Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick.

5159794_keyartLike many things, this book is a product of its time. As the Joseph Smith Papers project has continued its work, increased availability of early sources has inspired renewed conversations about Joseph Smith’s seer stones. In 2013, the church published a Gospel Topics essay about the Book of Mormon translation, which discussed Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones. Last year, the church released photographs of a stone believed to be one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, and published an short article in the Ensign with the photographs that attempted to put the use of seer stones in context for church members. Seer stones are having a bit of a moment.

Taking advantage of this moment, a pair of BYU religion professors, Mike MacKay and Nick Frederick, have written this book as a “friendly introduction” [1] to Joseph Smith’s seer stones. This is MacKay’s second book that has grown out of research from the Joseph Smith Papers. He wrote the first, From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, with Gerrit Dirkmaat, another BYU religion professor who, like MacKay, has worked on the Joseph Smith Papers project. It was published by the BYU Religious Studies Center in 2015, not long before the church released the seer stone photographs. That first book is basically a longer, more detailed, and free-ranging version of the 2013 Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon translation. In a similar way, this book could be considered a longer, more detailed version of the October 2015 seer stones article.

Of course, this is not the first book or article to address Joseph Smith’s seer stones. Bushman, Quinn and others have addressed them. But this is the first book-length treatment devoted exclusively to Joseph Smith’s seer stones.


The book’s overall goal is to make seer stones familiar. MacKay’s argument is that seer stones were not weird to Joseph Smith and the early members of the church, and that they have only become weird because we no longer have a cultural context to put them in. See Introduction: “Mormon Paradigm Shifts,” pgs. xv-xix. So the book tries to make them familiar again by acquainting readers with various aspects of the seer stones.

It examines the role of seer stones in the early church, the origins of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, the use of seer stones in translating the Book of Mormon, the chain of custody of the stones from Joseph Smith to the present, and the depiction of the use of seerstones and seerstone-like objects in the Book of Mormon itself. Finally, the book attempts to sketch out a Mormon “Theology of Seerstones” that recognizes their possession and use not only as a quaint historical curiosity, but as a positive instrument of revelation with, perhaps, a future as well as a past in Mormon theology.

Historical Context of the Seer Stones

The authors’ first and major point is to put seer stones in their historical context. Their discussion of the use of seer stones in money digging during the second great awakening as background is not ground breaking, but it is a decent overview of the major themes. The major point that the authors argue in this chapter is that the division between “magic” and “religion” is a false division, that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries saw no tension in his roles as treasure seeker and translator, and that in fact, many of this neighbors also used seer stones for finding lost objects or for money-digging.

The point that we should consider how Joseph Smith’s contemporaries saw his use of seer stones, rather than just judge it from our contemporary perspective is well taken, but in suggesting that the division between magic and religion is “false,” I think they overstate the point.

My own sense of this question is that rather than representing a difference between contemporary America and 19th century America, the magic vs. religion divide primarily represents a difference between the views of respectable societal elites and the views of the largely uneducated people at the frontier–people living at the margins of society. Since I believe that God is especially attentive to those who live at the margins of society, I have no problem believing that God would be no respecter of that kind of social difference. Put simply, I don’t think God is bound by the cultural sensibilities of the 19th century protestant establishment regarding what counts as religion and what is mere superstition. In that sense, I agree that the distinction is “false.”

And for that reason, I’m sympathetic to the author’s argument that Joseph Smith did not start out as an irreligious treasure seeker, and then transition to an enlightened man of religion; rather, he was always religious, but to him, religion was big enough to include hearing God’s voice through seer stones. But we can’t ignore the fact that he was hardly in the majority in holding such views. I think it is correct to say that as absolute categories, the distinction between magic and religion is blurry. But as a matter of history, we can’t just ignore that distinction because some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries did make that distinction. I don’t think it is correct to suggest that seer stones were a normal everyday part of religious life in 19th century America. For unschooled (and perhaps largely unchurched) farmers living on the frontiers, they were not entirely unheard of, but to many religious people, such folk practices were irreligious superstition.

