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Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone and Mormon Origins: A Matter of Transparency

I actually heard it on my car radio on NPR the other day—August 4, 2015. Melissa Block introduced the segment by saying that the way in which Joseph Smith had translated the Book of Mormon from the golden plates “had been shrouded in mystery until now.”

Wow! I thought. What startling revelation might this be? I waited with bated breath.

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Tom Gjelten then delivered the news: the Church Historian’s Office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was publishing the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon and a color photograph of the magical seer stone that Joseph used when he dictated the text of that manuscript.

Oh. Is that all?

Joseph Smith's Seer Stone

Associated Press: Rick Bowmer © 2015 The Associated Press.

The story was carried by numerous other news outlets including Associated Press and everyone that carried its version, by Fox News and CBS News, and on and on. The LDS Church made sure of it, releasing the story themselves through their Newsroom. At the same time, the LDS Church published an advance copy of an article slated for the October 2015 issue of its official flagship magazine Ensign. The article, “Joseph the Seer,” is authored by three men associated with the “Joseph Smith Papers” project, in which the LDS Church Historian’s Office is attempting to publish everything written or dictated by Joseph Smith. The two-volume set containing the Printer’s Manuscript that was published this week by the Church Historian’s Office (through the LDS Church’s official publishing house Deseret Book) is the latest release of the Joseph Smith Papers series.

[Tweet “What the Mormon Newsroom did not mention[…]was that there was nothing new about any of this.”]

What the Mormon Newsroom did not mention, and what none of the news outlets I have consulted evidently found out, was that there was nothing new about any of this.

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In Search of Transparency

First of all, a printed text of the Printer’s Manuscript (commonly known as P) was published in 2001 by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). The existence of P was not a secret; it has been owned by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (more recently renamed Community of Christ) since 1903. The editor of the 2001 edition, Royal Skousen, wrote about P years earlier, and he is the editor of the newly released Joseph Smith Papers edition as well. This new edition will no doubt be an impressive publication, as it includes high-resolution photographs of the manuscript as well as introductory and supplemental material, but the text of P has been available for years.

[Tweet “The dreaded “anti-Mormon” critics have been saying for decades that Joseph used a seer stone.”]

Second, the fact that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in dictating the text of the Book of Mormon is something that the dreaded “anti-Mormon” critics (as Mormons insist on calling them) have been saying for decades, but which the LDS Church has rarely mentioned and never explained until very recently.1 It’s nice that the Church Historian’s Office has published a picture of it, but we already knew about it and even knew what it looked like; it is a small, smooth, chocolate-colored stone. As a matter of fact, the ministry where I serve, the Institute for Religious Research, has had an article about Joseph using the seer stone to dictate the Book of Mormon on its website since 1999.

Despite the reality that these things have long been known, the message communicated to the media was that the publication of P and a picture of the seer stone marked a new day of “transparency” for the LDS Church. What the media does not seem to understand is that whatever newfound transparency exists was forced on the LDS Church by the internet, which has given information about Joseph’s seer stone and other such matters such wide circulation that the LDS Church’s earlier strategy of ignoring the facts was no longer viable. As the New York Times reported in 2013, hitherto faithful Mormons even outside the United States who had been exposed to information online were asking hard questions and their leaders were giving faltering and faulty answers. The problem became so acute that in 2013 and 2014 the LDS Church published over a dozen new articles in its Gospel Topics series on the official LDS website, including an article on “Book of Mormon Translation” that did discuss the matter of the seer stone.

Although the LDS Church is now at least talking about the seer stone, it is still far from transparent in addressing the issues adequately. Two issues are of particular importance.

Joseph’s Treasure Hunting with a Seer Stone

Until very recently, the LDS Church avoided acknowledging that Joseph was engaged in hunting for buried treasure using one or more seer stones prior to his claiming to have found and translated the Book of Mormon. The Gospel Topics article on Book of Mormon translation, published at the end of 2013, did mention this briefly but attempted to minimize its significance:

“As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.”

A footnote claims that “Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking” because in July 1838 he admitted that he had been a “money-digger” while denying it had been profitable (a statement in Joseph Smith, “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal, July 1838). However, Joseph said nothing there about the seer stone and clearly was trying to deny that his money-digging had any significance.

[Tweet “Joseph said nothing there about the seer stone…”]

That same year of 1838, Joseph dictated an account of his early years in which he claimed that his reputation as a money-digger was a misunderstanding. Part of this account eventually became known as Joseph Smith–History and is included in the LDS scripture collection called The Pearl of Great Price. In October 1825 Joseph had, he says, gone to live in the home of Josiah Stowell as a hired hand. Stowell had learned about a silver mine supposedly located in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph reported, “After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger” (Joseph Smith–History 1:56).

Joseph’s account here is quite deceptive. The fact is that Joseph was heavily engaged in “money-digging” throughout most of the period from 1822 to 1827. This means that Joseph had been pursuing “money digging” for a full three years or longer when Josiah Stowell approached him about the expedition to find the lost silver mine.2 Thus, Joseph’s claim that the story of his having been a money digger arose from one short-lived effort at the end of 1825 is quite misleading. Joseph also says in this same account that he was visited repeatedly by the angel Moroni, shown the gold plates, and instructed at length about his mission from 1823 to 1827—the same period during which he was often engaged in money-digging. Worse still, Joseph’s account omits the most controversial aspect of his participation in money-digging: his claim to be able to locate buried treasure using a seer stone. Stowell hired Joseph for his silver mine quest, not to perform the manual labor of digging as Joseph Smith–History would lead readers to believe, but to use his reputed gift with the seer stone to locate the mine.

