Richard Bushman is an American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. He is the author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder. He also serves on the general advisory board of the Joseph Smith Papers. We’re very grateful for his thoughts.
In a way the pictures of the seerstone are nothing new. We have known for a long time that Joseph found a stone that he used to discover lost objects and later to help him translate. The Urim and Thummim which has long been part of the story consisted of crystal stones, and there is the passage in D&C 130:10 about celestial beings receiving a white stone to reveal things about higher kingdoms. (Something like each missionary receiving an ipad.) This is all tucked away in corners of our memories as part of the technology of revelation.
Why then does the picture of a brown, striated stone trouble us? I think because it crosses a boundary we had held on to between religion and superstition. We have known about the gold plates and the angel and the Urim and Thummim long enough to assimilate them into respectable religion. Those are the ways of God. On the other side of the boundary are witchcraft and spells and tarot cards. Those are silly superstitions that the benighted believe in. We want none of that.
The seerstone, sitting there like it had just been dug up, drags across the line into the realm of the superstitious. Do we really want to be part of a religion that dredges up objects and symbols from folk magic? In doing so we join a battle that has waged for four centuries or more between magic and religion. In the seventeenth century lots of religious people believed in seerstones and various kinds of magical apparatus. They were instruments for reaching the divine. In the eighteenth century all such things were discredited by the Enlightenment, and Protestants (more than Catholics) sloughed them off. That process began at the top of society and only worked its way down gradually. In Joseph Smith’s time ordinary people were divided. Many of his neighbors believed in seerstones; others ridiculed them. He made them part of his religion.
Seerstones don’t trouble me. I rather like them. They are part of Mormon materiality. They suggest there is a technology of revelation, somewhat resembling ipads, that assist us in getting divine intelligence. I don’t subscribe to Protestant stuffiness about proper ways for God to act and disreputable ones. I am willing to go along with the ways of God even if they are unconventional by enlightenment standards.
I am also happy the church brought out this stone as part of the transparency policy. The Historical Department is willing to show everything, it appears, and let the chips fall.