these issues from an early age, they would no longer be controversial. We accept that Brigham Young had xx wives, because we’ve always known it to be true. On the other hand, it can be shocking to learn later in life that JS also had xx wives. That’s a rather pallid example, but I think you know what I’m trying to say.

    “What exactly is it that impels a fairly small percentage of Mormons to dig up and read this stuff? Why does it matter to a few people but seemingly not matter to the large majority of LDS?”

    I think because we are counseled NOT to look for more information than what is in the scriptures and/or church manuals…

  55. “I think because we are counseled NOT to look for more information than what is in the scriptures and/or church manuals…”

    I must have missed the memo on this.

  56. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    Talon #49 (quoting Ronan, #44): “‘I would be interested in your opinion about the dynamic between the seer stone and the U&T. Why did Joseph use both?’

    Ditto, what/why/when were one or the other used?”

    So… that’s another thing that strikes me as odd about this particular point of worry for folks: last I checked (and it’s been a while since I read up on this subject, so, it’s possible that I’m hopelessly out of date here) there are very disparate accounts of how the translation process took place, from several firsthand sources, some of whom were present, and scribes (i.e. Emma, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery) and some of whom weren’t but heard others talking about it, but none from Joseph, who only ever said, “It was done by the power of God.”
    Some of them involve scrolls opening up on the stones, etc.

    So, if we’ve got a variety of sources giving varying (and sometimes conflicting) details about the process, can we really be sure that one method was prefferred over another (i.e. Urim and Thummim over Seer Stones or vice versa) at a certain point or another? I thought Teryl Givens language was couched in terms like “probable” or “possible,” but it’s been a while since I read that book, too, so… I’m probably just smoking crack here.

  57. Going back to Ann’s comments… I want to kind of echo her remarks on this. If I had found out when I was a teenager that Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon by scrying in a hat using a stone he’d dug out of a well, I definitely would have left the church. If I had found that out during my mission, I would have gone home. That idea just doesn’t fit with the vision of Mormonism that I was taught as a child.

    On the other hand, if I had instead been taught from the very beginning that revelation involves divine communication as garbled by human sources, none of this would have been a problem.

  58. First to Sue M — have you read Rough Stone Rolling yet? Highly recommended for comprehensive and honest coverage of all the ‘controversial’ items from the JS years placed in a broader context of all of the positive things JS accomplished.

    Second to all here — I think Rough Stone Rolling may represent an important development in the issue being discussed here. The dilemna is that many Church members are unsettled when they encounter unusual aspects of Church history from unfriendly sources yet the official Church must make a cost-benefit analysis which discourages dwelling on the unusual points. The Church feels that it has only so much time and resources to teach people all of the positive aspects of the Restored Gospel. Time spent on unusual Mormon history points would seem to necessarily subtract from time spent teaching the spiritually important things. I think this is the point Elder Maxwell was making in the quote in comment #51.

    However, I think that what Richard achieves in Rough Stone Rolling is to put the two together. For example, the seerstone evolves from a money-making device to a medium for revelation until JS eventually abandons all physical aids and receives direct inspiration. The story of the peepstone leads to an analysis of the unusual and atypical work it produces. It becomes part of a larger story of spiritual growth. Joseph’s attraction to biblical polygamy might be because of his intense personal need for friendships and sociality. It is of piece with that part of his character that opened his mind to revelations about relationships in the eternities.

    In other words, the unusual stories are most often unsettling when highlighted and treated in isolation. However, they look different if put into place in the larger context of the Restoration and our (including JS’s) roles as fallible human beings in bringing it about. The challenge is to present the WHOLE picture. This doesn’t happen if we leave out the unusual items, but it also doesn’t happen if we highlight and isolate them.

    I think Rough Stone Rolling is a pioneering work in doing this. And I should note that so far it is one for which Richard is receiving little credit. Both LDS and non-LDS reviews thus far have focused on the extent to which he deals with the unusual items, and are mostly missing the magnificent way in which Richard is contextualizing them into a total picture.

  59. john fowles says:

    RT wrote On the other hand, if I had instead been taught from the very beginning that revelation involves divine communication as garbled by human sources, none of this would have been a problem.

    This is a confusing statement. Doesn’t the seer stone in the hat imply exactly the opposite? Elder Nelson points out the JS would look into the hat and see the character to be translated as well as the corresponding English words. This seems pretty straightforwardly divine, and not “garbled by human sources.”

    Are you saying that if you had learned of the seer stone in the hat while a teenager you would have left the church because, as a child, you had seen the translation process so often depicted in artwork as JS sitting with an open set of golden plates in front of him, his finger following the line he was translating? Or are you saying that you were intentionally taught misleading details about the translation of the Book of Mormon? If so, by whom–the Brethren, a random primary teacher who didn’t know and didn’t care him/herself, or your parents? It would be hard to make the case that the Brethren were in any way involved in this obfuscation (if it was anything other than assumptions you drew based on one artist’s depiction of the translation process) since, as Ronan has pointed out, there were numerous references to the seer stone(s) in not only the Ensign over the years, but also in the Friend and New Era.

    My point with focusing on your own experiences addresses a broader issue here: there is/was no obfuscation or cover-up. The information has been openly available to all since the beginning. If it wasn’t talked about in certain homes, that isn’t the fault of the Brethren or the Church, especially considering its presence in Church publications throughout the years. For anyone with the slightest interest in how the plates were translated, the information is not hard to find and is not subverted by official sources. And ultimately, whether through the U&T or the seer stone, the principle is true that JS translated the BoM with the gift and power of God.

