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.)