Having lunch with a new friend recently, we chatted briefly about how the Book of Mormon was translated. I thought as a result of that, I would say a few things about Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones and interpreters.
By now, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock or living without Internet access for several years, you’ve surely heard the ‘news’ that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. Of course, this isn’t really news because it’s been talked about all along, at least on a regular basis,(1) but it wasn’t exactly common knowledge either in the last few decades, for a number of reasons that it’s not my goal to explore here. But for more details about that and many other things related to the stones, see the list of readings below (2).
What I do want to explore is why the Lord would have had Joseph Smith use stones to translate. While Joseph Smith never provided any details about the translation methods or rationale, others around him did and many have given this much thought. Here’s what I have learned.
Seer and Peep Stones in the Early 1800s
One of the hardest parts about understanding the past is that people thought, believed, and acted differently than we do today. We like to think that people have always been pretty much the same, but that’s not at all true. Just think about how different life was for your grandparents compared to your life. Now take that back 200 years and try to imagine just how different things could be. We have to work very hard to see things as they did and not apply our own thinking, biases, and perspectives on their actions and decisions. Seer stones is one of those aspects of life in the early 1800s very different from anything we have today.
In Joseph’s day, money digging and divination were elements of every day life. This was not separate from their religious experience but a part of it. Joseph appears to have been influenced by a half dozen or more people in the Palmyra area with seer or peep stones. His earliest use of one was about 1818 and others considered him as one having skills or a gift with a stone. After being hired by Josiah Stowell in 1825 to help find treasure and being charged as a disorderly person as a result, he abandoned the use of his seer stone for finding treasure or lost objects. But his experience with the stones proved foundational for what happened next in his life.
When Joseph first received the plates on 22 September 1827, he also brought home a pair of clear-ish stones placed in a silver frame that caused people to sometimes refer to them as ‘spectacles.’ These were called “Interpreters” by Moroni, a name which also appears in the Book of Mormon itself. According to Joseph Knight, who was at the Smith home that night, Joseph “seamed to think more of the glasses [the Interpreters]…then he Did of the Plates for says he I can see any thing they are Marvelus.” The best evidence is that Joseph used the Interpreters at first to keep an eye on the hidden plates as many were trying to find and steal them. He doesn’t seemed to have yet realized their importance in the task of translation.
After Joseph and Emma moved to Harmony to live with her parents and then later into their own home nearby, Joseph tried various methods to make sense of the plates. He was told no one else could see the plates but he also needed to “git them Translated.” So he made copies of the characters and tried to figure out what they meant on his own, with little or no success. He sent copies of the characters with Martin Harris to try and find someone who could help with the translation. Martin came back excited and confirmed in his belief that Joseph had something truly ancient in his possession but with no luck finding anyone who could read the language. Knowing full well now that he was on his own, this appears to be when Joseph surmised the true role of the Interpreters as the means to translate. How he determined this is unknown, but probably his previous experience with his seer stones was a factor. What we do know is that he was soon busy reading words from the Interpreters, dictating to Martin Harris, and recording more than one hundred pages of manuscript in just a few weeks. He learned to see the translation in the Nephite stones just as he had seen other things in his younger years in his seer stones. The big difference was, it was not longer magic: now it was being done by the “gift and power of God.” He knew the difference and so did others around him.
The next step happened after Joseph let Martin take the first manuscript back to Palmyra to show to family and friends, and it was lost. Moroni took the plates and the Interpreters back and Joseph wondered if he would ever see them again for many weeks. But in September 1828, the plates were returned to him. However, the best evidence is that the Interpreters were not, or if they were, he no longer used them. In the second translation effort with Oliver Cowdery, starting in April 1829 until the book was finished in June (or perhaps 1 July) of that year, Joseph used one or both of his seer stones, putting them in his hat to make it easier to see the words that appeared.
Some have said, ‘Reading words off a stone in a hat seems like a strange thing.’ Perhaps to us, that’s true. When we think of the word “translation,” it conjures images in our minds of scholarly study, hard work, dictionaries and lexicons, and trial and error. But Joseph the translator used none of that. All the testimony from eyewitnesses says that he saw the words, read them off until they were correctly recorded, then moved on to the next group of words. Royal Skousen’s work shows that the number of words in each dictation group was likely in the twenties. Though he could not read a single character off the plates and convert it into English on his own, this was still a ‘translation’ effort because he was receiving by the power of God the English words that represented the meaning of the characters. He could see and touch the originals and now he had the English text—and they were linked by the words he saw in the stones.
