LDS Discussions Blog
About That Seer Stone Video (June 26, 2019)
On June 24th the LDS church released a new (short) video on seer stones, which is a step forward in their attempt to be more honest about the Book of Mormon translation. If you have not seen it, the church published it on YouTube and you can view it here.
It's a short video and we're not going to spend a ton of time here rehashing it, but I want to point out some of the ways that it feels like the church is still dodging and skirting difficult issues while inoculating members about troubling historical topics.
Just like the Saints book, the church is using fluffy language and imagery to avoid giving any real details of the Book of Mormon translation beyond the most basic concepts. In addition, the video uses a very simple art style which avoids showing the information that they do have about the translation process in order to keep it light and faith promoting.
Below I am going to have the text of the video with some comments about why the church is still being misleading about the Book of Mormon translation even in 2019 when the information is so readily available. If you have not read our annotated LDS Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Mormon translation, I highly recommend it as it provides so much more information than this blog post. From the video:
"Seer stones are, well, stones, rocks. They are just one example of many physical objects which God has used through his spokesmen called prophets to demonstrate His power and to bless or communicate with His children. Let's look at some examples. You may remember from the Bible God commanded Moses to place a serpent made of brass on a pole to heal the children of Israel. He told Moses anyone who looketh upon it shall live. But the power to heal was not in the serpent or the pole - it was God's power. As another example, Moses used a rod, a large stick to part the Red Sea. The savior healed a woman who touched His garment and Jesus even used mud when He healed a blind man. Through examples such as these, we can see how God sometimes uses objects that people are familiar with to communicate with and bless His children.
Apologists have long tried to 'normalize' seer stones, because at the end of the day the idea of translating the Book of Mormon with a rock in a hat really doesn't make any sense given the translation story until recently has always been using the gold plates. This new concession that Joseph did use a 'rock in a hat' goes against the narrative the church taught to me as a convert (and really everyone else) of Joseph Smith studiously translating the gold plates with special glasses on to translate the words.
But the problem with what the church is doing with this attempt at equivalence is a major one -- Moses never used a rod to seek treasure for payment before using it to part the Red Sea. Moses never took money from innocent people to dig into hills by claiming there was power in the brass serpent, find nothing, and then use it to translate 'gold plates' containing scripture.
The church will briefly mention that Joseph Smith believed in seer stones later on, but they do not mention that he used the same stone to look for buried treasure that he used to translate the Book of Mormon. While God did use ordinary people for extraordinary things in the Bible, Joseph Smith took people's money to locate hidden treasure/objects and failed at every instance to find anything - that can not be overstated as he used the same stone to defraud people of their money as he did to translate the Book of Mormon. Put another way, if God was preparing Joseph by giving him a seer stone, then why did Joseph Smith never find anything? If that was truly training as LDS historian Richard Bushman theorizes, why did Joseph Smith never find anything or show any credibility the stone possessed supernatural powers? There's a reason that they leave that information out, and is a part of Joseph Smith's history they can not run away from forever. Back to the video:
"So what are seer stones? Well, first, let's explain the word seer. A seer is literally a see-er - a person who sees. A seer is a spokesman called by God, a prophet who receives divine messages from God for the benefit of all God's children. At times, God has used seer stones to communicate to his prophets. It may seem odd to us today, but reference to a similar practice can be found in the Old Testament. Aaron, Moses' brother and the high priest, was instructed to carry a special instrument while in the temple. The Book of Exodus calls this instrument the Urim and Thummim: "And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron's heart when he goeth in before the Lord." The Urim and Thummim may have been similar to a pair of seer stones."
Again, we cover all of this a lot more in-depth in the annotated LDS essay on the Book of Mormon translation, but the Urim and Thummim did not translate anything - they were not seer stones in the way Joseph Smith claimed to use them. They worked more like a magic 8-ball, only giving you answers of yes or no. The black stone translates to 'Yes' and the white stone translates to 'No' for questions the high priests would ask. They did not have the ability to find hidden objects or to project translated words from golden plates that were not even in the room with Joseph at the time he was using the stone in a hat.