  60. #56
    Harold B. Lee said:
    “All that we teach in this Church ought to be couched in the scriptures… We ought to choose our texts from the scriptures. If we want to measure truth, we should measure it by the four standard works, regardless of who writes it.”
    “Using the Scriptures in Our Church Assignments,” Improvement Era, Jan. 1969, 13

    This might not be the “memo” you are talking about, but I think it is quotes like these that “discourage” people from doing extra research. With regards to Church History, if it isn’t in JS History, the intro to the Book of Mormon, or covered in a revelation in the D&C, then people may feel that they shouldn’t go any deeper than that.

  61. Sultan Of Squirrels says:

    Graham. I am pretty young and probably am not as versed in stuff as all you guys. but i was under the impression that the brethren wanted us to learn about everything we could. (though i’m sure spiritual things are more important.) I have heard President Hinckley say this a couple of times though I don’t know the exact words or talks they were in. But don’t statements like that “undiscourage” doing extra research? just my opionion. and BCC is pretty sweet.

  62. “I think because we are counseled NOT to look for more information than what is in the scriptures and/or church manuals…”

    I disagree. There’s a difference between learning and seeking things but making sure our Church talks, lessons, etc. are based on scripture instead of “the 10 lost tribes are in teh center of the earth.”

    John F., seeing words doesn’t necessarily make God responsible for them. Several people have suggested/argued this.

    Regarding the translation, I believe Joseph learned as he went along. He eventually gave away the seerstone because he said he “no longer had need of it.” I think he used different methods (ie. seerstone, Urim Thummim, nothing at all) as he went along because he was progressing, and no longer needed a physical item as a spiritual crutch. I seem to recall a statement from William Smith that Joseph preferred the seerstone because the stones set in the silver bow of the Urim/Thummim were slightly too far apart for his eyes to be comfortable. I’ll look for my source.

  63. The link in my last comment has refferences for when and why each was used to translate.

  64. Rosalynde says:

    On the church art tangent, Ben S. wrote: “I don’t think you can blame “The Brethren” unless you assume that all art that appears in Church sources was commissioned, and I really don’t think this is the case. A bunch of the classic church art wasn’t even LDS, but done by a 7th Day Adventist artist, Harry Anderson.”

    Well, the Harry Anderson art was, in fact, specifically commissioned; why else would a 7th day adventist undertake a bunch of Mormon murals? I think the real question has to do with how, precisely, the authority of “the Brethren” is invoked. It’s my impression that there is in fact quite a lot of bureaucratic oversight of the art appearing in official church publications and venues, but that most of that supervision is conducted by the middle-level church management, without very consistent horizontal or vertical coordination. Thus outcomes in various situations can vary dramatically depending on the personalities that happen to be attached.

  65. John #59,

    I wouldn’t have left because I thought there was a “cover-up.” I think the statements in official church sources are sufficient to dispell that idea. I would have left the church if I had found out about the use of treasure-seer props in the translation of the Book of Mormon when I was younger, though. The reason is that I would have been convinced that it was nonsense — total bunk. It would have been enough to convince me that Joseph Smith was a liar and a false prophet, and that the Book of Mormon is a fake.

    There’s a serious dilemma involving the “tight control” hypothesis about the Book of Mormon’s translation, in which God is supposed to have carefully monitored each word (and even the spelling of names!) in the text, on the one hand, and the apologetic argument that KJV language, “mistranslations” such as horse for deer, etc., are a product of Joseph Smith’s culture and mindset as translator, on the other. If Smith is just a mouthpiece for God’s dictation, then God is the one who made these mistakes in translation. By contrast, if Joseph was free to introduce his own worldview into word choice, textual structure, and so forth, then God can’t have exerted “tight control” over the translation process. These two hypotheses contradict each other. Hence, it’s funny to me when someone like Terryl Givens argues in favor of both of them!

  66. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    RT, #65: “and the apologetic argument that KJV language, “mistranslations” such as horse for deer, etc., are a product of Joseph Smith’s culture and mindset as translator, on the other.”

    I don’t mean to threadjack here, but…

    I think this is a place where you’re following Blake Ostler’s argumentation from when he was guest posting back on Times and Seasons. However, I think that this is a straw man built up around something that John Sorenson asserts in his limited geography theory. Once again, it’s been a looong time since I read that book, but he asserts that the “horse for deer” type stuff doesn’t come from Joseph but rather from the Nephites themselves. He supplies scads of evidence from the conquistadores who used native spanish terms for describing new animals they’d never seen before, and from that point of view, the evidence seems to be totally different from what you’re arguing here… From that point of view, iron-clad control or “tight-control” or whatever can allow for Joseph to make what you term a “mistranslation” if the _Nephites_ used the Hebrew word for horse in the book itself to describe deer. So, the misnomers come from people who are seeing deer for the first time, i.e. the Nephites, not from Joseph himself, who was clearly acquainted with both deer and horses.

    I’m not saying I necessarily am set on that theory for translation, but I’m just pointing out a misreading that I think I’ve seen in a few places…

  67. Rosalynde says:

    RT, you’re right that the tight-control and loose-control models remain perhaps the key theoretical issue to be resolved in BoM studies—but I think your analysis is off (as ANM suggested). If by “apologetics” you mean FARMS stuff, I believe the tight-control model prevails, in everything from chiasmus to Royal Skousens’s critical textual work.

    I’m not a very good theorist myself—although I’m a decent theory user—but I wonder whether we must settle on one or the other model. I can conceive of a process in which Joseph alternately transcribes a strictly controlled text and improvises on that text; translation-as-jazz, if you will. The problem comes with falsifiability: allowing for either model permits unrigorous cherry-picking analyses of all sorts, any of which can be justified by an appeal to the model that fits. So I’m not sure where we’re left.

