Joseph’s rough stone rolls on

I-got-a-rockSomething 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.

Comments

  1. I have known almost all of this since the early 1980s, when I returned from my mission and undertook to continue my education. Not to rock the boat, Blair, but one really wonders (and I mean really wonders) WHAT IN THE WORLD ELSE IS IN THE VAULT?

  2. Ebenezer Robinson says:

    What concerns me about the current explication of the stone in the hat technique: If Joseph was just reading the text to Oliver, why was there such a great need for editing in the. second edition? Granted that the bulk of the redactions dealt with mechanical details like punctuation, there were still misstatements like the confusion between God and the Son of God. And Joseph felt the need for further changes in the third edition. Doesn’t seem quite like he was reading the immutable Word of God with his face in the hat.

  3. This ties in nicely with the recent Terryl Givens’ recent MHA presentation on the use of folk objects in spiritual applications, as well as Sam Brown’s presentation suggesting that the Book of Mormon’s translation has an oral foundation. Now where did I put those notes…

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Joseph Smith the magician! I love all this stuff!

  5. Ebenezer, I wonder how much editing you’ve done… I can’t get my own words onto paper without the most outlandish errors, let alone dictating to someone else. Heck, how many people can read out loud perfectly faithfully? Compound it with a relative lack of learning, poor lighting, and writing by hand and what else would you expect than what happened?

  6. Do we know it’s in a vault and not, for example, in the temple? I assume the climate-controlled storage facilities in the Church History Library or the Granite Mountain Vault would be the natural choices, but do we know?

  7. Ebenezer – Errors probably began with the first manuscript. Transcription errors are actually pretty common in dictation – try playing a 500-600 page audio book (perhaps with the sound muffled) and transcribing it by hand within a 60-90 day window. Mistakes are going to happen.

    In addition, when a copy was made for the printer, there was likely an attempt to correct some of the mistakes from the transcription, but the hand-copying process likely introduced others as well. Whenever a text is copied by hand, especially when the text is long, there will be errors. See: every copy of the New Testament made before the printing press – ever.

    Then, when the type was being set at the Grandin shop, yet more errors were introduced by the typesetters. Some of the 1st edition copies were even different from one another.

    None of these errors are beyond what one would normally expect given the process and resources. Most of the errors were quite minor (usually misspellings and an occasional missed word or two). A few could have doctrinal significance, but appear to have been transcription mistakes. Some argue that the translation wasn’t a “tight” translation, leaving more room for possible human error and explain why subsequent inspiration could correct it. Others argue, based on some of the witness testimony, that it was a tight translation, and that the errors were mostly introduced in transcription or in the typesetting. Either way, I don’t think you have to throw away any notion that the book is inspired based solely on the fact that there were subsequent editions that made corrections.

  8. Manuel Villalobos says:

    I just hope divining rods make their appearance too. It’s only fair. After all, it was Joseph Smith himself who bestowed upon Oliver Cowdery the gift of working with the rod (later changed to the gift of Aaron), so that he could receive revelations through his divining rod.

  9. Jack Hughes says:

    I want to find out if it still works. Does it light up or change colors? I mean, we have ordained seers, don’t we? And I’m sure at least one of them owns a hat.

  10. Jack Hughes says:

    Seriously, my neighbors and co-workers already tease me enough about teetotaling, polygamy and “magic underwear”. They have just been given new Mormon mockery fodder with “magic rocks”. As if Mormonism wasn’t weird enough already. Pretty soon the JWs and Scientologists are going to start calling US the weird ones.

  11. Great post Blair. I’m not sure the present Mormon world is as disenchanted as you suggest. We simply don’t notice everyday enchantments due to their quotidian nature. It’s not uncommon to hear members refer to garments as a physical shield from harm, to imbue consecrated oil with healing power or refer to the temple as a place into which Satan cannot enter. We may have cast seer stones and divining rods aside but robust folk traditions surrounding the processes of prophetic revelation abound.

  12. Nice post, Blair. I wonder we might find if we examined Mormonism in places like the Dominican Republic, Ghana, etc. Would we find attitudes that match Joseph Smith’s village seer environment? I’ve heard stories, but I know of no careful studies.

  13. Owen and JT, it is my understanding from at least one account that JS would give voice to the words he saw on the stone, the scribe would write down what he/she heard and then repeat it back to JS. Only then would the words disappear and new words appear. So what was originally written seems to have been the intent of the source, whoever or whatever that source was. Subsequent changes can be attributed to human error and changes in view of reality.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    WVS no need to go to DR, just go to rural Idaho.

  15. Rural Idaho would give you far freakier studies than any (other) third-world country.

    In Primary, I was taught that the Salt Lake Temple was built on giant granite rollers. Seriously, there was a diagram on the board and those rollers were represented as three stories high, put in place so at the last days during the earthquakes and floods, the temple would just gently roll back-and-forth like a skateboard.

    At fourteen, we learned from a high council talk that Gene Simmons from KISS had sat next to President Kimball on a cross-country flight and outlined all the ways that Rock and/or Roll was going to corrupt the youth.

    At sixteen, a visiting General Authority told us how he had received a priesthood revelation that the young lady he saw at the Cougareat was to be his wife, and he went up and told her so, and called her to repentance when she said she hadn’t received a similar witness. (He was later excommunicated.)

