Question: Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?

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Question: Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. Part of the reason for this is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name "Urim and Thummim." In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.

That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone's use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention that the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children's magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):

"To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone."
—“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7 off-site

Text translated with the Nephite interpreters was lost with the 116 pages given to Martin Harris—see DC 3:. The Church's Historical Record records Joseph's use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text:

As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated. [Note that the chronology of Joseph's acquisition of the stone is here somewhat confused. The use of the stone, however, is clearly indicated.][1]

References to the stone are not confined to the distant past. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve Apostles described the process clearly in an Ensign article:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[2]

It would be strange to try to hide something by having an apostle talk about it, and then send the account to every LDS home in the official magazine!

Why have the stone and hat not received more mentions in popular Church History works?

We already know[3] that Joseph Smith was reluctant to describe the translation process in detail. Brigham Young University professor Stephen Ricks feels that Joseph’s “reticence was probably well justified and may have been due to the inordinate interest which some of the early Saints had shown in the seer stone or to the negative and sometimes bitter reactions he encountered when he had reported some of his sacred experiences to others.”[4] Thus, Joseph never discussed the details regarding which translation instrument he used to both translate the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation. Joseph simply told people that he received his early revelations through the “Urim and Thummim.”

During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to “gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon.”[5] Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.[6]

As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that “the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them.”[7] In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that “it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God.”[8] Kirkham goes on to say that, “After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method.”[9]Despite the fact that elements of Harris’s and Whitmer’s story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth.

In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone, but did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon.

SEER STONE NOT USED IN BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION. We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of translations by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors.[10]

Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity. In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous.

During the twentieth century, the story of Joseph translating behind a curtain while employing the Nephite interpreters as the Urim and Thummim remained firmly established and generally uncontested among the general Church membership. Latter-day Saint scholars, however, continued to research the stories of Joseph’s use of the seer stone. Such references never made it into the general Church curriculum or the awareness of the general Church membership. If you were a scholar, then you knew that Joseph used a seer stone. If you were a regular Church member, then you knew that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters. Discussions of Joseph’s use of “seer stones” or the practice of “treasure seeking” remained primarily in the realm of LDS scholars. During the tenure of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, from 1972 and 1982, some attempts were made to make certain elements of Latter-day Saint history more accessible to the average member. One 1976 book produced during this period, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, noted in a straightforward manner Joseph’s acquisition of his seer stone and its use in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Sometime around 1822, before his first visit from the angel Moroni, Joseph was digging a well with Willard Chase, not far from the Smith home, and he discovered a smooth, dark-colored stone, about the size of an egg, that he called a seerstone. He later used it to help in the translation of the Book of Mormon and also in receiving certain revelations.[11]

The visibility of these issues among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church’s founding events.

Mark Hofmann was a member of the Church who became involved with the acquisition and sale of historic documents during the early 1980s. He seemed to have a knack for acquiring missing documents that were alluded to by other documents related to Church history. For example, Hofmann claimed to have located a blessing in which Joseph Smith III was allegedly promised that he would be the next prophet of the Church. Hofmann also produced what he claimed was the Anthon transcript, which matched a description of the document provided by Charles Anthon himself. The most famous document in the collection of Hofmann forgeries was the Salamander Letter, which was purportedly written by Martin Harris. Hofmann’s documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the “magical” aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.[12]

Some of Hofmann’s documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents.[13] Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph’s early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. Elder Dallin Oaks emphasized that this in no way diminished Joseph’s standing as the Prophet of the Restoration.

Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.[14]

Notes

  1. The Historical Record. Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters (LDS Church Archives), 632.
  2. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12; cited in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61.
  3. This section is a reproduction of Roger Nicholson's discussion in Roger Nicholson, The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation (Provo, UT: Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 2013) 5:121-190 <https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-spectacles-the-stone-the-hat-and-the-book-a-twenty-first-century-believers-view-of-the-book-of-mormon-translation/#fn104-2896> (accessed 13 March 2019)
  4. Stephen D. Ricks, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, n.d.), http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=10
  5. Keith W. Perkins, “Francis W. Kirkham: A ‘New Witness’ for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, July 1984. https://churchofjesuschrist.org/ensign/1984/07/francis-w-kirkham-a-new-witness-for-the-book-of-mormon.
  6. This effort on the part of the Maxwell Institute was referred to as the “Kirkham Project.” See “Early Book of Mormon Writings Now Online,” Insights 30:2 (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute), which notes that “for more than 10 years Matthew Roper, research scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and head of the project, has been collecting this literature. The collection builds upon the early efforts of Francis W. Kirkham, an educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Roper, during the 1930s Kirkham began collecting rare newspapers relating to early Latter-day Saint history. Subsequent researchers and historians have discovered many additional items, all of which are included in this new collection.”
  7. Francis W. Kirkham, “The Manner of Translating the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, October 1939, 632.
  8. Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America (Independence, MO: Press of Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1951), 194
  9. Kirkham, A New Witness, 196.
  10. Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225. Emphasis in original
  11. James. B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 40–41.
  12. A list of known Hofmann forgeries related to Church history appeared in “Fraudulent Documents from Forger Mark Hofmann Noted,” Ensign, October 1987.
  13. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, August 1987. Anderson states, that “attempts to reposition the foundations of the Church on the basis of documents tied to Mark Hofmann are now outdated, because he has pleaded guilty in open court to selling false documents. Thus, revised histories based on these documents must now be revised themselves.
  14. Oaks, “Recent Events.