Something pretty incredible occurred this week for lovers of the Book of Mormon. People will be talking about it for a long while yet. For the first time ever, the Church made available full color photographs of the entire printer’s manuscript (except for three lines which have been missing from the manuscript for a very long time). Of course, everyone’s talking about two pages out of the two-part volume’s apx. 976 pages: photographic images of the chocolate-colored stone Joseph is reported to have used for much of the Book of Mormon translation. (See Richard Bushman’s reaction here.)
During the press conference, Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard Turley briefly discussed the decision to publish the photographs:
“We wondered, what do you do with a sacred object like this. On the one hand, we wanted to treat it with sacredness and respect. On the other hand, we wanted to make it publicly available to people. And so we settled on the balance of having a full-color image available.” (Fox 13)
Here is an image of a stone that is said to have given a prophet images of a religious text. Its involvement rendered it sacred. Unlike Islam’s sacred black stone in the cornerstone of the Kaaba at Mecca where pilgrims once caressed it but now can only view it behind protective materials, it remains shrouded in a vault in Salt Lake City.
This is religion on the material level. As Kris Wright puts it, “Objects and bodies mediate religious experience.” To paraphrase a Facebook friend, the apostle Thomas touched the body of a risen Christ who ingested fish and other food. His baptism occurred in ordinary water (of course, water is more extraordinary than we take the time to think about very often.) Yes, here is God using rocks from the earth to transmit words from heaven. This polished stone upon closer examination reveals nicks and scrapes—look closely where the light hits it. As in life, smooth stability is all about levels of magnification. Like young Joseph we value gold, but those plates required something else to unlock their contents. Our eyes don’t always recognize true value. Some reactions to the newly released photographs are worthy of Charlie Brown:
“I got five pieces of candy!
“I got a chocolate bar!”
“I got a quarter!”
“I got a rock.”
What looks like a beautiful but mundane brown stone was claimed to “shine forth in darkness” (Alma 37:23), somehow helping to produce a strange and remarkable religious text. Here is God using whatever materials are at hand, whatever means there are available in various historical circumstances, whether that be a burning bush or a glowing stone.
But that bush no longer burns and that stone is dormant today, whatever its revelatory powers in the past were. Its fate was already in the balance after the initial phase of the Book of Mormon project, its translation, concluded. And Joseph himself walked away from the stone, much to the disappointment of some of his earliest followers like David Whitmer. When publicly pressed to describe the mechanics of his translation, Joseph deferred yet again to his go-to phrase taken from the Title Page of the Book of Mormon. It was done “by the gift and power of God.” Let it be.
You can tell by all of the public statements he made about the process of translation that Joseph seems to have known what it looked like to claim the words of God came to him while peering into a hat at a stone. Present-day Mormon disconnection from such a strange circumstance speaks to our full immersion in a disenchanted world. It was dying even as Joseph was still connected to it.
What would I have seen if I peeked into the hat with Joseph? Perhaps nothing. I have no idea if that rock literally glowed and transmitted revelation. I believe Joseph Smith believed it did. And to him, it therefore did. As far as we know, that stone no longer “shines forth.” But now we’re called to become the stone by the gift and power of God. You and me. Someday.
“And then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:25).
Or as Morgan Davis put it, “God, I believe, has occasionally worked through me, which is so more impressive than working through a rock, or even a whole box of them.”
* * *
Those are my stream-of-consciousness thoughts. Here are some other things I see people starting to think about:
-Discussions on Joseph’s apparent possession of or use of multiple stones and the contested ownership of them.
-Questions about why seer stones are no longer part of our revelatory modus operandi.
-Implications for environmental theology: God using rocks from the earth to transmit words from heaven.
-Joseph’s own relationship to the stone, including his reluctance to publicly describe the translation process even when pressed about it.
-The protective bag housing the stone, said to be crafted by Emma Smith.
-Whether the stone will serve as an ongoing distraction from the remarkable text the stone is said to have helped bring forth: the Book of Mormon, or whether our view of that text should be inextricably connected to that stone.