Furthermore, the term 'Urim and Thummim' was not even used to describe the "seer stone" or any translation process of the Book of Mormon until W.W. Phelps used it in 1833. Originally Joseph spoke of having Nephite Interpreters, but those were taken when Joseph Smith lost the initial 116 pages. Upon resuming translation, Joseph switched to the stone in a hat for the Book of Mormon as we have it today according to both Emma Smith and David Whitmer.
Again, the church (and those who are putting this information together here) is well aware of all of these details, but they continue to muddy the water by using the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably, even though the original Urim and Thummim in the Bible has nothing to do with translating ancient text or receiving revelations - it was merely a way to determine a yes or no answer to a question.
Back to the video:
"The use of seer stones was also part of the common culture of 19th century Europe. It was believed that some people could use them to find lost objects or to see things not visible with the natural eye. This European cultural tradition was carried over to New England and became part of early American culture as well. In the early 19th century, during a time of religious fervour, Joseph Smith, a young man in upstate New York, believed in this practice. In his teenage years, Joseph sometimes used a seer stone to locate lost objects."
The problem is that a lot of people in the 19th century had a magical worldview, and many people did believe you could find lost objects with a rock, but that doesn't mean they were able to find them. Joseph Smith's entire family held this folk magic worldview, and Joseph Smith used this belief to earn money looking for objects for people who believed Joseph had a real gift.
But Joseph Smith never found anything during these digs, and the church neglects to mention this or the fact that he took money to look for these objects, even though he never actually found anything. The reason this information is left out of the video is simple: If Joseph Smith told people he could see objects with this stone even though he never could get them, why should we believe he was able to translate the Book of Mormon using the same exact method?
Again, look at this line from the video: "In his teenage years, Joseph sometimes used a seer stone to locate lost objects." This sentence implies that Joseph had at least some success using the seer stone to locate objects, but as we now know, Joseph Smith never found hidden objects for the people paying for his services. As most treasure digging stories would go, Joseph would claim to see the object deep in a hill, but as soon as the diggers would get close the treasure would 'slip away' never to be recovered. Interestingly enough there are elements of this worldview of Joseph's in the Book of Mormon.
"And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them....Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land....Yea, in that day ye shall say: O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us." (Helaman 13)
Compare that passage from Helaman 13 with this account of treasure digging from Martin Harris:
“Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug carefully around it, and by some unseen power it slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crow-bar and tried to drive it through the lid and hold it, but the bar glanced off and broke off one of the corners of the box. Sometime that box will be found and you will see the corner broken off, and then you will know I have told you the truth." (The Last Testimony of Martin Harris, E. Cecil McGavin in The Instructor, October 1930, Vol 65, No 10, pp 587-589)
There are many instances where you can see Joseph Smith's own life experiences making their way into the Book of Mormon, and the use of stones and treasuring digging are both written into the book just as Joseph Smith had been participating in those ideas himself.
The church here is attempting to normalize treasure seeking (although they dance around calling it what it is) in order to avoid the really difficult problem of Joseph Smith having made money seeking treasure with the same stone that translated the Book of Mormon. This graphic implies that it was as simple as looking at a stone to find treasure, but they don't highlight Joseph sticking his head in a hat nor the massive digs in hills looking for items that would slip away as Joseph told the diggers they were getting close.
An important element the church also neglects to mention is that this was an illegal practice. Joseph Smith actually put on trial in 1826 for "glass looking," and you can find a ton of information about that trial from Dan Vogel's videos about it. You can watch Part 1: The Trial and Part 2: The Verdict. While there may have been many people who believed in folk magic and treasure digging, it was not common to the point where it was accepted by the general public nor was it common enough to be legal. Just as with polygamy, the church has to sidestep the very basic fact that Joseph Smith was breaking the law, and in this case was doing so in order to get the money of others in order to look for objects he was never going to find.
The church then transitions from the idea that it was "common" for people to seek treasure with stones to Joseph translating the Book of Mormon with his stone. From the video:
"Later, God called Joseph as His prophet and provided him with a Urim and Thummim to translate an ancient book of scripture, The Book of Mormon - another testament of Jesus Christ. Many centuries earlier, this ancient record was engraved on gold plates in a language called Reformed Egyptian. Joseph used both the Urim and Thummim and a seer stone at different times during the translation process regarding the seer stone. Witnesses to the translation process said Joseph placed a stone and a hat in an effort to block out extra light and focus his attention. They reported that as he looked at the stone, he could see the translation, which he would then dictate, to a scribe. Miraculous!"
