Monday, September 23, 2013

FHE Lesson 3: Joseph Smith & Seer Stones

Primary source material for this lesson:

"Seer Stones," The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
"Urim and Thummim," The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
"Joseph Smith/Seer Stones," The FAIRMormon Wiki
"Joseph Smith/Occultism and magic," The FAIRMormon Wiki

1. Why did Joseph Smith use seer stones? Aren't they part of folk magic rather than religion?

  • In the 1800s, many people had ideas about how to access supernatural power that seem strange to us because of modern scientific advances. But they didn't see any difference between what we label "magic" and religious practices recorded in the Bible, such as Joseph of Egypt using a silver cup to divine (Genesis 44:2, 5) or Aaron using a rod to perform miracles (Exodus 7:9-12). Things like divining rods and seer stones were not considered magical or associated with the occult.

  • It is not clear how to distinguish a "magical" from a "religious" belief in the supernatural. In the case of seer stones, the seer must exercise faith in God's ability to reveal the truth.

  • From his youth, Joseph had a talent for finding lost objects. He used several different seer stones in exercising this talent. He considered it to be a spiritual gift and not magical in nature.

2. What is a seer stone?

  • A seer stone is used to receive revelation of things that can't otherwise be known — visions of past or future events, locations of lost items, or translation of unknown languages.

  • Mormons often used the term "seer stone" interchangeably with "Urim and Thummim" (from the Hebrew "lights and perfections"). The original Urim and Thummim are mentioned in Exodus as being placed on the breastplate of Aaron (Exodus 28:30). 

3. How many seer stones did Joseph Smith have and how did he use them?

  • Around 1819-1822, Joseph used a neighbor's seer stone to find the location of a brown stone about the size of an infant's foot. He then used this stone to find a second stone (a white one). He would later discover at least two more stones in Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi. These stones seem to have been collected more for their appearance and there is little evidence that he used them.

  • Before his calling, Joseph used his white stone to find lost objects. His mother noted that some people even sought him out to find hidden valuables (for information about the money digging controversy, see here). After his calling, he used his personal seer stones as well as the interpreters included with the gold plates to receive revelation and to translate. Contemporaneous accounts also tell us he used his white stone to see the location of the gold plates and to receive confirmation that he should marry Emma Hale.

  • To effectively use the stones, Joseph had to be at peace with God and his fellowmen, exercise faith in God, and exert mental effort. This seems to indicate that the power lay not in the stones themselves, but the faith and diligence of the seer.

4. How did Joseph use seer stones to translate?

  • Joseph found two transparent seer stones with the gold plates. He used these stones, often called "interpreters," to translate the first part of the book. They were described as being bound in metal wire similar to a pair of glasses (see the following artist's rendering).

  • The span of these "spectacles" was wider than Joseph's eyes (about 8 inches). This made them difficult for him to use. Later, he used one of his personal seer stones to interpret. He would place the stone into a hat and put his face in, blocking out all exterior light. This way he could better focus and concentrate.

  • Seer stones were useful but not essential for translating and receiving revelation. In fact, after 1829, Joseph generally didn't use them at all. Orson Pratt later said Joseph told him the Lord gave him the seer stones when he was inexperienced, but that he later progressed to the point that he no longer needed them.

5. Conclusion

  • The Nephite interpreters were eventually reclaimed by the angel Moroni, as well as the gold plates. The white and brown stones are currently in possession of the First Presidency.

  • It's easier to grasp spiritual concepts when we have a physical symbol of their power. For instance, baptism cleanses us of our sins — not because the water itself has the power to do so, but because of our faith in God's ordinance. Similarly, seer stones are a physical symbol of God's power to reveal things to us.

  • Today we do not use seer stones. But we still rely on the same processes to receive revelation — that is, we must be at peace, exercise faith, and exert mental effort.

(For another interesting article tangentially related to seer stones, see "Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore," by John A. Tvedtnes.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

FHE Lesson 2: Plural Marriage

Primary source material for this lesson:

1. What is plural marriage as defined by the Church?
  • Plural marriage was the nineteenth-century LDS practice of one man having more than one living wife at a time. Popularly known as polygamy, it was actually polygyny.
  • Note the differences between marriage for time and sealing for eternity. Technically, it’s possible to be legally married to one person for this life, but sealed to another for eternity (e.g., a woman remarries after her first husband to whom she is sealed dies, or a woman divorces her first husband to whom she is sealed and then remarries outside of the temple). These are not examples of plural marriage.
  • Also note, Joseph Smith is reported to have engaged in a form polyandry: “At the time that celestial marriage was introduced, it was possible to be married for time to one person and sealed for eternity to another. These marriages appear to have been performed for the purpose of forming dynastic bonds in the afterlife, as there is no evidence that Joseph ever cohabited or had intimate relations with any of these women. No children from these marriages have ever been identified. These were sealings which would only affect Joseph’s association with these women in the afterlife.” For more information, see here.