Joseph’s Seer Stone and the Book of Mormon

A second and closely related issue has to do with Joseph’s use of the seer stone in dictating the “translation” of the gold plates as the Book of Mormon. Joseph’s wife Emma and the men who were supporting and working with Joseph when he produced the Book of Mormon gave numerous statements years later that all agree as to how Joseph did it. He would take his seer stone, put it inside his hat, and put the hat over his face to block outside light. He would then dictate to his scribe the English words he claimed he could see in light emanating from the stone. Joseph never looked at the gold plates when he was dictating his translation; they were either laid aside and covered up or hidden away in another room or building.

That is not what the LDS Church taught its members. Until 2013, the LDS Church taught the same story that Joseph did. According to his account, “there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book” (JS-H 1:35). In the same meeting recorded in the 1838 Elders’ Journal article mentioned earlier, Joseph stated: “I obtained them [the plates], and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.” Thus, Joseph clearly claimed that he translated the Book of Mormon, not with a seer stone used previously in treasure hunting, but with stone spectacles fastened to a breastplate that he found buried with the gold plates.

"I obtained them [the plates], and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon." —Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith on Translating the Book of Mormon

Mormon apologists are now arguing that Joseph and the early Mormons used the term “Urim and Thummim” in reference to both the stone spectacles and the seer stone, but this explanation will not work. Joseph explicitly stated that he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that he found “with them” (with the plates), that is, the apparatus with the two stones set in silver bows and fastened to a breastplate. Likewise, in his 1842 Wentworth Letter Joseph said, “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called ‘Urim and Thummim,’ which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” This statement leaves absolutely no room for the theory that by “the Urim and Thummim” Joseph actually meant his treasure-hunting seer stone.

So then, Joseph claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon using transparent stone spectacles that were in the box where the gold plates were found, whereas in fact he dictated his translation by looking at a non-transparent, chocolate-colored stone in his hat. In short, Joseph Smith himself gave false testimony when he claimed that he translated the Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummim that he found with the gold plates. Recall that Joseph also gave false testimony when he claimed that he was not really a “money-digger” but rather had only briefly participated in a dig as one of several hired hands. These two lies are directly related because the common element is Joseph’s treasure-hunting seer stone.

Too Little Transparency, Too Late

Now, if Joseph’s testimony has been shown to be materially false in these important respects, on what grounds can anyone regard his testimony in other respects as trustworthy or believable? Moreover, the LDS Church perpetuated the deception throughout most of its history. No wonder many Mormons have been scandalized when they found out that what they were taught wasn’t true.

[Tweet “If Joseph’s testimony about this is false, how can we trust him on other matters?”]

If the LDS Church wants to be truly transparent, they will need to do much more than release documents and photos. They need to acknowledge publicly that Joseph Smith’s account of the origins of the Book of Mormon is deceptive and unreliable. That is a price for transparency that the LDS Church establishment leaders seem unlikely to be willing to pay.

 

Notes

1 This article originally stated that the LDS Church had “studiously avoided” Joseph’s use of a seer stone, which some Mormons have misunderstood to mean that they have never mentioned it at all. I have revised my statement to preclude this misunderstanding.

2 The Gospel Topics article “Book of Mormon Translation” mentioned earlier alludes vaguely to the fact that Joseph had a longer history of using seer stones in treasure hunting when it states that he used a seer stone for such purposes “during the 1820s.” Joseph actually was the defendant in a court case in 1826 in regards to the expedition with Stowell in late 1825. In the records of that case, Joseph acknowledged that he had a stone that he used “occasionally” for three years to locate lost items and buried treasures, including several times for Stowell. This would be three years prior to the incident in late 1825 that was the focus of the court case, therefore taking us back to 1822. Joseph suspended his money-digging and scrying for most or all of 1826 due to the trial, but resumed the practice for part of 1827. See especially Dan Vogel, “The Locations of Joseph Smith’s Early Treasure Quests,” Dialogue 27/3 (1994): 197-231. Vogel identifies eighteen locations where Joseph searched for buried treasure in 1822-1825 and 1827. Joseph finally ceased the practice in August 1827 after his father-in-law offered to help Joseph and Emma when Joseph promised to give up money-digging. The very next month, Joseph claimed to have found the gold plates.

 

 

31 Responses to “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone and Mormon Origins: A Matter of Transparency”

  1. As usual, your article lacks real scholarship, legitimacy, honesty, and objectivity. Having read dozens of your articles, I could have written the content of this one prior to having read it, you’re that obtuse.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-08 at 9:48 am

      Travis, I am gratified that you have found my articles so interesting that you have read dozens of them. Perhaps someday you might take a little time and offer some substantive critique of one of them. If my work really is as awful as you say, you should have no trouble pointing out some of the more obvious factual errors or missteps in reasoning.

      • A quote from you…”Now, if Joseph’s testimony has been shown to be materially false in these important respects, on what grounds can anyone regard his testimony in other respects as trustworthy or believable?

        Abraham in the Old Testament lied to the Egyptians saying that Sarah was his sister, when in reality she was his wife.

