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?
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.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.
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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.
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.