When I first saw the pictures of Joseph Smith’s primary seer stone my first thought was, “Oh, cool, I’m glad they released some pictures. I knew it was a small, chocolate-colored stone but I didn’t realize it had stripes.” and that was that.
I see conversations around the web indicating that some members of the Church are upset about the seer stone and the part it played in our history. Some were unaware of its existence, but I remember learning about it as a teenager. I didn’t know that much about the process of the translation and how the seer stone and Interpreters fit into the picture, but I did when I cared enough to research it on my own.
Skeptics find humor in the seer stone looking like just a plain old rock and are no doubt enjoying the opportunity to further paint Joseph Smith as an occultic scheister.
Instead of trying to address all of the legitimate concerns and questions, I want to write about my own perspective and the much larger themes at play.
It doesn’t matter what happens in any subject, you will have a spectrum of opinions ranging from overwhelming joy to absolute hatred. The diversity of human opinion can be seen by just browsing the Internet where people are for or against virtually anything you can imagine.
You like sandwiches? There are people that hate sandwiches. You like babies hugging kittens? There are people that hate babies hugging kittens, and so forth. Why should we expect a controversial aspect of a controversial religion to escape criticism and scrutiny?
Now I think the beauty of the Internet and modern communication is that we can see and share multiple points of view. I think everyone’s point of view is worth hearing and respecting. Differences of opinion don’t bother me but disrespect for the opinions of others does, no matter what side you are on. Nowadays everything is meme fodder, that’s just how the Internet is because that’s just how people are and always have been.
I had to chuckle a little because on the day that I saw the picture of the seer stone, I also thought of something from Indiana Jones, but it was from the third film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In the climatic scene where the hero and the villain are both trying to find the true holy grail by selecting from a wide variety of options, the bad guys opt for the most ornate one they can find, here’s the scene from the script:
Elsa chooses a cup — a solid gold, emerald encrusted goblet.
Donovan instantly takes it from her.
Oh, yes. It’s more beautiful than
I’d ever imagined. This certainly
is the cup of the King of Kings.
He drinks from the cup and he quickly ages, turns into a skeleton and is reduced to ashes. “He chose… poorly.” says the guardian of the grail, an aged knight.
Next it’s Indiana Jones’ turn to select the right grail. He studies the array of chalices, the script notes that a comment is made, “it would not be made out of gold.” Finally, Jones settles on the most simple and unassuming-looking option and says:
“That’s the cup of a carpenter.”
Here’s the full scene for context:
Now I know that this is just a fictional movie scene, but it illustrates how sometimes we can overlook the importance of a thing by focusing too much on the outer appearance and expectations based on our own romantic preconceived notions.
I think we do this quite a bit, especially with people. How often do we ignore those that are different, plain or awkward while we are much more attracted to the attractive?
The key here is figuring out what to do with things that we didn’t expect. LDS writer, Kevin Christensen, observed:
“If during the course of my investigation, I run across something that I did not expect, what happens if I then pause to reflect and ask, ‘What should I expect?'” – Eye of the Beholder (Emphasis added)
Often, I’m not sure we really know what our expectations truly are until we are presented with a situation that requires that we define them.
I think it is similar to deciding upon a spouse in some ways. Many people have this general idea in their minds of what they are looking for in a spouse, but when viable candidates come into view, a reconciliation must occur. Does one reject the candidate for not adhering strictly to the most minute details of our expectations, or will the previous model be modified to fit the reality of what is in front of us?
Kevin Christensen suggests three things that help him out in these kinds of situations:
“Keep my eyes open. Give things time. And re-examine my own assumptions now and then.” – Eye of the Beholder
Stones and matter endowed with divine properties
There are some examples in scripture where we see normal stones or rocks that are endowed with divine properties:
- God can cause a rock to expel water: “thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.” (Exodus 17:6)
- God gives Moses stones with writing on them: “And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” (Exodus 31:18)
- Stones might potentially be used for revelation: “also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim” (Leviticus 8:8) “And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” (1 Samuel 28:6) “And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before the Lord” (Numbers 27:21)
- God can cause stones to give off light: “And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea. Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men. And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger.” (Ether 3:5-6)
Those are just a few examples featuring rocks and stones, but on a larger scale we see God doing ‘supernatural’ deeds that involve many kinds of matter, both living and inert.
There are the Egyptian plagues, parting the Red Sea and the Jordan river, stopping the mouths of lions, converting water to wine, walking on water, various healings where human flesh was reorganized, the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the resurrection and several other examples from just the Bible alone.
Showing forth wisdom through the weak things of the earth
There is an overarching theme that the creator can modify matter to accomplish whatever he needs to. This doesn’t seem to require that the matter itself is somehow special or different. The most ordinary of things under the influence of the Lord can fulfill extraordinary purposes. Several scriptures attest to this:
“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
“And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue. And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say.” (Exodus 4:10-12)
“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12)
“And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:10-13)
“Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.” (Alma 37:6)
Even Joseph Smith himself was selected, not because he was righteous, not because he was strong, not because he was intelligent, but specifically because of his weaknesses. In Joseph, we see a model illustrating God’s modus operandi:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, I am well pleased with your offering and acknowledgments, which you have made; for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth. (Doctrine and Covenants 124:1)
This little seer stone that seems to have become a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (Isaiah 8:4) to some. One could also infer that this stone presents the same challenging thoughts that God has always put before man.
Just like Naaman, often we expect “some great thing” we want something bigger, brighter, “better” than what has been presented to us. We don’t want a peaceful teacher riding into town on a donkey, we want a conqueror riding into town on a white horse, sword in hand and the armies of heaven in flaming fire behind him.