        So question: Based upon the same logic you are using against Joseph Smith, that if Abraham’s testimony has been shown to be materially false in these important respects, on what grounds can anyone regard his testimony in other respects as trustworthy or believable?

        So how do you defend father Abraham in the Bible?

        • Robert Bowman 2016-03-22 at 8:23 am

          Mike,

          That’s easy:

          1. Abraham lied about a personal matter. Joseph Smith lied about matters pertaining directly to the truth or falsity of the Mormon religion.
          2. Abraham lied, but Joseph Smith lied in the name of the Lord, actually incorporating his lies into a text that Mormons regard as inspired scripture.
          3. No one’s faith depends on whether one accepts what Abraham said about his wife. The truth of the Mormon faith depends on whether what Joseph Smith said about his visions and revelations was true. As Joseph Fielding Smith said, Mormonism stands or falls on the testimony of Joseph Smith (see my response to Ashley).

          Does that help?

  2. If one applies the bayesian analytic method to the question of who wrote the Book of Mormon one explanation stands heads and shoulders above the others in terms of coherence with the known record and available evidence. Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith Jr. adapted and embellished a futuristic novel, the Spalding manuscript, to create The Book of Mormon. They all had their reasons for doing so. The story is painstakingly detailed in the book Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon. Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon is an interesting read mainly because it shows the lengths people are willing to go to make themselves big shots, gain money or start a religion. http://www.amazon.com/Who-Really-Wrote-Book-Mormon/dp/0758605277

    Other sources available online: http://solomonspalding.com/index3.htm
    http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spalding%E2%80%93Rigdon_theory_of_Book_of_Mormon_authorship

  3. James Verner 2015-08-09 at 6:27 pm

    Hi! I feel so happy that I was pointed to the 4 gospels early in my search for God. My reading of John’s gospel led me to Christ who, in chapter 14: 6 says, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life, no man comes to the father except by Me.” Jesus said, “Whosoever believes on me shall not perish but have everlasting life.” For me, Jesus said it, I believe it and that settles it. I am glad that you are able to expose error by explaining Mormonism to us, and by pointing us to what the Bible really says about being saved for eternity. James

    • Praise God James! Great testimony. Much better than just saying you had a “burning in the bosom”. John said; 1 John 5:13
      “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may believe on the name of the Son of God.” The “These things” John wrote are a far cry from what Joseph Smith wrote!

  4. Thanks for this article, Credo House shared it with me!
    Especially enlightening is; “…that whatever new found transparency exists was forced on the LDS Church by the internet, which has given information about Joseph’s seer stone and other such matters such wide circulation that the LDS Church’s earlier strategy of ignoring the facts was no longer viable. “
    This is a game changer for sure! Earlier, late 70’s , we did not have such, but everything the leaders of Mormonism are now showing, were known to us through “Ed Decker” and “Ex Mormon’s for Jesus”. When we shared this stuff back then, they, (from missionaries to regular church member’s, even bishops) denied such things (truth) existed!
    It is a new day. They must now confront the reality of the deceptive and unreliable teaching of the LDS Church.

  5. Norm Anderson 2015-08-10 at 12:49 am

    Glad to see that the LDS Church is publicly admitting what they have apparently publicly denied. The Truth has a way of shining through. I pray that the Lord will use this exposure to open the eyes of sincere LDS members to reconsider the claims of infallibility from their leadership, and that they will look to the Scriptures as their source of Truth. For believers, gloating would be the worst possible response.

  6. Slightly (but not too much) off topic. LDS claims to be the fastest-growing church in the world (or something like that) but their ‘sealing’ lists (now, I believe closed to non-members) contain the names of numbers of Jewish victims of Hitler’s death camps. That’s a scandal!

  7. Central Texan 2015-08-11 at 10:54 pm

    First major error with this article: the author’s claim about the use of the seer stone “which the LDS Church has studiously ignored until very recently.” The use of the seer stone has been published in church magazines and mentioned in talks by general authorities of the LDS Church.

    Most often cited are an article in the September 1974 “Children’s Friend” (a children’s magazine) which describes the translation, adding “Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone” as well as an article written by Church Apostle Russell M. Nelson in 1993 (appearing in the July issue of the Ensign magazine, the Churches main magazine mostly geared toward adults). In the article Mr. Nelson recites David Whitmer’s description, that “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…” Look it up, it’s right there in black and white.

    So the LDS Church was not avoiding the issue but people are human — they hear things or read things but they don’t really register with them. A good example is this blog itself, despite there being clear evidence that the use of the seer stone was NOT concealed, some can study the issue and that fact just doesn’t sink in.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-12 at 12:42 am

      Hi there, Central Texan.

      I already knew that you can find a few places in LDS sources over the past 40+ years that mention the seer stone. This doesn’t negate my statement that the LDS Church until recently “studiously avoided” the subject. They threw it in five times between 1974 and 1997, and did so in as inconspicuous a way as they could. I am aware of no reference to the seer stone in official LDS publications from 1998 through 2012. Only twice was the hat mentioned, both times in the same quotation from David Whitmer, with no explanation or comment by the author of the article. And they said nothing about the fact that the stone was something Joseph had used in his treasure-hunting years. In other words, they completely and absolutely avoided any discussion or explanation of what the seer stone was!