    But the absolute best was how one of my Sunday School teacher gave us a lesson about a wood sculpture she’d carved, about 14 inches high, a woman in a flowing dress, with a hole though her abdomen, and a little tiny feather mounted in the hole. When she looked through the hole, she could see the true nature of things and people, and could tell who we would marry and how many children we would have, and where we would serve missions (if at all).

    But, back on topic, I love the old quote along the lines of “The Church has a habit of hiding away the most unsavory and salacious parts of its history where nobody will ever find it – in the pages of The Ensign.”

  16. marcella says:

    I think Michael has started something. We need a post of all the wacky things we’ve learned at church. My Laurel advisor taught us that if we wore bikini underwear we would no longer be virgins. I was taught the President Kimball/Gene Simmons story too.

  17. The Salt Lake Temple on rollers idea is intriguing to me. I would like to speak with the engineering genius who developed that foolproof earthquake mitigation scheme.

  18. Jared vdH says:

    See, I heard the President Kimball story too, but it wasn’t Gene Simmons, it was Keith Richards.

  19. Clark Goble says:

    Hmm. So far as I know only one GA has been excommunicated in recent decades. So I bet I know who that was.

  20. Wasn’t it Gene R. Cook and Mick Jagger on the airplane?

    Someone told me just last month that he went to St Louis for a business trip and found out that the Church has engaged an architect to build the large temple complex in Missouri again. The best folk legends never die.

  21. Jared – The story is more factually accurate depending on the church calling or the last name of the person who originally taught the story. I heard it from a high council talk, but his last name wouldn’t have holy significance outside the stake where it was taught. If you heard it from Stake President or higher, that trumps mine. But, if my daughter heard it from a Smith, Kimball, Monson, or Packer grandchild or cousin, that outranks the Stake President versions even if their calling is only “Reverence Child”.

    Clark – Yep, that would be him. And his story directly contradicts the explicit instruction my wife received in the LA temple shortly before our sealing. “If your husband ever tries to tell you that he’s right by virtue of holding the priesthood, you tell him he’s full of $#!+.” Instructions related to a saving ordinance outrank youth fireside by a general authority.

    Marcella – That is completely awesome. I hope that somebody had the wits to tell her “If that’s the way it works, you’re wearing them wrong….”

    Mathew – We seem to have cast aside our seer stones and divining rods, but I know plenty of people who firmly hold fast to the healing power of essential oils, yeast extract supplements, and mangosteen juice, especially when a Priesthood leader is your upline.

  22. The bit about the temple on rollers seems a mangled version of a talk by Mark E Peterson. There was an earthquake that damaged a bunch of buildings around the temple but not the temple. I think the speculation was that it was built over a large granite slab that moved as one piece keeping the temple from being damaged. I don’t know if that was ever verified. I don’t think the Church or state thought that was enough as it had some serious renovations about a decade ago to make it more earthquake proof.

  23. Don’t forget the Doterra wave!!

  24. While serving a 1960 Brazilian mission, we were told you could determine racial purity by looking at thumb nails and verifying potential converts had a “have moon cuticle” clearly visible signifying he could hold the Priesthood! If lacking we politely left. :-(

  25. One fun one making the rounds now is by LDS “prophetess” Julie Rowe. She had a NDE and has written a series of books. Apparently she is going around giving firesides claiming the U.S. will collapse in September or October. She says that Russian, North Korean and Chinese troops will pour in the U.S. and people will be living in tent cities. Apparently the Church is hiding lots of white tents for the faithful and the priesthood and angelic beings will be used to block nuclear missiles from a forthcoming massive attack. She has spoken in Seattle, Missouri, Rexburg and elsewhere. Big on Facebook and I’m hearing lots of whispering. I’m curious what her followers will think once November hits with nothing occuring.

  26. anonforthis says:

    Steve,

    The Julie Rowe one is most definitely not fun for someone whose wife takes it quite seriously, and becomes agitated when her husband tells her that it is absurd. Sigh.

  27. it's a series of tubes says:

    Reading a transcript of Ms. Rowe’s comments was intriguing until I got to the part where she insisted on the reality of Bigfoot and that the dark Planet X was coming to shower the earth with meteors.

    There will always be the Rowe’s and the Pontius’s in the church. Lo, here! Lo, there!

  28. Yeah, but Bigfoot! We need to encourage that.

  29. anonforthis says:

    Will someone please tell me where I can get a transcript of Ms. Rowe’s comments?

  30. it's a series of tubes says:

    Teh Google. Look for transcripts of her inteviews with a VERY sympathetic radio host. He practically falls all over himself trying to extricate her from her various self-contradictions and absurdities in the interview.

  31. So how in the world is she getting permission to speak in LDS tabernacles and meeting houses?

  32. Eh, looks like she’s probably no longer able to speak in LDS churches (and although she spoke in the Rexburg Tabernacle in July, that tabernacle is no longer owned by the church).

  33. The same way Cleon. Skousen and Betty Eadie used to — by asking. Local leaders are not terribly good at screening.

  34. Elder Gene R. Cook did report having a conversation with MIck Jagger on an airplane. You can find a link to his talk here: http://www.ldsliving.com/Is-Cain-Bigfoot-The-Truth-Behind-5-Mormon-Folklore-Stories/s/64534

  35. SE, what we need to encourage is calling Bigfoot by his proper given name: Cain Adamson

  36. Blair, interesting point about Joseph’s “reluctance to publicly describe the translation process even when pressed about it.” Similar to his reluctance to describe Book of Mormon geography beyond the Hill Cumorah in New York and the plains of the Nephites in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.