  68. (I’ve missed some of the most recent comments, but this was written to be inserted around comment #55)

    “I think because we are counseled NOT to look for more information than what is in the scriptures and/or church manuals…”

    This is alive and well in my ward. 2 examples come to mind…

    1) I once taught a lesson about service (this year), and brought in a book by Lowell Bennion and quoted from it. After the lesson, the Elder’s quorum pres. pulled me aside and said, “The bishop told us in ward correlation meeting that the only resources to be used in our lessons are the scriptures, manual, and quotes from current GA’s”

    2) In a second lesson, I brought Gregory Prince in to talk about David O. McKay (we had him to Logan for a fireside). The next week, the EQP pulled me aside and said, “The bishop wanted to let you know that we are not to bring any guest speakers into class unless you have prior stake approval”.

    Of course I’m sure that enforecement of this “policy” (if it is that) is purely on a stake/ward basis (thus the variance). But I’m pretty sure that the bishop read this memo or statement or policy in the ward correlation meeting.

  69. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    Rosalynde #67: “I can conceive of a process in which Joseph alternately transcribes a strictly controlled text and improvises on that text; translation-as-jazz, if you will.”

    That seems to be the central thesis that Blake Ostler was espousing back as a guest-blogger on T&S, although I believe he gave it the somewhat snootier title of “Mishradic Commentary” or something like that. I like “translation-as-jazz” much better :).

    I like this theory for the types of revelation received and recorded in the D&C. It also seems to align most closely with what many modern-day priesthood holders describe as their experience when giving blessings: having impressions come to their mind, not necessarily fully formed, and then giving voice to those impressions. This lines up nicely with what I experience when playing Jazz, since the form of the work is pre-determined, but it’s exact specifics aren’t. Nice metaphor.

    I wonder how applicable this is to the Book of Mormon though, and I’d like your input on this Rosalynde: Although I’ve been unable to really quantify this (statistically or otherwise), the narrative voice through out the Book of Mormon and in the Pearl of Great seems much different to me than that in the D&C. Have you noticed this? Do think it has any significance in this question of translation or analysis of the texts to examine the narrative voice of them?

    Maybe you and Teryl Givens would be a better fit to discuss this type of stuff, since I have almost no background in literary theory and therefore lack the right vocabulary…

  70. ANM, what I’m saying is certainly compatible with what Ostler said at Times & Seasons — although it’s also something that I’ve thought for years. I think your response may be a little bit off base, though. After all, translation is a mapping from the original language to the new language. If, in Reformed Egyptian Hebrew (i.e., Nephite), the word for “deer” happens to match the word for “horse” in some other language (old-fashioned, non-Nephite Hebrew), that should be irrelevant. What is relevant is mapping the Nephite word for “deer” onto the English word for “deer.” An even better example, though, is “brass,” which probably didn’t exist in the Nephite worldview at all. This has to be a switch at the modern end, as it was in the KJV Old Testament. So I don’t think that what I’m discussing is in fact a misreading — although perhaps I haven’t yet understood your point.

    Rosalynde, I agree that tight control prevails among textual scholars at FARMS. However, in my experience, loose control seems somewhat preferred among anthropology/archaeology scholars at FARMS.

  71. Tom Riddle says:

    I don’t have Rough Stone Rolling with me right now, but I seem to remember that Bushman quoted one instance of Joseph making a distinction between using his “seer stone” which was a gift from God, and “peeping” which he called “d–n nonsense” or something to that effect.

    There is a relatively common teaching in the church that Satan is not a creator but a counterfeiter. Maybe Joseph came to view the practice of using “peep stones” and “peeping” as a counterfeit (by man or by the devil) of the God sanctioned “seer stones” and “seeing.”

    Perhaps it would be more correct to refer to Joseph’s stone as a “seer stone” and not as a “peep stone.”

    Even among modern members of the church there seems to be at least a subculture that believes in and practices these kinds of gifts. I remember that there was a post over at M* back in the spring or early summer about modern members of the church who use rods to dowse for ore and consider it a gift from God.

  72. Tom, a difficulty for me with your hypothesis is that the stone in question was used for both “seering,” i.e., translating the Book of Mormon, and “peeping,” i.e., seeing bloody treasure ghosts, chests of gold, lost pins in haystacks, etc.

  73. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    RT #70: “If, in Reformed Egyptian Hebrew (i.e., Nephite), the word for ‘deer’ happens to match the word for ‘horse’ in some other language (old-fashioned, non-Nephite Hebrew), that should be irrelevant. What is relevant is mapping the Nephite word for ‘deer’ onto the English word for ‘deer.'”

    Okay, I didn’t explain myself well at all. The point here is that the iron-clad/tight-control theory folks (doesn’t Skousen make a distinction between those two?) can argue for the horse-deer stuff that the change happened because the Nephites, upon finding deer in the land, lacked a word in their vocabulary to name this animal. So, they picked one they already had, namely the Hebrew equivalent of horse. So, we see horse in the Book of Mormon because the Hebrew word for horse was the word they wrote on the plates because that was the word that they decided to use to talk about this new animal they’d never seen before. The Sorenson limited geography theory as explained in “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon” gives all kinds of exmaples of spanish conquistadores doing this same thing. They see an animal they’ve never seen before and give it a name like “big chicken” or “goat” even though they’re looking at a turkey or a llama, because they didn’t know what else to call them (I pulled those examples out of my armpit… Sorry, I don’t have the book in front of me right now to give real examples…)

    Whehter this type of thing can be used to explain brass and other things is not for me to say, but for somebody who knows about the etymology of the Hebrew word for brass… :)

    Is that a little clearer?