I appreciate the attempt to make seer stones less weird, but put simply, seer stones are weird. Rather than downplay that weirdness by suggesting that it was not weird then as it is now,[2] I think the better approach as church members is to own that weirdness and celebrate it as showing how God can work through the weak and simple, and that God is not bound by our culture.

The chapter on the origins of the stones pulled together a lot of sources and tried to synthesize them into a few possible narratives. The sources are unclear and historians disagree about which stone goes with which origin story. What further complicates things is that most of the sources or second or third hand, remembered many years later. I thought the authors did a decent job, though, of pulling the sources together and presenting where the different sources disagree.

The authors frame their chapter on the use of the stones in translating the Book of Mormon in terms of the “tight control” vs. “loose control” debate, and the “middle ground” between the two that Blake Ostler and Brent Gardner stake out. Pg. 57. The authors point out that there is no clear answer to that debate. They acknowledge that the historical understanding of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries was probably closer to “tight” control (such as Joseph Knight’s history describing words in English appearing in “Brite Roman Letters,” pg. 53), but they are careful to point out that history does not resolve the issue.

They also review that the lost 116 pages were apparently translated using the Nephite “Interpreters,” and that the rest was translated using a seer stone, but that in any case, even when he used the Interpreters, he used them buried in a hat, as he used seer stones. This is an important point because, due to the descriptions comparing the interpreters to “spectacles” it is easy for many readers to mistakenly picture Joseph Smith wearing the interpreters and looking through them at the plates, as even church art has depicted.[3]


The book includes a print of this stylized portrayal of the Book of Mormon Translation by Kim Morgan. 

One significant point here is that while Joseph Smith used seer stones like many others, he was unique in claiming that he saw words in his stone, in addition to images, and in using the stone to produce text, rather than just to find a location for digging or finding a lost item.

The chapter on provenance is either interesting or boring, depending on your personality. I found it fascinating. It traces the possession of the brown stone from Joseph Smith, through Oliver Cowdery up to the current First Presidency.The provenance of the white stone is much less certain. The authors assume that once it was in Brigham Young’s possession, then both stones went together. The authors speculate that the white stone was the one used for the majority of the Book of Mormon translation, and the one that Joseph Smith carried throughout his life. If this is true, then the pictures released last year were of a stone that was not used for the majority of the Book of Mormon translation—something that I wasn’t aware of last year.

Seer Stones and the Book of Mormon

After five chapters devoted to historical context, what follows is a pair of chapters that discuss seer stones in the Book of Mormon. In the first, the authors examine mentions of seer stones in the Book of Mormon, and in the second, they argue that the Book of Mormon’s portrayal of seer stones “responds to the questions raised through Joseph’s use of seer stones.” Pg. 112.

The first of these two chapters tries to answer the question of whether the Book of Mormon portrays one set of seer stones that was held both by the Brother of Jared and Mosiah, or whether it portrays two separate sets of seer stones. They also examine Alma’s prophecy of “Gazelem,” (Alma 37) which appears to prophesy of a single stone, rather than the set of two “interpreters.” They conclude from the revelation canonized as Doctrine & Covenants 17, that the interpreters that Joseph Smith received were the Brother of Jared’s stones (a conclusion I found plausible, but far from persuasive), and they conclude that the interpreters that Joseph Smith received were apparently Mosiah’s interpreters, and therefore they conclude, tentatively, that the the single-set theory is more likely.

As for the assertion that the Book of Mormon answers questions about the translation, I thought this was the weakest part of the book. The first question that they identify is why the Book of Mormon quotes the KJV, especially Isaiah. They look to Nephi’s alluding to Moses as a precedent, and argue that just as Nephi alluded to Moses, because Nephi was familiar with Moses, the Book of Mormon translation refers to the KJV, because the anticipated audience of the Book was familiar with the KJV. I did not find this parallel to Nephi to be at all persuasive, but I do think they make a good point by arguing that the Book of Mormon translation may have been (and likely was) composed with its audience in mind.