As we noted earlier, the term Urim and Thummim was never used until 1833 and is not even a correct use of the term here. Additionally, the seer stone was the only item that Joseph used for the Book of Mormon as we have it according to the statements of the witnesses, and the accounts of "spectacles" or "Nephite Interpreters" vary greatly and are contradictory. For more information on the problems with Joseph having a translating object that was not the stone (spectacles or breastplate), I again refer you to our annotated translation essay.
It also needs to be made clear that the stone Joseph Smith used was not given to him by God with the plates - it was found while digging either a well or looking for treasure on behalf of Willard Chase. From a 2009 Deseret News article:
"In approximately 1819, Joseph borrowed a seer stone from a friend to find another whitish seer stone in an iron kettle 25 feet underground. Then, in 1822, Joseph found a brown stone while digging a well for Willard Chase."
Willard Chase tells this story a bit differently, claiming that Joseph promised to return the brown stone that he would later use to translate the Book of Mormon, only to refuse to give it back. From Willard Chase's 1833 testimony:
In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith... We discovered a singularly appearing stone... Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.
After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it... I ordered the stone to be returned to me again. He had it in his possession about two years.
Some time in 1825, Hiram came to me, and wished to borrow the same stone... I told him if he would pledge me his word and honor, that I should have it when called for, he might take it...
In the fall of 1826, a friend called upon me and wished to see that stone... On going to Smith's, and asking him for the stone, he said, "you cannot have it;" I told him it belonged to me, repeated to him the promise he made me, at the time of obtaining the stone: upon which he faced me with a malignant look and said, "I don't care who in the Devil it belongs to, you shall not have it."
This part of the video does briefly mentions the gold plates, but again we have to ask why there would even be gold plates if Joseph Smith never actually used them in the translation. That is quite a departure from the LDS narrative that lasted until the internet and South Park made it impossible to continue ignoring how the translation was done. In the image below, you can see how the church portrayed the translation on the left, and how history tells us it happened on the right.
I know it feels like we're beating a dead horse, but the church using very simple graphics here again allows them to avoid showing just how bizarre the true translation would look. But the reality is that this is how Joseph Smith used the stone. From David Whitmer:
"I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. 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.
I, as well as all of my father's family, Smith's wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation... He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation." (Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Part First, Chapter 1)
Compare that description with the depiction from the LDS seer stone video:
While it might seem like we are nitpicking here, the truth is that the depiction in the video doesn't show Joseph drawing the face around closely to exclude all light. Furthermore, the video finally admits the statements of the witnesses are correct regarding how the Book of Mormon was translated, but do not explain why Joseph Smith included so many passages from the King James Version of the Bible, which could not have possibly been on the gold plates. In addition, Joseph Smith used many New Testament phrases and themes, which could not have been known by the Book of Mormon people, and verses from Deutero-Isaiah, written after Lehi left for America.
This part also discusses Reformed Egyptian, which is another big issue I have with the video. We have characters from the gold plates that Joseph had written down, yet the video only shows scribbles made to look much more authentic. Below you can see the characters shown in the video against the characters that were written down from the plates:
The problem with Reformed Egyptian is that there is no evidence that it has ever existed, and Joseph Smith's "Caractors" closely resemble the same letters, numbers, and symbols from Joseph Smith's time (i.e. modified English). But at the same time, why would the church create new characters of Reformed Egyptian when we have actual characters copied down by Joseph? The reason is that anyone who studies languages (or just looks at them carefully) knows exactly what Joseph Smith was doing here, and it doesn't take much work to make it crystal clear (image below from the Tanners):
It is clear that the audience for this video is believing members, but it is frustrating that just like the recent Saints book, the church continues to leave out so much important evidence and context in order to give plausibility that these difficult issues can be resolved in a faith promoting manner.
I want to repeat one section from the video just for emphasis:
"Joseph used both the Urim and Thummim and a seer stone at different times during the translation process. Regarding the seer stone, witnesses to the translation process said Joseph placed a stone and a hat in an effort to block out extra light and focus his attention. They reported that as he looked at the stone, he could see the translation, which he would then dictate, to a scribe. Miraculous!"