      Now that we have that point fully qualified in a detailed way, perhaps you could address the main point of the article, which is that Joseph Smith himself made false statements in Joseph Smith-History to cover up the fact that he used a seer stone from his days as a “money-digger” to translate the Book of Mormon.

      • Robert Bowman 2015-08-12 at 1:59 pm

        Please note that I have edited my statement so as to preclude the misunderstanding expressed by Central Texan. The article now states that the seer stone is something that the LDS Church “has rarely mentioned and never explained until very recently.”

  8. Since the beginning of the LDS movement, its growth has been based on ‘changing with the times’, or ‘making corrections to doctrine to fit the changing times’. Obviously a man-made religion which requires updating from time to time to keep present. And what about the fact that genetic research has proven Joseph Smith’s story is false. And one other thing, there is no wa God almighty, who wrote out the Ten Commandments for Moses, is waiting on a money digger with a stone to reveal a ‘new’ plan to the world for His glory. The 66 books of the bible counter everything in the book of Mormon.

  9. Rob, a few points of order.

    First off, the seer stone was not the only method Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. He initially actually used the Urimm and Thummim. But he found the device uncomfortable and heavy, and eventually resorted to the seer stone he had used earlier. As such, both versions are technically correct, and the LDS Church cannot be faulted for simply picking up on one account and running with it for century and a half.

    Secondly, the mission of the LDS Church is to teach doctrine – not history. I know that appalls amateur historians such as yourself, but the blunt fact of the matter is that historical inquiry and scholarship is not the primary mission of the LDS Church. It has better things to do with its time. Getting all the details correct in the historical narrative – especially trivial and unimportant historical details like the one described in this article – has never been priority one with the LDS Church – nor should it be. Discussions such as this are best left to independent historians while the Church gets on with its business of building the kingdom of God.

    Third, I don’t find Joseph Smith’s account particularly dishonest. His report of his dealings with Josiah Stowell is essentially correct.

    But, be that as it may – I find the assertion that “Joseph Smith hedged on money-digging, so that proves his other accounts are fraudulent” to be logically incoherent. Obfuscation in one instance does not prove or necessarily even suggest obfuscation in another instance. I also find your implied assertion that God would never use anything but a perfect man to reveal scripture to be highly questionable and biblically baseless.

    A final note here.

    I find it interesting how desperate the folks at Mormonism Research Ministry are to make the Book of Mormon largely a question of the character of Joseph Smith.

    I take it your attempts to actually discredit the actual BOOK must not have been going very well Rob, if you feel the need to take whacks at low-hanging straw fruit rather than an actual refutation of the book.

    But don’t beat yourself up too much – Evangelical scholarship has been miserably failing to knock over the Book of Mormon for over 100 years now, so I don’t think anyone expected you to plow any new ground here.

    The current loss of membership due to Internet activity in the LDS Church is over-inflated. Evangelicals are losing young people to the Internet at catastrophically higher levels than the Mormons are, and the LDS Church has had apostasy and disaffection and challenges before in its history. Challenges far worse than we are facing now. We made it through those, and I daresay we’ll make it through the rash of poorly-researched Internet blog posts too.

    I’d suggest that Evangelicals keep a closer eye on their own problems which they share in common with Mormons – militant secularism and atheism, the plague of the sexual revolution, the threat of gay marriage, and the marginalization of religious belief in the public sphere.

    You folks have bigger problems than whether the Mormon missionaries are cutting into your Sunday donation revenues.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-17 at 12:19 pm

      Seth,

      You started out tolerably well, attempting to respond to the issue of Joseph Smith’s seer stone in a fairly substantive manner, but then quickly descended into irrelevancy, confusion, and snide remarks. More on those below.

      The reports and testimonies concerning the instrument or instruments that Joseph Smith used are not all in perfect agreement or consistency, but there are some things we can know with a fairly high degree of confidence. First, no one (except Joseph) apparently ever so much as saw the stone spectacles. Many years later, Joseph’s mother claimed that she had felt them through a thin covering. There are some problems with her account, but again, even Lucy did not claim that she actually saw the stone spectacles directly, let alone watched Joseph using them when he was dictating the Book of Mormon. I think we can state categorically that no one who ever watched Joseph dictating the Book of Mormon saw him wearing the breastplate to which the stone spectacles supposedly were attached. When Joseph dictated the 116 pages to Martin Harris that were subsequently lost or stolen, Harris could not see Joseph because a curtain of some kind separated them. Evidently Joseph dispensed with the curtain when the dictation resumed at the Whitmer home, but still no one apparently ever saw Joseph dictating with the stone spectacles attached to the breastplate.

      Second, yes, the conventional view among Mormon scholars and apologists now is that Joseph started his translation work using the “Urim and Thummim” (the Nephite “interpreters,” or stone spectacles) but then switched to using a seer stone. If that is correct, it seems he used the seer stone exclusively in 1829 when he dictated virtually all of the Book of Mormon (remember, the lost 116 pages were not part of the Book of Mormon but were, according to Joseph, a somewhat parallel account). This follows from the fact just noted that none of the witnesses in the Whitmer home ever saw the stone spectacles. It also follows from the fact that most of the witnesses in the Whitmer home reported later that Joseph used a seer stone. Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, and Emma Smith Bidamon all so testified; this was also the understanding of Isaac Hale, Emma’s father. This means that Joseph’s claim that he used the stone spectacles to translate the Book of Mormon was false, even if he had used them (unobserved by anyone else!) to produce the lost 116 pages.