We tend to expect exactly the wrong things. When God sends us the small and simple, we turn and go “away in a rage” because we feel that God should have done something more impressive for us. God is not “things” he only works through things and he can work through anything.
We aren’t here to be impressed, instead, we part of a test. We’re here to develop eyes to see, and can see the Creator in the mundane and in the minutiae, for that is where he does his work.
In a verse from Isaiah that often attributed to Jesus Christ we read:
“…he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
In Jesus’ mortal mission, people were often perplexed with him and how such great wisdom could come from such a common source as a carpenter’s son:
“Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? … Whence then hath this man all these things And they were offended in him.” (Matthew 13:54-57)
The wonders of God and man
Some accounts of the translation process indicate that words would appear upon the stone or upon a kind of parchment while it was shielded from ambient light using a hat.
There is an account from a man named Fayette Lapham who, much later in his life, reported on a visit he had with Joseph Smith. He told a little about what he could remember from the Book of Mormon, but curiously, it doesn’t match anything we can find in our current version of the Book of Mormon.
“When they, the Jews, first beheld this country, they sent out spies to see what manner of country it was…They also found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates.” – Fayette Lapham, The Historical Magazine, 1870
The above account appears nowhere in any version of the Book of Mormon that we are aware of. So either Fayette Lapham was just making things up or he was remembering an account from the Book of Mormon that was lost along with the first 116 pages.
After the loss of the 116 pages that contained the “Book of Lehi,” Joseph Smith had the gold plates and Nephite interpreters or “spectacles” taken from him. It seems that while the plates were eventually returned, there was some experimentation an variety with the method of translation.
Based upon these accounts, it appears that Joseph began the translation process using the Nephite interpreters, and that at some point he may have used them with a hat. After the loss of the 116 pages, he may have either switched to his own seer stone or continued to use the Nephite “spectacles,” again with the hat. In fact, given the consistent reports of the use of the hat during translation, it is not possible to know with certainty whether Joseph was using the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone in the hat during this period of time. One thing seems certain based upon witness accounts—during the period of the translation process after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat. (Roger Nicholson, “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 121-190)
Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.” (“Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” Early Mormon Documents, 1:532.)
Maybe in a manner similar to the Brother of Jared presenting clear, glass stones to the Lord as a solution to his predicament, Joseph decided to try out his seer stone in place of the interpreters as a process of experimentation and discovery.
If the Fayettle Lapham account is correct, then even the interpreters needed to be shielded from ambient light. This seems to indicate that their manner of operation involved proper physical and not just spiritual circumstances.
For Joseph, a simple hat solved the light problem. The hat shielded the light from the stone. The Lord seems to have allowed the configuration to work to the degree that the translation could be completed. Perhaps the instruments themselves didn’t really matter, maybe they just served as a focal point where faith could be exercised.
There might be a parrallel principle illustrated in one portion of the Doctrine and Covenants where God indicates that it doesn’t really matter what is used to represent the body and blood of Christ as long as it is done “with an eye single to my glory.”
“For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.” (Doctrine and Covenants 27:2)
The type of objects themselves only matter to the degree that they help you complete a particular act with an eye single to God’s glory.
The stone itself could have given off light and displayed words somehow, or the stone or even the interpreters themselves could have been just a focal point for a visionary expereince. Perhaps the light and words were perceptable only to Joseph Smith in the same way that only Stephen and Paul saw a light and even God while the crowds around them saw nothing.
Today, many people carry around in their pockets thin black “stones” that give off light, convey words, the human voice, images, video, live camera feeds, direct one’s journey and perform a whole host of actions that make the features of the seer stone seem primative.
When outdoors, it sometimes becomes necessary to shield out the ambient light with a cupped hand to reveal the content the instrument is displaying.
The Creator of the universe moved mountains, parted seas, walked on water, calmed the storms, healed the sick, and has consistently shown that he can modify matter in a variety of unprecidented ways to accomplish his purposes. Compared to the highly complex devices man orgnizes out of matter for himself today, what God did to help Joseph Smith seems rather simple.
You are probably reading these words on a device made from glass and various minerals and metals that have been carefully organized by man to do amazing things that would make healing a leper look completely unimpressive.
If with a single small stone, a young shepherd could conquer a giant and rise to rule a nation, why couldn’t a young farm boy use a single small stone to translate words?
The seer stone looks like a regular rock because that is probably exactly what it is. I think what makes it special is not any kind of ‘power’ it possesses, but that it is a witness of what God can do with simple things.
The stone is almost a metaphor for Joseph Smith. Though it is small, simple, and plain, one might overlook the fingerprint-like stripes that encompass it and punctuate its uniqueness.
God is constantly seeking to challenge the narrow, prejudiced, and shifting traditions of men with trials that require humility, time, study, and meditation.
Those who jump to conclusions without much thought tend to miss the message, stumble and drift into confusion, doubt, and cynicism.
The appearance of this seer stone on the scene surely raises a multitude of questions and possibilities which will inevitably result in a spectrum of conclusions.
To the critic, you will have another wonderful example of how the restoration is another fraud rooted in folk magic, rather than a divine work. To the faithful, you might find another example of God’s consistency in using simple things to accomplish great purposes. Some will change their minds, but most will probably only find support for the views that they have already determined to maintain.
We’re all going to come to our own conclusions and formulate all kinds of different theories. In the end, I think that what we conclude reveals a lot about what drives our desires and fuels our intent.
When events like these present themselves, Ian Barbour’s words come to mind:
“One understands oneself to be addressed [by God] through events … A person replies through the speech of his life; he answers with his actions. Events in daily life can be interpreted as a dialogue with God.” – Ian Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 55.
I interpret the presentation of this seer stone as God addressing me with questions, and I enjoy the process of figuring out what my answers to him will be.