The second question they identify is about “non-literal” or “loose” translation, which arguably explains some of the apparently anachronistic features of the Book of Mormon. some readers may find to be a troubling idea. They refer to Brant Gardner’s theory that Mosiah’s interpretation of the stone of Coriantumr was arguably a non-literal translation. Gardner’s theory is, I think, based on too many assumptions to be persuasive as the clearly more likely possibility, as opposed to a literal translation, but taken as merely one of two equally likely possibilities, I find the non-literal translation to be at least plausible (indeed, I find a “non-literal” translation to be more consistent with the word “interpretation” than a literal transliteration).

They then look to the reference in the Book of Mormon to Aminadi interpreting the writing on the wall of the temple. They first argue that this reference has biblical precedential support, and then that it’s appearance in the Book of Mormon is an answer to the question of why Joseph Smith claimed to have seen words on a stone in translating the Book of Mormon. They then speculate that the Liahona could have been a seer stone because writing reportedly appeared on it.

They close the chapter by arguing that perhaps the reason why Joseph Smith did not elaborate on the method of translation was because he knew that these answers were already in the Book of Mormon.

Again, I thought this chapter was the weakest part of the book. Characterizing these potential precedents as “answers” to questions, is, I think, too strong. The author’s interpretation of these passages is far too speculative for that. Those interpretations are certainly plausible, but rather than “answers,” I would say that at best they offer arguably precedents. These potential precedents within the Book of Mormon for certain features of the translation are consistent with certain theories about the translation, but they are far too speculative to convince anyone who is not already persuaded of those theories, and are therefore of questionable utility other than perhaps as a theory for apologetics to build on.

A Theology of Seer Stones

The Book ends with a chapter laying out a “theology of seer stones.” First, the authors again critique (correctly, I think) what they call the “didactic model”—the idea that Joseph Smith needed seer stones only when he was weak of faith and unpracticed in revelation and translation, but that he graduated from the use of seer stones when he became more enlightened. This model, they argue, can’t be squared with the fact that Joseph Smith carried one seer stone with him throughout his life, and that he at one point later in his life arguably suggested a connection between seer stones and exaltation.

Accordingly, they attempt to lay out a theology of seer stones that makes sense of the fact that Joseph Smith carried at least one seer stone with him throughout his life. They argue that seer stones may be seen as a token of the calling of seer, prophet, and revelator—that God intends them to be possessed and used not just by any person and for any reason, but only by specific people, and only used for specific purposes. This argument is by no means conclusive, but I appreciate it as perhaps the first attempt to take seriously not only Joseph Smith’s post-Book of Mormon translation possession of seer stones but also canonical sources such as Alma’s “Gazelem” prophecy as a source for a theology of seer stones.

The next point they make is that seer stones provide a new and different kind of epistemology: that is, unlike other sources which must be evaluated by principles of scholarship, revelation that comes from an authorized seer stone must simply be taken at face value. They make what I consider a pretty egregious error in arguing that unlike the Bible, which is only reliable “as far as it is translated correctly,” scripture from seer stones is inherently reliable because it does not need to be translated at all. In my mind, this distorts the character of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon text itself repeatedly refers to “faults” and “mistakes of men” that it contains. Joseph Smith, of course, revised the translation himself, as well as revising revelations, at least some of which were produced through seer stones. I think it is mistake to suggest that Joseph Smith or later Mormonism espouses some kind of inerrency doctrine for scripture produced via seer stones.

Finally, they argue that there is a “cosmology of seerstones” to be found in Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Apocalypse’s reference to the white stone as a seerstone, and his statement that the earth itself will become a giant Urim and Thummim. See D&C 130:9-11. This “cosmology of seerstones” is plausible, but underdeveloped.


This book had its issues. Some I have laid out above. I believe it could have benefited greatly from a heavier editorial hand. I noticed at least a handful of typos.

There were also some factual errors. At one point, the authors say that Charles Finney was from Rochester. There is a school named after him in Rochester, and he preached sermons in Rochester, but if I’m not mistaken, he was from Oneida county, over 100 miles west of Rochester. It’s not their main point, so it does not directly detract from their argument, but it was distracting.