As we discuss in more detail in our annotated essay, this is a very careful way of trying to avoid saying that Joseph Smith used the seer stone exclusively for the Book of Mormon as we have it today. Furthermore, the account here by the church of the translation process opens up a lot of problems with the Book of Mormon because of KJV errors, New Testament phrases and themes, anachronisms, and more. You can read more about the problems that come with a tight translation theory here, because apologists need it both ways in order to even have a chance of making this work against the evidence.
That brings us to the last part of the video:
"After the translation of the Book of Mormon as his spiritual abilities matured, Joseph found he no longer needed the aid of physical objects to receive revelation. The objects had served their purpose. There was never anything extraordinary about the seer stones any more than there was anything extraordinary about the brass serpent or rods or garments or mud. All were common everyday objects familiar to the people at the time, which God used to assist in producing miraculous results. God loves all his children and sometimes uses physical objects, including seer stones, to bring them to a knowledge of Jesus Christ and accomplish his work. Seer stones, their purpose and function. Now, you know."
One thing that is interesting here is that Joseph Smith used the stone to receive early revelations and that there was even an incident where Hiram Page began receiving revelations through his own seer stone. Upon hearing this, Joseph quickly received revelation that Hiram's revelations were from the adversary, and his stone was destroyed. In fact, even Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers believed Hiram, which shows how easily these men could be fooled by the folk magic thinking of their day. You can read more about Hiram Page's seer stone in our Chapter 9 review of Saints.
We recently wrote about the process of D&C 132 being recorded, and how Hyrum Smith asked Joseph to use the seer stone to receive the revelation on polygamy. Joseph told Hyrum that he no longer needed it, because he knew D&C 132 perfectly already. If you read D&C 132 knowing that Joseph did not use the seer stone, it is intriguing that the style of D&C 132 matches other revelations where Joseph did claim to receive them from the stone with God's voice and phrases.
We also know that Joseph Smith did not use the seer stone when translating the Book of Abraham, nor did he use it when writing the Book of Moses. The problem is that the Book of Abraham translation has been found to be incorrect in just about every way by Egyptologists, and the Book of Moses is full of problems as Biblical scholar and former Mormon David Bokovoy highlighted recently on a Mormon Stories podcast (part 2).
This post went on a little longer than I thought it would and we didn't even really dig into the problems with how the church is changing the narrative on the Book of Mormon translation. It is amazing to look at how they describe the translation in the years following the ease of finding info on Mormon truth claims online compared to how I was taught it as a convert 20 years ago.
Again, if this topic interests you I hope you'll read our annotated LDS essay on the Book of Mormon translation. We highlight the problems with the seer stone, the folk magic and occult influences in Joseph's story of receiving the plates, and really look at the "miraculous" claim about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
These new attempts by the church are definitely another step towards inoculating members on these difficult issues, but if members take the next step of researching the issues from non-correlated sources it will only make the feeling of being misled by the church and its leaders worse. The appeal to authority at the end of "Now you know" is also pretty jarring considering this is information the church has had the entire time and never told members until the internet forced their hand.
This video carefully dodges the problems with Joseph Smith's treasure digging past, doesn't show a picture of the actual seer stone, doesn't use the 'Reformed Egyptian' characters that Joseph wrote down but instead makes them up to look more plausible, implies that seer stones were "common" as if that makes them more credible, and uses simple graphics to avoid showing just how bizarre sticking your head in a hat to translate words that were supposedly on golden plates (which were hidden in another room or buried in the ground) would look.
The church will likely continue to release these videos along with their new efforts to slowly introduce members to these tough topics through fluffy narratives like Saints, but the problem is that the evidence against their claims is overwhelming. While the Book of Mormon translation is a problem for the truth claims of the church, DNA and the Book of Mormon is even more conclusive and defending the Book of Abraham is truly defending the indefensible.
One last thought: If the church was truly interested in an honest telling of their history and not hiding things from their members, why was South Park telling the truth about the Book of Mormon translation before the church? In the image below, the South Park depiction of the translation from 2003 against the official church depiction of the translation in the Joseph Smith movie shown at visitors centers released in 2005.
We've mentioned on many other posts how difficult it is to take in this new information, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey.