Your Sunday Brunch Special, #14: Stones, Expectations, and Faith

There are Distinctions to be Made Between the Past and Present

A friend’s query made me think of this thing which I wrote some time back. You’re welcome:

We (sane?) humans have a well-known tendency to systematize our thought-environs. We desire to not only have reality match expectation, but many of us desire that our sincere beliefs not be paradoxical and have no gaping rational holes. Perhaps such tendencies, assuming they exist, arise from the paradigms of science or perhaps from an inherent desire to have things make sense—to have deductive logic connect the pieces. Do these tendencies motivate us to make and hold to seemingly rational conclusions about faith (theology?), even when empirical evidence “proves” they don’t match reality? When logician Kurt Godel was asked if (based on a cosmology which includes time-travel) one could go back in time and kill their own great-grand parents, he replied that this would create a paradox, and so could not happen because “logic is powerful.”

By analogy, and to be specific, I think sometimes we Mormons (or believers in general) can become attached to theological derivations which for one reason or another we want to see match foundational documents, say. I offer one little bi-polar example (at least I think it’s an example):

Joseph Smith used physical aids (seer stones), by his own testimony, and the testimony of eye-witnesses, to translate the Book of Mormon. Moreover, evidence shows that he had some skill with rod-working as well as these seer stones. I will not review the history of these objects, however it was evident that they were originally graded by capability. The brown stone was the least capable, the white stone next and the “spectacles” were most capable in seeric uses. Eventually it seems that Joseph improved his skill to such a degree that the brown stone could be used in translating the Book of Mormon.[1]

David Whitmer stated that Joseph gave the brown stone to Oliver Cowdery when the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, while Orson Pratt related that Joseph had no further need of it. By some accounts at least, Joseph’s receipt of the Melchizedek Priesthood was suggested as a reason for this.

But for some Mormon exegetes (not naming names here — that’s not the point), it has become part of the check-list of (derived) faith that the stones were no longer used by Joseph after the Book of Mormon text was complete. Others have claimed that Joseph gradually found them superfluous when he tried them out in the JST process, or the Book of Abraham. For some, this has become such a point of honor that to suggest otherwise will get you a vigorous lecture. But this belief is empirically false. Joseph did use the white stone (gazelem) to translate the Book of Abraham text, both in Kirtland and in Nauvoo. Apparently his did not use it for the matching games and pronouncing exercises of the scribes in the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers” (KEP).[2]

For his part, Joseph did not mention the use of the stone(s) directly and visitors seeing the Egyptian relics were not treated to any seer stone lore while those who acted as scribes for the Book of Abraham generally did not divulge Joseph’s use of stone(s). Joseph’s response to his brother Hyrum, when the latter suggested that Joseph be frank about how the Book of Mormon was translated, suggested that the world was not invited to that party and apparently the same went for the Book of Abraham. While such caution may have been meant for a little Enlightenment respectability outside Mormonism, it also became a point of faith with some fraction of modern Mormon voices. Get away from those stones! Perhaps the best reason for this is that Joseph’s successors have never claimed the use of such objects. Making them superfluous for Joseph perhaps makes them superfluous for others? We love continuity! Modern authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not discussed such matters, though stories about the modern use of such things still circulate on the Mormon rumor mill. As for current authorities shying away from the issue, this is not true. But their time is spent with products, not much with the (Joseph Smith’s) means. Was Joseph just different here? I think so, in a way. None of have prophetic successors have done any equivalent “translating” chores as far as we know. And Joseph Smith’s Enoch texts suggest that one does not need a stone to be called a seer in any case.

Joseph did not translate via dictionaries and skull sweat, whatever beat down Cowdery got. The best analogy I can think of with regard to his translation technique is the gift of tongues. There’s a lot to say there, but I won’t do it here.

[1] Perhaps the single best source for Joseph’s use of seeric aids is Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Utah State University, Masters Thesis, 2000). Richard Bushman mentions parts of the issue in his JS bio.

[2] The best sources were recently “discovered.” Two of these include letters to “home” by a pair of Quakers who got the JS papyri tour from Lucy Mack Smith in the summer on 1846. She’s quite clear about Joseph’s use of the stone in the hat, and that he did not need missing parts of the papyri since he could see what they should have been (evidently this didn’t include some missing parts of a hypocephalus original for Facsimile No. 2 of the Book of Abraham). (My thanks to Connell O’Donovan for the Quaker reference). Another such source is a previously unpublished letter from 1840-1841 scribe Howard Coray.a Several other sources are now known (including an enlightened reading of Wilford Woodruff) but I won’t go into them here.

a CHL for the original. A facsimile is here. Observe that Coray’s role in the production of JS’s history has been clarified by the recent Joseph Smith Papers volume (Histories 1).


  1. Ben Johnson says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by seer stones. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum (in Salt Lake) has a peep stone on display. I went and talked to the curator about it and she said she tried it out but it didn’t work. Very interesting.

    Thanks for this post. I had assumed that Joseph gave up seer stones when he finished the Book of Mormon. I was interested to find out he used one on the Book of Abraham.

  2. I believe there were seer stones in the Manti Temple(?)

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Bob, as I remember, that was JS’s white stone, which Zina Young had and whose family returned it to the FP.

    We’ve seen some even claim that no stones were used after the first 116 pages. Odd. I think that you are right that we want things to be consistent, and for many, that means the same.

  4. Seer stones were used well into the Utah period. It seems like their devaluation came about more due to the problem of conflicting authority claims against Brigham Young and the twelve.

  5. BTW – regarding the claim that none of Joseph’s successors used them I wonder how true that is. I know some said that, but given their use in early Utah I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that some did. It would be interesting for someone to go through the history of how the brethren have reacted about the seerstones as there still seems to be an inclination to keep them sacred (and often in the vault) while downplaying them publicly. Sadly there’s probably not enough documentation to produce such as study.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Clark, all the accounts of which I am aware of seer stone use in Utah are outside of church hierarchy. And Brigham Young most certainly didn’t use one.

  7. Is this blog ever going to tackle the topic of left/liberal anti-Mormonism?

  8. I have looked into my seer stone. It was clouded by smoke, but after some time I read that this blog will NEVER tackle the topic of left/liberal attacks on Mormonism. (And if it does, white horses will attack the blogger, or I am not a true seer.)

  9. the current SLC leaders have some of JS seer stones in their posession. maybe they use them? you dont know or not know that

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