  74. Tom Riddle says:


    That is a good point. I think, however, that it might be possible that Joseph, solicited by others to use his gift to seek treasure, attempted to use his legitimate seer stone for the wrong reasons. Joseph never successfully acquired any treasure using the stone. If a seer stone functioned after the same principles as priesthood power, then it could only be properly used in the manner that God approved.

    Both Moses and the Priests of Pharaoh tossed down their staffs and turned them into serpents. But the miracle performed by Moses was wrought by the power of God, while the priests were counterfeit. I imagine a similar distinction between Seer Stones and Peep Stones. And the quote in Rough Stone Rolling from Joseph would seem to show that Joseph entertained a similar understanding.

  75. Rosalynde says:

    ANM (I sure wish I knew who you were, by the way!): I haven’t looked at Givens’ _By the Hand_ since my last baby was born, but I remember greatly enjoying the whole thing—except his discussion of translation mechanisms. I thought he did a nice job framing the debate and alternatives, but his own analysis left me a little cold. I’d love to talk to him more about this very issue.

    As for narrative voice, it’s an important but maddeningly slippery way to look at texts. Wordprint analyses and the like can be helpful, but they are at best incomplete and at worst misleading. The D&C, of course, itself incorporates a number of very different narrative voices and tones, in part because each section has a particular (and, often, particularly complex) bibliographic history with a unique rhetorical origin and textual transmission. For an interesting look at these issues, see the first installment of the “Mormon Studies Periodically” feature I did at T&S a while back (too lazy to code in the link); it features a holograph of the “Articles of the Church,” an early version of Section 20 by Oliver Cowdery.

    In general, though, the BoM lexis seems rather more affected and inflated than D&C, to me. More extraneous words and conventional phrases, more tortured phrasing, more repetition, less clarity. This could be a result of Joseph’s lack of experience as a revelator, the fact that the mansuscript did not undergo revision as many of the revelations did, or an effect of translation from a different language. Furthermore, as I’m reading aloud the BoM to my children, I often have the distinct (but unquantifiable) impression that the voice has changed subtly but substantially; it’s hard to know, though, whether I’m just reacting to my sense that a particular word or concept is anachronistic, or whether I’m actually perceiving a shift from transcription to improvisation.

  76. I think a lot of what’s going on has to do with the ‘milk before meat’ idea. I think many members are stuck on milk because somehow they have gotten the idea that meat is bad. There are some basic skills that many ‘raised in the church’ members don’t have, most importantly the ability to recieve personal revelation about the truthfulness of doctrines and information. Many members have the idea that all they need to do is be active members and they’ll be spoon-fed everything they need to know. I’ve realized that church meetings are always going to be ‘milk’ for a good reason. Everyone should be able to come to church and hear everything that can be said there even if they aren’t ready for ‘meat.’ Church is a missionary tool. If you want meat, you have to get it on your own.
    I learned about the peepstone and hat combo in seminary, and out of my class of 20 people I may be the only one who actually learned it even though the teacher described it in detail. I also tend to think that the Brethren are telling us more than they let on about, just like Christ and His parables. Things are hidden for a reason, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I have yet to try this, but I’ve been told (by the same seminary teacher) that the entire Temple Endowment ceremony is in Leviticus, and that if you read carefully, with the spirit then you can see it (I’m guessing it helps if you have an idea of what you’re looking for).
    Lastly I recall that we have been counseled to seek wisdom and knowledge out of the best books. And that it is ‘not meet’ that we should be commanded in all things. When a book contradicts church manuals and current General Authorities I’ll side with them, but when they fall conspicuously silent then it’s my responsiblity to determine truthfulness by the means provided to us.

  77. If we are not beyond this portion of the comments, I never knew about the seer stone and the hat until I read Givens. When I read it I thought that it was fascinating, but it was nothing I had ever heard before. I have seen hat artwork, but only in anti materials. Regarding the outside sources issue that John D. and others have been discussing, I don’t particularly like the policy, but there are plenty of issues that come from the text itself that invite pondering. One can have a stimulating class without outside stuff (which I know you weren’t arguing against; I just felt like it ought to be pointed out).

  78. Count me among those who recently (in my early 20’s) learned about the peepstone/translation process (in Susan Easton Black’s Church History class at BYU). I was much more fascinated by it than bothered, I think largely because I was in Sister Black’s (amazing) class at BYU. If I would have learned the same information elsewhere it might have been a bit more awkward.

    On that note, Sister Black’s class was similar to Bushman for how to disseminate this information to the general LDS population. Much of what she taught was new information to me but was easier to digest when given within a faithful context.

  79. Rosalynde: (I always think of Calvin’s babysitter when I’m addressing you…)

    I was thinking of Anderson’s biblical Jesus paintings that show up all over in Church magazines and buildings, like here. I didn’t know those had been comissioned by the Church, and I can’t find any good documentation on-line. Did he do specifically LDS themes?

  80. Rosalynde says:

    Yep. From “Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint Visual Culture,” Noel Carmack, BYU Studies 39:3 (43-44):

    “Although Arnold Friberg was billed as the ‘finest illustrator in the Church,’ after the disapprobation of his _Risen Lord_ he would not accept a commission to paint scenes of the life of Christ for the (1964 World’s)fair or the Gospel in Art program. On behalf of the church, advertising agent Richard J. Marshall then approached Harry Anderson, a well-respected Seventh-day Adventist artist who had done work for the Pacific Press Publishing Association. Anderson took on the commission and over a sixteen-year period completed several paintings on the life of Christ for the Mormon Pavilion and for the North Visitors’ Center in SLC. LDS artist Grant Romney Clawson reproduced Anderson’s work in twelve large-scale murals for display at the visitors’ center and the Church Office Building.”

    Discussion ensues. I highly recommend the article, which I believe John Fowles has linked above.

  81. john fowles says:

    At this point, I just can’t resist this: not everything Arnold Friberg painted was appropriate for the Primary. See this for example.

  82. john fowles says:

    Also, the current issue of BYU Studies has a wonderful article highlighting four artists known for their “LDS art,” including Arnold Friberg and Harry Anderson. If you have access to that volume I highly recommend it for the nice color prints of selected works of these artists (focusing as much, if not more, on their works of art depicting the American (including Canadian) frontier as on BoM or other scriptural subject matter).

  83. This thread was the first I’d heard of Joseph putting his head in a hat. Seems funny to me, but then I still can’t get over just letting someone walk off with a bunch of pages from the only copy of your manuscript from God, either. No, really, that used to cause me a lot of trouble. If Joseph was wise and responsible enough to be asking for help from God — and to be getting Heavenly Father and Jesus coming straight to him and giving him counsel — how could he have been so dumb? I think it helps more now to remember the stupid stuff I did when I was a teenager, even when I’d always known better.

    BYU’s purchase circle does seem oddly unintellectual. OSU’s seems more like what you’d expect, and we’re a state school.

  84. There is so much of this discussion that is over my head. This sort of thing has never bothered me, but I think my sister found out some of it (which I already knew) and left the church. We’ve never talked about it, but I just assume.

    I think the proof is in the pudding. And the only way to find that out is to read the book.

  85. I can say in full openness that I thought, until about a year and a half ago, that Joseph had translated the Book of Mormon by looking at the gold plates through the spectacles.

    I don’t think I ever heard about the “face in the hat” version of the translation of the B of M until after I got home off of my mission. The flipcharts we used in France (1975 thru 1977) had a nice painting of Joseph sitting on one side of a table with a sheet hung from a rope separating Joseph from whoever it was to whom he was dictating, and I was always puzzled over the fact that if Oliver tried to translate the Book of Mormon in the same manner as shown in the flipcharts, he would have been a witness to the reality of the gold (tumbaga?) plates way ahead of time. So I guess when I found out about the “face in the hat method”, it suddenly made Oliver Cowdery’s attempt to translate make more sense than it had before hearing that explanation.

  86. FaithHopeLove says:

    I only heard about the stone in the hat very recently. The simple facts of the matter are that to be a good member of the church, you only _need_ to know very little church history. Modern worship deals with the products of the history – the scriptures, words of the prophets, temples, ordinances.

    I grew up in another church until my mid-teens. I had never heard that we even had a founder. Later, when someone pointed it out to me, I was astonished. I then went and asked others who were faithful members, none of them had ever heard of the guy, and thought it was clearly false information. For them, it was unimportant.

    I have to confess, though. The seer stone in the hat sounds a little hokey.

  87. Back to narrative voices in the BoM, one very striking shift in my reading is the one from Nephi the repetitious preacher to Mormon the action-packed storyteller.

  88. Another big voice shift is when 2nd Nephi ends and Jacob jumps in. He has a very different way of putting things.

    Jacob seems a little more compassionate than Nephi.

  89. A. Nonny Mouse says:

    Rosalynde, #75: “As for narrative voice, it’s an important but maddeningly slippery way to look at texts. Wordprint analyses and the like can be helpful, but they are at best incomplete and at worst misleading.”

    I totally agree on this one. It seems like statistics aren’t the best fit for this type of a discussion, but I find still find the concept of somehow quantifying the changes/weidnesses in the Book of Mormon to be something that seems germane to the topic at hand. I guess, I was kind of wondering what, if anything, modern critical theory might have to say about something like that… Although, most likely there hasn’t been a lot of work done on the transmission of voice in “translated” works.

    “Furthermore, as I’m reading aloud the BoM to my children, I often have the distinct (but unquantifiable) impression that the voice has changed subtly but substantially; it’s hard to know, though, whether I’m just reacting to my sense that a particular word or concept is anachronistic, or whether I’m actually perceiving a shift from transcription to improvisation. ”

    What type of anachronisms are you referring to here? Are we talking unnatural phraseology or are we talking on a higher level, e.g. unnatural narration, like describing things which don’t seem to be on-topic? Maybe both?

    JWL: “Back to narrative voices in the BoM, one very striking shift in my reading is the one from Nephi the repetitious preacher to Mormon the action-packed storyteller.”

    Yeah, that’s kind of what spurned on my original thinking in my first question to Rosalynde… As a reader, I notice a distinct change in voice from Nephi to Jacob and then another from Jacob to the minor writers and then a fairly consistent voice after that. I wonder though how much of that is because of the cultural connection I have to all the stories… And the fact that I know about the small plates, the large plates and all the rest.

    This is a place where some theoretical structure would help, because it would allow me to at least frame the discussion of these shifts in a way that’s not based on my own experience with the book…

  90. You can try to “immunize” by presenting uncomfortable facts from a faithful perspective. But all that does for a person who hears those facts from other sources is allow them to say, “No, I *did* learn that at church. There is no coverup.”

    Then the underlying problem comes in, which is related to Seth’s point in 16 about seeing the facts presented with a snicker and to RT’s point in 16 about believing that treasure-seeking props mean it’s all a fake and to FHL’s point in 86 about seerstones being hokey. The underlying problem is that so many of these facts lend themselves very easily to snickering and believing it’s all a hokey fake.

    If you’ve only ever heard those facts from beloved family members and respected church teachers who were trying to “immunize” you, then you’ve only heard the stories from people whose wisdom you trust, people whose authority you are slow to question, people who truly believe the stories and tell them with awe and with emphasis on how amazing and divine everything was every step of the way. I think this manner of presentation goes a long way toward suppressing the listener’s “bs meter.”