The book also suffers from a verbose writing style and an organization that can be hard to follow. The chapters, for example, seemed to be organized semi-chronologically, with a few topical discussions tacked on at the end. This results in the discussion jumping from the finding of the seerstones to their use in the Book of Mormon translation, then to the provenance/chain of custody after Joseph Smith’s death, and then seemingly back to the Book of Mormon. This organization is not inherently bad, but it is also not intuitive, and would have been much easier to follow had the authors laid out that the first chapters were part of a section dealing with the history of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, and the later chapters were part of a discussion of the theological meaning of those seerstones. As is, these two sections are just kind of mushed together.

A frustration I had throughout the book is that the authors are also not always consistent with what they call seer stones. They seem to use the terms “seer stones,” “interpreters,” “spectacles,” and “Urim and Thummim” interchangeably at times. To cite one example, the authors argue, in making their case that Joseph Smith did not abandon the use of seerstones after the Book of Mormon, that he used a seerstone to produce the Book of Abraham from the papyrus. But the historical support they rely on is the statement by an anti-Mormon writer that Joseph “used his spectacles” to look at the mummies and papyrus. Of course, the historical sources often treated these things as synonyms, but speaking precisely, a seer stone, to me, suggests a single stone, while “interpreters” or “spectacles,” refers to the Nephite interpreters that were described as two stones set into a silver bow, and “Urim and Thummim” refers to an old testament artifact. Joseph Smith and his contemporaries began at some point to refer to both the interpreters and the seerstone as the “Urim and Thummim,” which can be confusing, but I think a historian owes it to the reader to make the distinction, and when the historical record does not, to explain what the source refers to and why.

In spite of these stylistic issues, which hopefully may be refined in a future edition, overall, this book is, I think, a valuable contribution because although it does not break much new historical ground, it gathers a number of relevant sources that are cited in disparate works together in one volume. It is, as far as I know, the first book-length treatment devoted entirely to Joseph Smith’s use and possession of seer stones that takes it seriously and properly critiques the notion that they were something that he entirely left behind later on. And in doing so, it makes a serious attempt to sketch out a theology of seer stones as instruments of God in some eternal sense, not just as a crutch that can be comfortably dismissed as a curiosity of nineteenth century America. In doing so, they take canonical sources seriously that have largely been overlooked in the context of these particular questions. That theology is still undeveloped and merely sketched out, but it is a good first step that should give rise to efforts by other writers to refine and critique it and further develop it.


[1] Foreword, by Mark Ashurst-McGee, pg. xiii.

[2] In the introduction, MacKay uses an unfortunate analogy to argue this point which, I think, illustrates why it can be problematic to overstate the point that just because something is weird now doesn’t mean that it was weird in the past. They argue, without citing any sources, that “Marriage to a minor would be frowned on today, yet young girls were often legally married as young teenagers in nenteenth-century America.” Pg. xviii-xix. While it is true that legal marriage age was younger in many states during the 19th century, than it is now I don’t think it is correct to say that “young girls were often married as young teenagers in nineteenth-century America.”(emphasis added.) It happened, but it was not “often.” Certainly not “often” enough to not be “frowned on” even then. See this FAIR post for some information.

[3] For some such inaccurate artistic descriptions, see the seerstone article published last year. MacKay has made something of an effort to remedy this. His 2013 book, From Darkness Unto Light, included several artistic depictions by Anthony Sweat that are truer to the historical record, which is arguably one of its more significant contributions.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    Out of curiosity do they get into the issue of use of seer stones in the Utah period? That was one of the more interesting papers in Women and Authority way back in the 90’s. I’ve not seen it addressed as much of late. It seems seerstones get discouraged both as due to competition with their use to priesthood authorities but also as a way women’s spiritual actions come to mostly disappear by the 1930’s and certainly by the 1950’s. (Anointing with oil for pregnant women or one women’s private areas persisted at least to the end of WWII)