      Your statement that the LDS Church’s mission “is to teach doctrine—not history” is disingenuous and misleading. Mormon doctrine rests on historical claims. If the First Vision did not happen, Mormon doctrines about the nature of deity, the great apostasy, the restoration of the gospel, and the role of Joseph Smith are all fatally undermined. If the Book of Mormon narrative is a modern fiction, then Mormon doctrine that depends on the Book of Mormon as the keystone of the Restoration is false. If the Book of Abraham was a fraud passed off as a translation of a text that we now know was a pagan Egyptian funerary text and not an autobiographical writing of Abraham, then the Book of Abraham cannot be considered a divine source of true doctrine. History matters.

      You commented that the LDS Church has better things to do than “getting all the details correct in the historical narrative—especially trivial and unimportant historical details like the one described in this article.” If that is so, why is the LDS Church investing so much time and money in the Joseph Smith Papers project, which is managed by the Church Historian’s Office? You’re shooting yourself in the foot with this comment. And the question of the instrument Joseph used in dictating the Book of Mormon is neither trivial nor unimportant. If it were, why have so many Mormons been scandalized to learn that Joseph used a seer stone that he had previously used for years in hunting for buried treasure? The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks. It obviously makes a huge difference whether Joseph translated the Book of Mormon using sacred objects specially prepared for that purpose, as Joseph claimed, or used a stone he had found years earlier and used repeatedly in an activity that was quite profane.

      By the way, my undergraduate and graduate education included extensive study of historical methods and critical tools of historical research. I would suggest that your disparaging reference to me as an “amateur historian” was inappropriate, to say the least.

      Your personal feelings about Joseph Smith’s account are noted, but the evidence shows very clearly that he was deliberately covering up the facts about his use of a seer stone in treasure hunting, as well as his use of a seer stone in dictating the Book of Mormon, in order to prevent people from making the obvious connection. I didn’t claim, and I don’t claim, that this one obfuscation proves that everything else Joseph said was false. I did claim, and I do insist, that it raises legitimate doubts about the reliability of his story. And this isn’t the only such problem in Joseph Smith–History.

      You wrote: “I also find your implied assertion that God would never use anything but a perfect man to reveal scripture to be highly questionable and biblically baseless.” I never implied any such thing. That’s a big swing at a ball that was never pitched. God certainly used flawed men as his prophets in the Bible, but those prophets never lied in their scriptural writings about how they received their revelations.

      So much for the veneer of reasonable discourse in the first part of your comment. The rest is nonsense that doesn’t even pretend to engage the issue. I will answer it in a separate comment.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-17 at 12:19 pm

      Seth,

      You wrote:

      “I find it interesting how desperate the folks at Mormonism Research Ministry are to make the Book of Mormon largely a question of the character of Joseph Smith.”

      One thing I find interesting, Seth, is that you could not even identify the organization with which I am associated correctly. I am the executive director of the Institute for Religious Research. This isn’t hard to find out; I even gave the name in the blog article to which you were responding. Mormonism Research Ministry is a fine organization, but it is a different one and has a different focus that is complementary to ours.

      Your claim that I “make the Book of Mormon largely a question of the character of Joseph Smith” is incorrect, even leaving out the allegation of desperation. The point of my article was not to conclude that Joseph was a bad man, but that Joseph’s account of the origins of the Book of Mormon is at least partially falsified. If anyone exhibits desperation in this regard it is those Mormons like you who want to deflect attention from the factual issues by making critics out to be bullies beating up on your esteemed founder’s character. Not that it is hard to call Joseph’s character into question! But this isn’t the focus or even a major element of my critique of the Book of Mormon.

      The rest of your comments about my supposed failure to refute the Book of Mormon simply show your ignorance about the work I have been doing. Last year I completed my Ph.D. dissertation on the question of the historical authenticity of the “Sermon at the Temple” in 3 Nephi 12-14 (which, as I showed, was dependent on the KJV of Matthew 5-7). The dissertation was over 700 pages long (and that was after removing a hundred pages). I presented a very short segment of the dissertation at the Latter-day Saints and the Bible session of the Society of Biblical Literature annual convention last November. I have done extensive work on a wide variety of topics pertaining to the Book of Mormon. Much of this will soon be appearing on our website (IRR.org), and I expect part of the dissertation to be published at some point.

      Your concluding comments about the problems evangelicalism has are highly prejudicial and irrelevant. Yes, evangelicalism faces some of the same problems Mormonism faces, such as the cultural trends of the new atheism and the upending of sexual morality. But one thing we have not had to face is news showing that the founder or founders of our religion lied in the name of God. Joseph lies about several things: he lied about his money-digging and how he translated the Book of Mormon; he lied about having been persecuted in the early 1820s for his First Vision; he lied about his polygamy and instructed others to lie about it as well. Those are just a few easy examples.

      And if you imagine for one second that evangelical criticism of Mormonism has anything whatsoever to do with concerns about “Sunday donation revenues,” you are seriously deluded. But I don’t think you really believe that. Frankly, I think it’s a smear tactic borne of reckless disregard for truth. Whatever led you to make that crack, it’s absolutely false.

  10. Doug Yancey 2015-08-17 at 8:28 am

    Hello Rob!
    I’ve been away for a long while with more important business and have not kept up with
    what you write. How do I subscribe to this blog?