2. When and how did plural marriage begin in the Church?
  • Its introduction was the direct result of revelation. Joseph first wrote down the revelation on plural marriage on July 12, 1843. But evidence suggests he received it much earlier, probably in 1831. While he was studying the Bible, he became curious as to why the Lord justified Abraham and other ancient prophets in taking more than one wife. His petitions on the subject resulted in the revelation.
  • Two things slowed its introduction:
    • Detractors who desired harm to the Church and it’s members would use polygamy against them. Joseph knew this, so he proceeded carefully. He presented the principle privately to a small number of faithful members before the doctrines were revealed openly. Unfortunately, this led to rumors and charges of secrecy.
    • Joseph’s own reluctance. He had great difficulty “in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings.” Also, his wife Emma vacillated between faith in his prophetic calling and rejection of the principle. Others had similar difficulties accepting plural marriage until they received personal spiritual witnesses. For instance, Brigham Young recounted, “I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time.” Joseph proceeded only after an angel declared he must or his calling would be given to another. In addition to Emma, at least 29 women were sealed to Joseph, some of these after his death.
  • After the Saints left Nauvoo in 1845-46, polygamy was openly practiced. In winter quarters, for example, discussion of the principle was an open secret and plural families were acknowledged.
  • Though visitors to Utah commented on the practice as early as 1847, polygamy wasn’t openly announced until August 29, 1852.

3. How was plural marriage practiced?
  • Order, mutual agreements, regulation, and covenants were central to the practice (see D&C 132:7). Three principle conditions had to be met. Any plural marriage had to be: (1) “made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise,” (2) performed by the proper priesthood authority, and (3) made by “revelation and commandment.” Other governing principles included that both the man and woman involved must agree to the marriage, and other wives must give their consent.
  • Unauthorized polygamy was viewed as adultery. John C. Bennett, mayor of Nauvoo and adviser to Joseph Smith, taught a doctrine of “spiritual wifery” in an attempt to have illicit relationships with several women. He claimed they were married spiritually even if they had never been married formally, and that the Prophet approved the arrangement. As a result, he was excommunicated and many others became disaffected from the Church.
  • At its height, 20% to 25% of LDS adults were members of polygamous families, including about a third of women of marriageable age. A man usually had two wives, but seldom more than three. Larger families like those of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball were exceptions.
  • Some plural families worked better than others. A common complaint of wives was that a husband didn’t treat them equally. But if husbands provided equal time and wives developed love and respect for each other, families were generally well-adjusted. Brigham Young discouraged divorce, but generally granted it if a woman sought it. However, he consistently counseled husbands to not seek divorce if their wives were willing to put up with them.

4. Is plural marriage required for exaltation?
  • No. The Book of Mormon makes clear that, though the Lord will command men through his prophets to live the law of plural marriage at special times for his purposes, monogamy is the general standard (Jacob 2:27-30).
  • Eternal marriage is a condition of exaltation in the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom, but this refers to the sealing of the marriage, not the plurality of wives. Eternal marriage can be performed posthumously, just as baptisms and endowments can be performed for those who died before they could receive these ordinances.

5. How was plural marriage ended in the Church?
  • Just like its introduction, its end was the direct result of revelation. “In 1889 in the face of increasing hardships and the threat of government confiscation of Church property, including temples, Wilford Woodruff, President of the Church at the time, prayed for guidance. He was inspired to issue a document that officially ended the sanction of plural marriage by the Church. The document, called the Manifesto, was accepted by Church members in a general conference held in October 1890 and is published in the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 1” (see the Church’s entry on “Polygamy (Plural Marriage).”
  • The ending of polygamy was gradual. Because the members had sacrificed so much for this doctrine, some of them were resistant to the change. Some marriages were still performed, particularly in Mexico and Canada. In 1904, President Joseph F. Smith called for a vote from Church membership prohibiting post-Manifesto plural marriages worldwide. Today, any member of the Church who is discovered to be practicing polygamy is excommunicated.