    While I suspect they don’t touch upon it, it’s worth asking how threads of these traditions persist into the contemporary era. Certainly 19th century herbal traditions continue. (One might see them behind the popularity of corporations like Young Living or Doterra) Likewise the infusion of spiritualist ideas into Utah with the large immigration of British saints in the late 19th century seems to have elements that persist despite all the kerfuffle of the Godbeite apostasy in the 19th century. Indeed for good or ill many of those using Doterra or tied into that alt-medicine culture in some ways reproduce elements of these aspects of 19th century Mormonism. It doesn’t take much looking to see that what the more scientific minded would call “new ageism” was an element of 19th century folk traditions, the so-called magic world view of 1820’s Joseph Smith culture, and part and parcel of the use of seer stones in the 19th century especially by women.

  2. How does the book compare with Ogden Kraut’s book on seer stones or Ashurst-McGee’s thesis? The style is of course different, but does this tell anything more? Those two have probably been the longest sources on seer stones so far.

  3. Clark, No, not really. As the title suggests, their discussion is limited to Joseph Smith’s seer stones. They don’t deal with seer stones used by others. In fact, that’s one of the weaknesses of the attempted “theology of seer stones,” in the book. There are other sources to at least consider. They do have an appendix that very briefly gets into the Hyrum Page incident and does acknowledge a minor tradition of seerstone use in mormon culture until around the turn of the century.

    I think you’re right that use of seer stones traces its ancestry to the same “cunning folk” traditions that are the ancestors of contemporary stuff like essential oils.

    Niklas, I haven’t actually read either of those. My understanding of Ashurst-McGee’s thesis, though, is that it is a lot more detailed on the historical milieu that seerstones were a part of. For example, they only very brief mention Oliver Cowdery’s gift of the rod or sprout and don’t really get at all into the background tradition of using a rod. This book is more like very short introduction for somebody that is not that familiar with it than it is a scholarly work.

    In fact, that’s one the book’s weaknesses. It’s sort of in this limbo between scholarly and devotional. It’s not comprehensive enough to really take as a scholarly work, but it’s a bit too dense for general use as a devotional work. I do think there’s nothing wrong (and much right) with using academic rigor in devotional work, generally speaking, but rigor and a dense style are two different things.

    I sort of skimmed through Kraut’s book a while back, and don’t remember anything all that interesting. I compare his books generally to randomly opening up the journal of discourses about a hundred times. I find that style (sweeping statements with no support interspersed with long quotations with no analysis) to be so excruciatingly boring that it’s altogether possible that he does say something interesting and I just missed it as my eyes glazed over and I went into a coma.

    I notice, though, that they do quote Kraut in the appendix on Hyrum Page and later seerstone use, so there’s that.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Yeah. It makes sense to limit the topic to Joseph’s stones but that makes it pretty hard to develop a theology I’d think. Surprised the Hyrum Page incident is relegated to an appendix.

    I should add that I think having a book in that area between scholarly and devotional is a strength not a weakness. It’s what I’d call a popularization of scholarly understanding that is limited in scope. I think we need far more books in that category although I wonder how well they sell.

  5. Clark, I would agree that that can be a strength. In this case, I’m not sure it was.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Yeah, I suspect the lack of a developed theology of seer stones is the problem. The problem with popularizations is that they pretty well depend upon the topic already being fairly well argued. They can then just summarize the state of the research for a less technical argument.

    When you’re trying to do simultaneously a popularization and make a new argument then you’re usually on weak ground unless it’s an easy argument to make.

    I’ve no idea if this book is like that although it sounds like it is. I’m not sure the best way to handle that.

  7. There is a short chapter at the end that deals with seer stones in Utah, but it is fairly preliminary. I have a chapter that digs into it in my forthcoming book.

  8. Yep, that’s the appendix I mentioned. I may have downplayed too much in my earlier comment. There is some information there, and it’s not a bad place to find sources for further reading, but it’s just kind of tacked on at the end, and not really part of the discussion.

  9. J., When will your book be coming out? It will be awesome, I’m sure. Can’t wait to read it.

  10. Hopefully next year.

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