  11. Robert Bowman 2015-08-17 at 12:30 pm

    Hi there, Doug. Look at the bottom of the page: you’ll see check boxes for receiving notifications by email of follow-up comments to the current post as well as new posts.

  12. Rob,

    In your reply to Seth, you said the following:

    “…it seems he used the seer stone exclusively in 1829 when he dictated virtually all of the Book of Mormon (remember, the lost 116 pages were not part of the Book of Mormon but were, according to Joseph, a somewhat parallel account).”

    You then go on to claim that, because of this, Joseph Smith made a false claim when he said he used the Nephite interpreters to translate all or part of the Book of Mormon.

    Do you have a source for this? My understanding has been that the evidence fairly clearly indicates that the 116 pages were what Joseph called the “Book of Lehi” and was an abridgment made by Mormon and intended by Mormon to be the opening section of his book. What we have now from 1 Nephi through Omni was not originally intended to be part of “Mormon’s Book”, but through God’s foresight it became such.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-18 at 12:45 pm

      James, I’m not sure that we disagree here. All I was saying was that the lost 116 pages did not become part of the published English work known as The Book of Mormon. Those lost pages were replaced by what Joseph said was a somewhat parallel account.

  13. Rob,
    You were trying to make an important point about Smith lying, but I think that point is significantly weakened considering the fact that the 116 pages are in fact a part of the Book of Mormon. Just because they are not in the current English version of the “Book of Mormon” doesn’t make them any less a part of the originally composed “Book of Mormon” as conceived by editor/author Mormon. Thus, if Joseph did translate the 116 pages using the Nephite interpreters he was not lying about translating at least a portion of the Book of Mormon with those instruments. It just didn’t make it into the English printing.

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-18 at 5:04 pm

      James,

      When Joseph refers in his narrative to “the Book of Mormon,” his readers will understand him to be referring to the work they know as the Book of Mormon. Yet little or none of that, probably none, was produced using the stone spectacles, according to the eyewitnesses. Being told that he did use them, but only for the part we don’t have, would surely come as a surprise, to put it mildly.

      One must also take into account what Joseph says about the stone spectacles. He asserts that according to Moroni, “the possession and use of these stones [the two stones set in silver rims and attached to the breastplate, deposited with the gold plates] were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book” (JS-H 1:35). Note well what this statement indicates. The stone spectacles were specially “prepared” by God “for the purpose of translating the book,” and what makes a person a seer is having these special, sacred stones that God arranged for Joseph to use. Yet we now know that Joseph didn’t actually use the stone spectacles for most or all of what we call the Book of Mormon. So God specially prepared sacred instruments for this specific purpose, but Joseph chose not to use them? Sometimes we are told that Joseph used his seer stone because the stone spectacles didn’t fit his head or were too heavy. What — God didn’t know what Joseph’s spectacles size would be? God didn’t know they would be too heavy? Keep in mind that Joseph would be the one and only person in history to use the stone spectacles, since he says explicitly that God prepared them for the specific purpose of equipping him to translate the gold plates. It’s not as if Joseph was trying to use someone else’s eyeglasses! Yet for some reason God supposedly prepared spectacles that were too big or heavy or both for Joseph to use. The reader may be forgiven if he finds this information more like a shell game than a straightforward, honest account of what happened.

      Finally, one must take all this information together with the evidence that Joseph tried to cover up the facts about his years of involvement in money-digging using the same seer stone as a divining object that he used to translate most or all of what we know as the Book of Mormon. My argument that Joseph was covering up the facts is a cumulative argument, drawing together with regard to the seer stone these two strands of evidence.

  14. Rob,
    Regarding Joseph Smith’s claim in the 1838 Elders Journal, he noted that with Urim and Thummim received from Moroni “I translated the plates, and thus came the Book of Mormon.” There is indeed very little wiggle room here, it does appear that Joseph unambiguously ascribes the entire translation to the Nephite interpreters, not his seer stone. However, I think that with a little charity we can see that this answer is part of a lengthy series of very curt answers he is giving to questions. He probably could have said it more clearly, but as with his other answers he seems more interested in getting in a quick, impactful response. I’m OK forgiving him for glossing over the mechanics of the translation process.

    I am by no means fully read on this issue (there is a lot to read!), but I do think that not many years after the translation of the Book of Mormon Joseph became a bit embarrassed by his use of the seer stone. He stopped using it altogether fairly quickly. I think he sort of grew up in his mid-twenties and began to recognize some of the quirky and odd aspects of the worldview that he grew up in and participated in. So, I am perfectly fine if he chose to downplay the seer stone. He certainly doesn’t seem to have ever directly and meaningfully contradicted the many, many accounts that circulated of his use of the seer stone. I think a little context and charity makes this gloss more understandable. You may differ, and that is fine.

    Regarding the Urim and Thummim itself, the data suggests that it belonged to several BoM characters (including Mosiah), and that the stones may have been passed down since the days of Jared. Joseph notes that they were created for his use in translation, but we also have him saying elsewhere that they pre-existed his use and were used by others. I think you are forcing the data to require that they be specifically and only designed with Joseph in mind, and I don’t think that is required or warranted.