    Then, later in life, at a time when the “bs meter” is on super-sensitive mode (for example, when surfing anti-mormon internet sites such as RfM or watching “unapproved” programs like Southpark), one hears the same information told with a snicker and a “smart smart smart smart smart.” Questioning mode is on. “Hey, they’ve got that wrong! That’s not what I learned at church. Oh, wait a minute, I guess I did hear about that stuff before. But that wasn’t *how* it was presented. It never dawned on me how hokey and ridiculous and likely fake it all was. How *can* people tell that with a straight face?”

    All this to say that if you’re “immunizing,” just tell the story straight, or if anything, laugh at the story a bit yourself. Gosh, aren’t we a peculiar people with such an adorably wacky history? Then the snickers won’t sway people. They will know it’s OK to wink and laugh at themselves and still be part of the community.

  91. B,

    I see where you’re coming from. Indeed, there’s no point pretending that the seer-stone-in-the-hat is anything other than really, really bizarre. (But not any higher on the bizarre-meter, IMO, than the Urim-and-Thummim-As-Magic-Spectacles either.)

    Of course, just because it is bizarre from my own cthonic, secular, everyday perspective, doesn’t make it untrue. Frankly, I’ve yet to see a religious founding story that wasn’t bizarre. I have a Bhagavad Gita at home with some supremely bizarre pictures–blue gods anyone?

  92. Ronan,

    I still think there’s something else bizarre about the hat thing:. we are told that Joseph Smith received some ancient plates, and some magic spectacles to translate them. Then we learn that he translated without using either the spectacles or the plates!

  93. To add a point to B’s thoughts,

    I think part of what made the South Park episode so effective is that even for those of us who knew about the hat thing beforehand, most of us had not seen that played out _visually_. Purely textual “innoculations” may be effective at diffusing textual sensationalism, but mere words are much less effective when called to do battle against a visual reenactment (even if in cartoon form). The point being that it seems particularly important to be “telling the story straight” in our visual depictions of events.

  94. Steve McIntyre says:

    Many Latter-day Saints have this perception that many of the revelations recorded in scripture were received through a simple process of God speaking, and man recording. However, it may be beneficial to remember that God works through the medium of his mortal (and therefore limited and imperfect) servants. He’ll reveal through their language and vocabulary, in terms and imagery with which they are familiar.

    The idea of receiving divine or supernatural information through the use of “seer stones” was common in Joseph Smith’s day. Joseph, for as much as he was, was not immune to such beliefs. Was the seer stone actually a necessary component in the revelatory process by which the Book of Mormon was produced? I’m not qualified come to any definite conclusions, but my response would be, perhaps not. Perhaps the seer stone wasn’t necessary at all. From Joseph’s perspective, this stone was aiding him in the revelatory process. Whether it was or not, we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. God could conceivably use a seer stone, but could just as easily make the same knowledge known to Joseph through some other means.

    For that matter, was it even necessary that Joseph have the plates in front of him? Well, no. He wasn’t technically translating the Book of Mormon from ancient characters in the same manner that modern linguists might. Joseph didn’t know Hebrew or Egyption, much less Reformed Egyption, when he translated the Book of Mormon. It was produced by revelation.

    Despite the questions we have about Joseph’s translating habits, we’re still faced with the reality of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is far too complex for someone as uneducated as Joseph Smith to produce without divine assistance.

  95. john fowles says:

    B wrote If you’ve only ever heard those facts from beloved family members and respected church teachers who were trying to “immunize” you, then you’ve only heard the stories from people whose wisdom you trust, people whose authority you are slow to question, people who truly believe the stories and tell them with awe and with emphasis on how amazing and divine everything was every step of the way. I think this manner of presentation goes a long way toward suppressing the listener’s “bs meter.”

    The problem with what you write later on in the comment, namely that All this to say that if you’re “immunizing,” just tell the story straight, or if anything, laugh at the story a bit yourself. Gosh, aren’t we a peculiar people with such an adorably wacky history? Then the snickers won’t sway people. They will know it’s OK to wink and laugh at themselves and still be part of the community, is that this latter approach is hard to employ for someone who really does believe as in the bolded portion above. If, on the other hand, one suspects or believes that it really is B.S., then one can easily snicker with those who mock the sacred and “wink and laugh” at ourselves as Mormons who believe such weird things while teaching our children about them. For the Latter-day Saint who holds the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith in translating the BoM and the means God saw fit to allow Joseph Smith to translate it in deep reverence, it is a little more difficult to teach children how stupid it all sounds from the beginning. Rather, the awe and emphasis on how amazing and divine everything was every step of the way that you mention will be difficult to suppress in favor of snickering with those who mock what we hold sacred.

    Because so many Latter-day Saints hold this process of translation in reverence, as they do the BoM itself as a tangible fruit of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s calling, it seems unlikely that we will, as a body, ever be able to teach our children about the seer stone and the translation process with a South Park snicker, even if in the interest of “immunizing” them against how stupid the rest of the world views this founding story. The result is that the occasional Latter-day Saint will lose their testimony when confronted with the adversity of a mocking society that does not share the same beliefs as him or her. This is too bad, but I wonder if it is not inevitable. As much as I think it would be an eternal tragedy if one of my own children lost their testimony because of South Park or the mockery of children at school (or peers later in life), I still cannot bring myself to mock Joseph and his stone in the hat with those peers just to make sure that my kids are exposed to the mockery much earlier on.

    Perhaps a better approach would be to teach it how it is, with all the natural awe and reverence that accompanies it for us personally (meaning that some will indeed be able to teach it with a wink and a laugh, and that is fine) but at the same time impress upon the children that this seems like foolishness to people who do not believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet. Maybe that would be enough to put them on alert that they will face the mockery of the world for their beliefs, and therefore soften the hurt when they see the South Park episode for the first time, or even worse.