Monday, July 29, 2013

FHE Lesson 1: Revelation on the Priesthood

Primary source material for this lesson: “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” Edward L. Kimball, BYU Studies Quarterly, 47:2

1. Before June of 1978, the Church prohibited blacks from the priesthood. What did this prohibition consist of?

  • Black men could not receive the priesthood or hold priesthood leadership positions. Black men and women could not serve missions or receive temple endowments, though they could be baptized for the dead and black children could be sealed to adoptive parents of other races. They could receive patriarchal blessings, serve as secretaries (but not ward clerks), teach classes, and participate in the music program. Women could be visiting teachers, but men couldn’t be home teachers.
  • The prohibition wasn’t related to personal worthiness. Also, skin color wasn’t the determining factor, but perceived lineage from black Africans (e.g., Australian aborigines weren’t prohibited). If lineage was unknown, the Church erred on the side of leniency. If errors later came to light, ordained men were asked to suspend use of their priesthood.
  • The prohibition was termed a “policy” rather than a doctrine, but one that couldn’t be changed without revelation.

2. Did the Church always exclude blacks from holding the priesthood? Reportedly some persons of mixed heritage received the endowment before 1907. Also, at least two African Americans were ordained during Joseph Smith’s lifetime:

Appendix to Lesson 1

I added this appendix as a response to a specific question from my oldest son, who’s already had run-ins with atheists at his high school.

Question: In light of the fact that prophets can make mistakes, explain this passage following Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine & Covenants:

“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Wilford Woodruff, Oct. 6, 1890)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Family Home Evening Lesson Plans: A New Approach

“Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.” (“Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” Mormon Newsroom, May 4, 2007)

My sons are growing up. They no longer need diapers, car seats, or help cutting their meat. All of them can read independently. My oldest can even drive. If all goes according to plan, he should be serving a mission in about two years. Which leads me to the subject of the day.

I've done a pretty good job teaching my children how to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. But after reflection, I believe I haven't done enough to prepare them for people who will try to tear down their faith through argument. I don't want to teach them how to debate—I just want to introduce them to a few of the controversial subjects in Church history and teachings that anti-Mormons may use as points of attack. These things are only touched on briefly at Church meetings, and I think knowing a little more would prevent them from being blindsided. I'd also like them to learn about other religions so they can understand and respect other people's beliefs.

Thus my current project: Family Home Evening lesson plans that cover a broad range of possibly controversial topics from a believing Mormon's viewpoint. I'll use resources like BYU Studies, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, and the official Church website.

I will post my lesson plans on this blog, mostly for my own reference. But feel free to use them for your own family if you want. Keep in mind that my children range from ages 8 to 16. Many of these lessons may not be appropriate for younger kids.

So ... I start tomorrow with a lesson about the 1978 revelation allowing all worthy male members, including African Americans, to hold the priesthood and receive temple blessings. Wish me luck!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bits & Pieces

I've been trying to collect enough random stuff for some sort of blog post. Summer has been very slow for writing. Below are a few things I've been thinking about, plus some pictures.


For most shortcomings, failure is too strong a word. If you're learning to play the piano but you can't play a piece correctly right away, you haven't failed. You're still learning it. Similarly, if you aren't a perfect parent, child, sibling, spouse, friend, etc., you aren't a failure—you're still learning.

Unless you quit. Then you fail. Until you start trying again.

Pet Peeves

Don't let minor irritations solidify into things you love to hate. And definitely don't compile a list and share it online. Nobody cares about your particular set of peeves but you.

Remember this story? Pockets Full of Rocks. It's more about collecting grudges than collecting pet peeves, but there are similarities. Hoarding either one only serves to cause you unnecessary pain.

Culture Vs. Biology

I read an online post about how patriarchal culture conditions women to behave passively. The writer argued it isn't biological, but learned cultural behavior. My questions:

  • How does culture develop independent of biology? Did some aliens just come slap it on us after we'd evolved sufficiently? Is that what the Egyptian pyramids are really all about?

  • Why does it always have to be nurture versus nature? Why can't it be a combination of the two? In fact, why wouldn't it be?

Pioneer Trek

My two oldest boys will be attending the traditional summer activity of young Mormons everywhere: Pioneer Trek. It's sort of like a spiritual bootcamp—all the fun of EFY with a heavy dose of physical rigor and controlled starvation. I remember when I went on Trek as a young woman, my sister got her foot run over by a fully loaded handcart. Fun times!