Interestingly, many I have talked to have no problem accepting that he used the Interpreters (which Joseph later referred to with his stones collectively as “Urim and Thummin,” borrowing the phrase from the Old Testament) to somehow look at the plates themselves and determine the correct translation. But looking at words on a stone in a hat somehow seems odd to them. I have asked, how is seeing words on a seer stone placed in a hat different than using the Interpreters to determine the English words? Either way, Joseph is using a stone as his tool and seeing something by the power of God that he could not see by himself. I’m not sure why one method would be more credulous than the other. Regardless of our own mental image of Joseph’s efforts to translate, the ‘looking at the plates’ method has no basis in any eyewitness testimony; perhaps it developed just because it is closer to how we envision “translation” happening in our world today.
The conclusion is this: Joseph saw the stones as critical to accomplishing his purpose and assignment: to get the plates translated into English. The Lord used a tool that was familiar to him from an activity in his teenage years, and took it to a higher, spiritual level in the translation effort.
After the Book of Mormon translation was done, Joseph gave one of his stones—the brown one—to Oliver Cowdery. Evidence indicates that he favored the white one over the brown. And he did use the white stone on rare occasions in the future to get revelations and possibly to translate the Book of Abraham (compare D&C 130:10-11) . But he also indicated that after he was done with the Book of Mormon, he had matured in his understanding of the workings of the Spirit and was no longer reliant on the stones to hear the voice of God. We could say that he moved on.
Contemporary View of Joseph’s Seer Stones
One final question is critical to me to put the seer stones in their proper context: how did those around Joseph Smith feel about his use of the stones to produce the Book of Mormon? Did they see that as a positive or negative? The answer seems to be as an overwhelming positive. No one close to Joseph raised the issue of the use of the stones as a problem.(3) And those who supported him saw the translation of the Book of Mormon through the stones as evidence that he was a prophet doing God’s work, not as something they needed to get past to believe in his real work. The physicality of the stones provided a tangible testimony that what he said was true. The fact that he saw words, spoke them, and had them written down, day after day, week after week, was a powerful manifestation of God’s power to them. In other words, they believed in Joseph and in the Book of Mormon because he translated it with his seer stones! Had he simply produced it with no plates as evidence and no stones in a hat as the process, they would have had a harder time accepting it.
I’m glad we, as a people, are better communicating the details of our history today than ever before. I am glad many of these things are now discussed in Seminary, Institute, and Gospel Doctrine classes. I hope we continue to talk about them in priesthood and Relief Society meetings, in our Young Men and Young Women classes, and most importantly, in our homes. I hope that in the next generation, we don’t have a single person who feels lied to or deceived because, ‘No one ever told me that in church,’ and begins to question their faith because of information in our history that, as adults, they have not heard before. Rather, when a critical remark comes up about Joseph, his stones, and his hat, they will say, “Yeah, I know all about that. It’s wonderful how God can work with us on our own terms to bring about his purposes. Knowing how Joseph and the Lord used the seer stones has increased my testimony of him and the Book of Mormon.” That puts us right there with those who knew Joseph best.
(1) MacKay and Frederickson in Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones give the following recent examples of information published in readily accessible sources about the seer stones: September 1974 Friend; September 1977 Ensign; July 1993 Ensign; June 1994 Ensign; January 1997 Ensign; plus numerous publications from Church historians, Joseph Smith Papers scholars, and professors of Religious Education at BYU and others outside of BYU (e.g., Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and Brant Gardner, just to name three).
(2) For much of this blog, I relied on insights from works including Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick’s book, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones; Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat’s From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon; Richard Lyman Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling; Terryl L. Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon; Brant A. Gardner’s The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon; and Royal Skousen’s “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscripts” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited. There are other articles and book chapters too numerous to mention, but these are great starting points for anyone interested in diving in. I will not cite specific passages but refer the reader to and recommend these works as sources.
(3) In the Hiram Page incident (D&C 28), it wasn’t Hiram’s use of a seer stone that was condemned but the nature of his revelations, which attempted to be for the entire Church. Had they been just for his personal benefit, there would likely have been no chastisement needed.
Images by Joseph Smith Papers, FairMormon, and Anthony Sweat.