    He may have tried to use them as “spectacles” but we have no evidence that is how they were intended to be used by their ancient owners. If they didn’t fit his face that might be because they were never meant to fit anyone’s face. The data actually suggests that Joseph used the interpreters much like he did the U&T, by placing it into the crown of his hat. There are multiple and early accounts that indicate this. If the interpreters didn’t fit into his hat very well, one can see why he might switch to using something that more comfortable fit into his hat…his small egg-sized seer stone.

    Long story short, I think that there are equally viable and more charitable ways to contextualize the data.

  15. I obtained a copy of “the Pearl of Great a Price,” from a Mormon missionary in the late 1980s. Since then I read the translation method to them when they come to my house and ask if that (the method you describe in your article) is the method by which we gain our Mormon scriptures? They all agree it is. Then I have them look at the double-checking method Joseph used with his friends and wife and how improbable it would be to have a mistake in translation given this method. They agree. Finally, I show them a catalog of over 4000 changes that have been made to The Book of Mormon since Smith introduced it. Complete with attestations by the LDS describing why they made many of these changes. Point is Smith’s method should not produce one error in the entire Book of Mormon, let alone 4000+. BOM also contains over 17000 words directly quoted from The King James Bible!

    That’s right, the plates written in 1800 years before Joseph Smith interprets them read, not in 1830s American English, or in 33 ACE Koine Greek, or 1st century Hebrew, but instead are comprised of 1611 Arcane English. Including textual errors due to poor scholarship and lack of textual evidence at the time of KJB’s creation. Why would Joseph Smith’s God communicated errors in the 1st century text on the plates that wouldn’t arise until 16 centuries later?

    Why have all the archeological claims in the BOM been falsified? In contrast, secular archeologists have used the Bible as their chief guide to archeological finds for the last century and a half.

  16. Karl,

    Can you clarify what you mean by the “double checking method” that Joseph supposedly used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. That is a new one to me.

    Thanks,
    James

    • Robert Bowman 2015-08-27 at 1:42 pm

      James,

      I believe Karl is referring to the witnesses’ claims that Joseph would dictate the words he saw in the stone, Oliver (or whoever was the scribe) would write down what he heard Joseph say, then the scribe would read back aloud what he had written, and Joseph would listen and make sure what the scribe read aloud matched the words on the stone. Some of the witnesses even claimed that new words would not appear until what the scribe repeated back matched the words in the stone exactly. If this really had been the method, and if it worked as the witnesses claimed, there should have been virtually no verbal mistakes in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

  17. “Regarding Joseph Smith’s claim in the 1838 Elders Journal, he noted that with Urim and Thummim received from Moroni “I translated the plates, and thus came the Book of Mormon.” There is indeed very little wiggle room here, it does appear that Joseph unambiguously ascribes the entire translation to the Nephite interpreters, not his seer stone.”

    The Church itself admits in the BoM translation essay that at least part of the BoM was translated using the seer stone and about 20 eye witness accounts all agree that Joseph translated the BoM we have (post 116 pages) using the seer stone. Most scholars I know lean towards the BoM we have being translated w/ the ser stone in the hat method. And Joseph was less than up front about how he translated the book and about his treasure digging exploits, downplaying them in the Elder’s Journal and essentially denying them in the HoC— so it’s not hard to imagine that he perhaps was less than honest on this.

  18. Robert Bowman,

    I appreciate the time you spent on this article, truly I do. I write this with sincerity and with a respect for the work you do. This is the only article I’ve read of yours thus far, however, I honestly couldn’t make it all the way through. It disturbed me that a man who has your talent to research and effectively present would spend it on details that honestly don’t effect some of the bigger outcomes in life/eternity.

    Living in the “Bible Belt” for the past few years I see so many people claim to believe in God and follow Christ, yet only so many people make an effort to “be perfected in Christ”. So many people claim to have faith yet don’t show it in their works. It has become apparent to me that many people who refer to themselves as disciples of Christ show very little resemblance to Christ. Honestly, I have friends from many different religious backgrounds and some of my friends from different faiths (yes, even Muslims) act more Christlike than many of the Christian people I have encountered. On the contrary, I don’t wish to discount all the hard-working, charitable Christians out there.

    However, I guess what I am trying to say is that I’ve read many of the scriptures including the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and I believe them to be true. However, I know there will be errors because I know that people make mistakes, I don’t kid myself of that. Nevertheless, I truly believe that from these scriptures I am taught to become the best person I can be: good, loving, honest, charitable, hard-working, intelligent and knowledgeable yet humble, trusting and revering God, faithful, patient, etc. etc. The beliefs of God and eternity themselves are also things I believe, but the principles that are taught throughout these scriptures I know to be true because I have lived them. They have made me happier than anything else I’ve experienced or anything else anyone has described to me. They make me feel happy, safe, and of great worth both short-term and long-term more than anything else that I know exists.

    These scriptures teach us these important principles. They teach us to be humble and love others. I agree that we all have the right to express our opinions, but I think there are a number of people that are doing worse things than the Mormons (as individuals and as a community). Actually, I don’t see why so many people hate the Mormons more than the murderers, liars, and cheats of the world. If all the people that actively try to turn others away from any religious denomination (not just the Mormon religion) used their time and energy to actually help and serve themselves and others… Or educate and inspire people to do those good things in general… I know that our world would look like a different place.