  96. Well put John. We should teach our history with reverence and awe. I’ve long felt that glossing over the (in our understanding) strange disrespects the means by which God brought his gospel forth on the earth and the imperfect, but faithful people he chose to do so.

    As far as I have been able to tell, there is far more to be proud than ashamed of.

  97. I’d like to refresh Talon’s question in comment 49: Does it cause discomfort for anyone to imagine Pres. Hinckley with his face buried in a hat seeking revelation? If so why, if not why?

  98. John Fowles wrote: “impress upon the children that this seems like foolishness to people who do not believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet”

    But it also seems like something just short of foolishness to a number of people who DO believe that Joseph Smith is a prophet. How many people with strong testimonies nonetheless feel like the translation method is a little weird/uncomfortable/hokey the first time they hear about it, even from pro-LDS sources, and maybe continue to feel that way for a long time afterward? Whether you yourself feel capable of delivering the message that it’s okay to laugh at oneself and one’s own beliefs or not, that’s a message that teenagers and young adults need. Otherwise, where will they go when they start to see their faith through the eyes of others, and realize how wacky it is? Once they’re convinced it’s wacky, are they “too far gone” already, or would it help to convince them that it’s really more unique-wacky than stupid-wacky?

    I think the danger is in sending an all-or-nothing message to young people. When I was told, as a believing LDS young person, about the translation method, the message I got was basically: “People who don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet think seerstones are bogus, ridiculous and/or evil. People who do believe Joseph Smith was a prophet think seerstones are marvelous instruments of divine power when used properly.” I was perfectly happy to assume that seerstones were divine and marvelous, since I didn’t know anything about them other than that Joseph Smith had used them, and I had a testimony that he was a prophet (see my circular reasoning?).

    But then when I learned more about what seerstones are (well before Southpark), I felt they were ridiculous and bogus, period. Based on the message I had received growing up, I figured that meant I had lost my testimony, then and there. After all, it’s only the people who don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet who think seerstones are foolishness, right?

  99. If Pres. Hinckley felt that it would help him in receiving revelation to get the seerstone out of the First Presidency’s vault and look at it in a hat, that would be fine with me. I suspect it would be unlikely — Joseph grew out of using the seerstone as a revelatory aid after only a few years and Pres. Hinckley has decades of experience with the revelatory processes used in Church government. However, I wouldn’t be bothered if Pres. Hinckley did it.

    I think we tend to routinize the process of receiving revelation, view as always just transcribing exact words that God puts clearly and unmistakeably into our minds. However, Church history and our own experience shows that the process is more wondrous and less precise than that. We have to study things out in our minds, pray at length, and then the Spirit listeth where it will. It comes in dreams and whispers and burnings as well as words. From a modern secular perspective, the idea that we can receive some kind of communication from God in any sense is plenty wacky. Put in this context, rocks in hats is just a little extra frill on a concept that is thoroughly incredible in any case.

  100. JWL, well said. For a religion that believes in resurrection from the dead, a seerstone is nothing.

    I find it mildly amusing that the anti’s point to Joseph’s use of a seerstone as something that invalidates his work. Why did Jesus have to rely on mud made from his own spit to restore sight to a blind man? That sounds every bit as primitive and magical to me.

  101. john fowles says:

    B wrote But then when I learned more about what seerstones are (well before Southpark), I felt they were ridiculous and bogus, period.

    You have made my point in this statement. Since you personally think they are ridiculous and bogus “period,” you can teach your children that they are ridiculous and bogus (i.e. teach them about the seer stones with a “wink and a laugh”). Nothing in my comment condemned that approach if that is what you believe. I assume, by the way, that you would be teaching them only that the stone/translation process seem ridiculous and bogus from the perspective of people outside the faith. If you are teaching them that the stone/translation process are in fact or objectively ridiculous and bogus, then that is a bit of a different matter. The inference to be drawn from that would be that the BoM is “inspired fiction” or that Joseph Smith was a “pious fraud” or some other naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon. I understand that one can believe both that Joseph Smith was a prophet and a pious fraud writing inspired fiction, but that does not work for me; neither does it seem logically sound.

    In fact, the use of the seer stone in the hat, documented by David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Emma Smith, at least (and openly acknowledged by the General leadership of the Church ever since), weighs against a naturalistic explanation, in a certain sense. If you look on the anti-Mormon website that Ronan linked in the main post for frames from the Southpark episode, you will see that the Canadian exmo who runs the site has provided quotes from sources describing the process, including Emma Smith. She explained that Joseph Smith would be looking into the stone with his face in the hat to block out the outside light for hours at a time. This one small fact actually dispells some naturalistic explanations of the BoM, especially in light of other facts surrounding the emergence of the BoM, such as the rapidity of its dictation and the lack of backtracking or editing as the book was dictated, and the astonishing lack of internal contradictions within the narrative/text considering this approach. In light of these facts about the timeframe for the translation, it could be argued that Joseph Smith had written during the intervening years between his first visionary claims and his claims of obtaining the plates. Under this theory, Joseph would have been able to write numerous drafts and iron out his story perfectly to eliminate internal inconsisties that seem inevitable if one were to dictate such a large and internally reflective/self-referencing narration so rapidly. He could have worked through dozens of drafts and had numerous notes and sketches for his epic novel (though the question arises about where these drafts and notes are located now–it is at least theoretically possible that he burned them all). Then under this theory, he could have simply read the finished manuscript to his scribe from behind the curtain. This theory actually works if one imagines the translation process as depicted in that painting that has lead so many astray: Joseph sitting with the golden plates open in front of him, finger keeping his place as he deciphers the characters, with a blanket hanging between himself and the furiously writing Oliver Cowdery. Simply take the golden plates out of the picture (or insert Vogel’s tin pious fraud plates) and put the manuscript in Joseph’s hand, and voila you are looking at a painting of the pious fraud at work.