The youth who are participating are supposed to bring along a 3x5 card with a picture and story about one of their pioneer ancestors. We chose my great-great grandfather, William Kilshaw Barton.

William Kilshaw Barton

Among the interesting tidbits in his journal is this account of one day he spent during his mission to England (where he was born):

July 26, 1872. ... I went to a Wax Works Show. I saw a large painting to represent Brigham and his forty-seven wives, some of them booting him and others weeping. He (Brigham) was represented as a very old man sitting in a chair, his mouth turned down at the corners — nothing like him. ...

Goblin Valley

Last weekend, Jason and Nathan went on a Scout overnighter to Goblin Valley. I'm sure beautiful pictures are forthcoming. So far, all I have is this one of Jason in a ridiculously practical hat:

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shut Up He Explained

Time to get this party started. This new blog will be more like a journal, but I won't necessarily be writing things as they occur. For instance, today I'm recording a story about Parker that took place a few years ago—I just hadn't taken the time to write it down yet. In fact, I didn't even know this had happened until the tale was shared by one of his Scout leaders during his Eagle Court of Honor.

Parker has always enjoyed Scouting activities, but it was a bit of a struggle to get him through some of the Eagle rank requirements toward the end. The Camping merit badge, in particular, presented problems because we hadn't kept proper track of the number of days and nights he'd been camping. He being our oldest boy, we were not yet used to all the ... well, hoop-jumping required to progress in the Scouting program.

The problem is, generally speaking, that the older boys get the less they like to go camping. Maybe it's because all the trouble and fuss of living without a house finally surpasses the novelty of being free to eat too much candy and not brush your teeth. I don't know. At any rate, several of the young men around Parker's age harbored great animosity toward sleeping on the ground and made a point of being miserable about it.

Not that they didn't have valid reasons to dislike camping. There have been plenty of instances involving illness, injury, lack of sleep, near hypothermia, and general discord. So when time for the annual summer camp rolled around, there was already much going against it. In fact, Parker's friend Tyler (the only non-LDS member of the troop) prophesied that by the end of it, they would all hate each other.

Now, I don't know all the details of what happened during those few days, but I understand it began with the boys so getting on each other's nerves that they made a rule by general consensus: no one would tell another Scout to "shut up" or he would have to do 10 pushups in front of the troop.

One evening, the afore-mentioned Tyler was assigned to start a cook fire for dinner. In one respect, this was the perfect job for him, because he took great joy in using his flint and steel whenever he got the chance. On the other hand, his fire-lighting enthusiasm far surpassed his actual fire-lighting skills. As he fruitlessly struck and struck and struck, the minutes dragged on and on and on.

Then the complaints began, picking up in steam as one boy after another piled on. I later tried to get out of Parker what they were actually saying, but he either can't or won't remember. He just said, "It was really insulting, Mom. And they kept chanting it over and over."

Poor Parker sat there, increasingly distressed. While he acknowledged that Tyler could be a tad irritating (what teenage boy isn't sometimes?), he felt keenly the inappropriateness of all the "good Mormons" picking on the one boy who wasn't—especially since Tyler's parents had long resisted letting their son participate in anything church-related. Parker kept hoping the group would get bored and give it up or otherwise come to their senses, but the taunting escalated.

Finally, Parker snapped. He yelled, "SHUT UP!" The other Scouts were stunned into silence. Since we teach our children to not use this particular formulation (also, "stupid" is the S-word at our house), they had never heard him say anything like that—or at least, quite so forcefully. They turned to see what terrible thing he would do next.

Very calmly, Parker strode to a clear spot in the camp, got on down on the ground, and proceeded to do his 10 pushups.

I would like to report that everything went swimmingly after that, especially since some of the boys apologized. But since the final night's dinner involved tainted meat which made everyone queasy and caused one food-poisoned lad to throw up on Parker's sleeping bag in the middle of the night, I'll have to settle for calling it a "treasured learning experience." At least I know Parker will never forget it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Growing Beanstalks

Growing Beanstalks
(A traditional cinquain chain, comprised of three stanzas)

Dire fear,
like drilling worms,
writhes through my bosom, eats
my peace like blight, but can't consume
all hope.

Brave hope
suspends my heart,
buoys on warm air currents,
billows from beneath, replenishes
new love.

Bright love
sprouts fresh, verdant
vines to the castled sky.
Let me now contend with giants,
not fear.

© Merrijane Rice