    As a fact, I have met many people who strive to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints that have been some of the very best people I know. Those that would sacrifice their time and even their lives for anyone. There is a love, joy, peace, and comfort that I have found in this church and especially in trying to live all the principles of the Gospel. Personally, I would like to share it with everyone I meet to share that joy I feel even if it is only in my smile or example of service and love. I don’t wish to intrude on others lives and their personal beliefs, but I will share my testimony when I have the opportunity and that includes here today.

    What I think that I am trying to express is that I would really like to see you write an article that inspires everyone of any faith, maybe especially those of Christian religion depending on your viewpoint/presentation tools such as the scriptures, to band and work together so we can make this world a better place for all of us to live in. I may be biting my tongue as I haven’t dared to look at your other articles yet as I was so disturbed by the underlying dislike/hate for a religion and people that I personally associate with; however, I’m sure there are several topics that you probably haven’t had time to all cover such as humanitarian work, service and support in the community, relations towards immigrants, etc. I would be interested to see you use your abilities to try to create good rather just dispel fear, hate, or mistrust. Everything good comes from God, such as your talents, and contention is of the devil. I truly believe that. Also, I felt I owed it to both of us and the community to share my beliefs. I look forward to reading your reply.

    Best Regards with Respect,

    Ashley

    P.S. I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to this; however, don’t feel obligated. I’m just happy to have an outlet to express some of my most deeply held beliefs. What I talked about are the real issues I think we should be discussing – a better use of your time and talents to directly influence people to do good rather than try to turn them away from something that you think might be bad for them. Thank you.

    • Robert Bowman 2016-03-22 at 8:14 am

      Ashley,

      Thanks for sharing your feelings and point of view.

      In all sincerity, I do not harbor any hatred or ill will toward members of the LDS Church. I have made quite a few Mormon friends and I like most of the Mormons that I meet. Please do not equate criticism of the religion’s claims with hostility toward the people. It is because I care about Mormons and want the best for them that I engage these kinds of issues. Your suggestion that I (or other Christians) hate Mormons more than murderers and other wicked people is absolutely untrue.

      Wherever you live, you will find that a large number of members of the dominant religion in that culture will be less than ardent or consistently faithful in their practice of that faith. There are a lot of nominal Jews in Israel, nominal Catholics in Spain, nominal Anglicans in England, and nominal Baptists in the American South (the “Bible Belt” as you called it). There are even a fairly high number of nominal Mormons in Utah. One cannot judge a religion by its least committed members. I don’t judge Mormonism that way, and I would suggest that you not judge evangelicalism in that way.

      The things you say about your LDS faith that you appreciate are things that devout evangelicals also pursue, such as being “good, loving, honest, charitable, hard-working, intelligent and knowledgeable yet humble, trusting and revering God, faithful, patient, etc.” Those are all good character qualities and we believe in them and pursue them. It is love for Mormons and a commitment to honesty or truth-telling that motivates me to address such issues as the origins of the Book of Mormon. Here is an article that I wrote that explains why I write about these kinds of subjects. The article does not criticize Mormonism at all; instead, it explains how and why I address the truth claims that the LDS Church makes: http://mit.irr.org/gp-30-31-love-honesty-and-defense-of-faith.

      What you need to understand is that if all that is essential to Mormonism were that it taught its members to be good, loving, honest, charitable, hard-working, and the like, there would be no need for Mormonism at all. Christians were teaching and practicing these values long before Joseph Smith came along, and we have continued to do so. Yes, there have been bad people who claimed to be Christians who treated others with hatred; some so-called Christians have treated Mormons badly. But as you may know, there have been some pretty bad characters in Mormonism’s own history. Again, I don’t judge Mormonism by its worst examples, and I would ask you not to judge traditional Christianity by its worst examples either.

      In any case, Mormonism is about much more than teaching people to be nice to others. It makes specific claims that are either true or false. Either the Book of Mormon is ancient literature produced by Israelite prophets in the Americas or it is not. Either Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in the spring of 1820 or he did not. Either the Book of Abraham is a translation of the text on one of the Egyptian papyri purchased by the LDS Church in 1835 or it is not. These claims must be taken seriously if we are to take the LDS faith seriously. And these claims are all focused in one way or another on Joseph Smith. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

      “Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph Smith was a deceiver, who wilfully attempted to mislead the people, then he should be exposed; his claims should be refuted, and his doctrines shown to be false, for the doctrines of an impostor cannot be made to harmonize in all particulars with divine truth. If his claims and declarations were built upon fraud and deceit, there would appear many errors and contradictions, which would be easy to detect” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:188).

      Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ has a sacred obligation to seek the truth about him. We ought to accept the teachings of true prophets and reject the teachings of false prophets. To do that, we need to be able to tell the difference. In explaining why Joseph Smith is a false prophet, I am not attacking Mormons or hating Mormons; I am speaking the truth in love to them by taking their religious claims seriously. Indeed, I am doing exactly what Joseph Fielding Smith said should be done if Joseph is a false prophet.

      I hope this response helps you to understand a little why it is important for us to think about these kinds of issues. I would encourage you to read the whole article and think about it. I’m not trying to take away from you anything that is good. This is about knowing the truth — about knowing whether what you have been taught is the truth. Ultimately, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by pursuing the truth.

  19. I have heard (read) that Book of Mormon was a product of plagiarizing of someone else’s fiction. Anyway, who has time to spend to read it, unless you are Mormons (bothers of Jesus and of Satan) or researching Mormonism. (I have seen tens of copies at discount book store. (was it a $?).

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