    But it is more complicated when witnesses say that Joseph dictated for hours at a time with his face buried in a hat. There is no possibility that he was reading from his laborioiusly created novel manuscript under those accounts. How could the manuscript fit in the hat? How could he turn the pages? How could he see the manuscript with the hat closed around his face? This theory can still survive, admittedly, if one posits that in addition to working out the manuscript over the years before the “translation,” Joseph Smith had also memorized it. The only reason, however, that this explanation would seem less fantastic than God providing the words to him on a seer stone is that it does not involve a super-natural or divine power, although it does involve a difficult-to-believe, other-worldly intelligence on the part of Joseph (who, by the way, could hardly spell, if I understand correctly). I suppose it is easier to believe that Joseph was a sort of boy genuis, not unlike Mozart, who, instead of composing symphonies, was memorizing a manuscript worked out over years in a deeply pre-meditated and highly complex plan to defraud his family and neighbors into believing he was a prophet and God was telling him something, but not much (at least to my mind).

    Of course, the testimony of witnesses describing how Joseph would have his face buried in the hat for hours at a time does absolutely nothing against the argument that Joseph was being deceived by Satan and that it was Satan who was putting the words on the seer stone and not God. This is easily believable for evangelical and other Christians who believe that Latter-day Saints are the spawn of Satan. But, objectively speaking, it takes as much faith to believe this view as to believe straightforwardly that Joseph was a prophet and that God was aiding him in the translation process through the use of the seer stone in the hat. But the inspired-of-the-devil explanation has little appeal to the secular mind.

  102. What’s a “BS” meter? I never remember learning about that in Biology- that each human organism is somehow endowed with a “BS meter…

  103. Jordan, it is a colloquial, metaphorical term. It is not an assertion about human biology. Try googling it if you are still confused.

    John, you obviously don’t know me very well. Perhaps letting your mouse rest on my initial will give you more of an idea of where I’m coming from, what I plan to teach my future children, and what I think are objectively reasonable beliefs. I don’t recommend actually clicking on the link, though, as the site would probably offend you.

    What I’m trying to say (you can accept or reject as you wish, but I repeat only because you seem not to have understood) is that no one ever told me it was possible to believe Joseph was “a prophet and a pious fraud writing inspired fiction.” No one ever told me it was possible to believe Joseph was a prophet and a person who used (what I consider to be bogus) folk magic techniques. I never met anyone at church who admitted to believing that.

    The only influences in my life told me it was all or nothing. All true or a vicious fraud. I realize you fall on the “all true” side yourself. I’m not suggesting that you personally teach your children anything you don’t believe. But you’re already willing to expose them (at the appropriate age) to the idea that some people believe JS was not a prophet; i.e., that it was all a fraud. I’m just suggesting that you also make them aware that there is that middle ground in which some people (though, again, not you) do manage to believe that Joseph Smith was “a prophet and a pious fraud writing inspired fiction,” a prophet and a user of highly dubious, pretty hilarious, weird, hokey stuff like seerstones. Maybe you already do / plan to do that, in which case, kudos to you!

  104. B–indeed, there are people in that middle-ground space (and in other middle-ground positions). But there are a lot of people who, for some reason, believe either that there is no middle ground — empirical examples to the contrary notwithstanding — or that middle-ground stances are morally unacceptable. This opinion doesn’t just arise from believers; it also comes up among people who have left the church.

  105. I understand that to some, a middle-ground stance would be as morally unacceptable as the “total fraud” stance. One who believes in “all true,” might also believe that “all true” is the only acceptable option. That makes sense. But if one is willing to admit to there being empirical examples of middle-grounders, and one is willing to expose children to the idea that some believe it is all a fraud, then it makes sense to also expose children to the idea that there are middle-grounders. That doesn’t entail endorsement of the middle ground any more than saying “some people don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet” endorses the “total fraud” viewpoint. It’s just an issue of exposure to the concept, I think.

    RT wrote: “This opinion doesn’t just arise from believers; it also comes up among people who have left the church.”
    Perhaps most of them learned that attitude at church, and carried it with them when they left? Or do you think they are coming up with it on their own, post-departure?

  106. B, I’ve argued elsewhere that the “no-middle-ground” position serves the strategic, rhetorical purposes of those whose primary goal in religious discourse is to get people into or out of the LDS church. So I think that people who become ex-Mormon activists may have been exposed to the no-middle-ground attitude while at church — but it serves a whole new rhetorical purpose after they leave.

  107. I think the church pushes an all or nothing outlook – look at the deification of Joseph Smith that is currently going on via the many celebrations of his life. I have no problem with celebrating what Joseph did, but he was clearly a flawed, very human person who made a lot of mistakes, even in his role as a prophet. Was he a very human person who still accomplished a great thing? Yes. But the flaws and missteps are still there, and when as a church, we/they push the idea that he was perfect, we are asking for trouble.

    Neutral information and facts about Joseph’s life are becoming more and more available, and to generations trained to believe that he was a perfect man with perfect vision, the information will be troubling and devastating. They have not been trained to be able to accept that a prophet may have many many faults. They are only taught the positive things the prophets have done and said, and not the negatives unless the negative item is so weak (like stick pulling or wrestling) that it seems completely innocent. So when/if they are confronted with a bunch of negative information, there will be a ton of dissonance.


  1. […] Last night I saw a rerun of one of my favorite South Park episodes, “All About Mormons.” I recommend it wholeheartedly to those with strong testimonies who aren’t afraid of a little coarse humor. Ronan has already blogged about it here. […]

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