Coming to the October Ensign: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stone

By August 4, 2015

Wanna know what Joseph Smith’s seer stone looks like? BEHOLD:

seer-stone-joseph-smith-ensign-liahona-october-2015_1512979_inl

Picture of Joseph Smith’s seer stone, found in “Joseph The Seer,” https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer?lang=eng.

Minutes ago, coinciding with a Joseph Smith Papers Project press conference announcing the publication of Revelations and Translations Volume 3, Parts 1 & 2, the Church’s website for their flagship magazine, The Ensign, posted an essay that will appear in the October issue. This essay, titled “Joseph The Seer,” was written by Richard Turley, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and our very own Robin Jensen. It discusses the translation of the Book of Mormon and gives a very candid and frank account of Joseph Smith’s usage of a seer stone. It also includes the picture above.

So, this is probably a big deal. Again, you can read the essay here. I’ll update with quotes an other relevant information as it becomes available.

UPDATE:

Here are a few choice quotes from the essay, which I again encourage everyone to read:

“Seeing” and “seers” were part of the American and family culture in which Joseph Smith grew up. Steeped in the language of the Bible and a mixture of Anglo-European cultures brought over by immigrants to North America, some people in the early 19th century believed it was possible for gifted individuals to “see,” or receive spiritual manifestations, through material objects such as seer stones.

The young Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects. Since the biblical narrative showed God using physical objects to focus people’s faith or communicate spiritually in ancient times, Joseph and others assumed the same for their day. Joseph’s parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, affirmed the family’s immersion in this culture and their use of physical objects in this way, and the villagers of Palmyra and Manchester, New York, where the Smiths lived, sought out Joseph to find lost objects before he moved to Pennsylvania in late 1827.

And:

In later years, as Joseph told his remarkable story, he emphasized his visions and other spiritual experiences. Some of his former associates focused on his early use of seer stones in an effort to destroy his reputation in a world that increasingly rejected such practices. In their proselyting efforts, Joseph and other early members chose not to focus on the influence of folk culture, as many prospective converts were experiencing a transformation in how they understood religion in the Age of Reason. In what became canonized revelations, however, Joseph continued to teach that seer stones and other seeric devices, as well as the ability to work with them, were important and sacred gifts from God.

And:

In fact, historical evidence shows that in addition to the two seer stones known as “interpreters,” Joseph Smith used at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light. According to Joseph’s contemporaries, he did this in order to better view the words on the stone.

By 1833, Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including both the Nephite interpreters and the single seer stone. This imprecise terminology has complicated attempts to reconstruct the exact method by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. In addition to using the interpreters, according to Martin Harris, Joseph also used one of his seer stones for convenience during the Book of Mormon translation. Other sources corroborate Joseph’s changing translation instruments.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. This is really cool. Seeing the stone in particular feels somehow momentous. But I’m probably making too big a deal of it.

    My one question (for now) is why the Ensign article concludes with 4 different artistic views of the translation process, but none of those views reflect the stone and hat. Anthony Sweat has recently created just such artwork. See
    http://blog.fairmormon.org/2015/04/30/artwork-of-joseph-smith-translating-the-book-of-mormon/

    Comment by Dave k — August 4, 2015 @ 11:28 am

  2. I wonder if this article will raise the visibility of the “Seer” component of the “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” title that LDS apostles embrace. Perhaps lead some Mormons to suggest current LDS apostles look into seer stones and report what they see. What’s the point of being a Seer if you never look?

    Comment by Dave — August 4, 2015 @ 11:33 am

  3. Thank you, Ben. This is really interesting. I’m curious how the Smith Papers obtained permission to photograph the seer stone, since it’s been in the church’s possession for some time. Regardless, we are in their debt.

    Comment by John Hatch — August 4, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

  4. This is really great, and the Church History Dept. is to be commended.

    I thought that there was reasonable evidence JS used the seer stones as late as Nauvoo. I also think that the sentence, “Brigham’s statement expressed his understanding that seer stones were not essential to being a seer,” is a bit of a stretch. I think a more accurate commentary would have read that BY understood that seer stones were not essential to receive revelation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

  5. Very nice to see this. I noticed there is still no mention of magic or treasure seeking, only folk culture. I believe this is the case with other materials produced by the church as well as the recent Deseret Book title “From Darkness unto Light” by Church historians. This is apparently something they’re not quite ready to discuss.

    Comment by Clair Barrus — August 4, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

  6. Clair, to be honest, I wouldn’t use the term “magic” if I wrote the article either. Religious Studies scholars have really challenged and complicated the utility of the term “magic” in the study of religion. I also think that for a short essay, the conflation of treasure with “lost objects” is reasonable.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

  7. Since this is the topic of the day, does anyone know which seer stone/stones/other artifact Lucy Mack Smith would have shown Jane Manning James in Nauvoo?

    Comment by Amy T — August 4, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

  8. Very cool. Wonder if the stones will be displayed some day.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 4, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

  9. @J. Stapley

    I think the Brigham Young quote isn’t a “stretch” (my opinion). Seer stones are not necessary to the functioning of seers, although seers are entitled to access of a seer stone, if needed. This is all complicated by the overlap between “prophet”, “seer”, and “revelator”. Can a seer function only when using a seer stone? That would be an interesting discussion. I’m of the opinion that no, a seer does not need a seer stone to act in the role of seer. That’s what this article and other ones about the translation process demonstrate so nicely – that there was a progression to Joseph Smith’s abilities. This is generally true for all of us. One well-known example from church history (if the record is true) is when Joseph and Sidney Rigdon experienced “the vision”; Sidney was tired afterwards. Joseph’s reported comment: “Well, Brother Sidney is not as used to it as I am.” (Juvenile Instructor, vol. 27 [May 15, 1892], pp. 303–4.)

    What I’m getting at is just what what written in the article – a stone might have been necessary at first but with experience, it was no longer necessary. So at some point, a seer stone is no longer necessary for a person to function as a seer. The question remains if some sort of stone is needed initially (currently) or if seer stones are artifacts of history and no longer needed at all in modern life (at least in mortal life). But this really doesn’t matter, as intriguing as it is.

    Comment by Jared T — August 4, 2015 @ 1:33 pm

  10. Claire, I’m not sure it’s that they don’t want to discuss it just that the term “magic” has so many connotations that it’s perhaps unhelpful. If anything I think it tends to distort the range of phenomena it’s applied to – often obscuring differences the practitioners themselves saw. Folk tradition is a less pejorative term, especially within the mind of casual readers.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

  11. Jared, I wonder if with Brigham Young there wasn’t also the issue of the centralizing of authority against what were seen as competing charismatic practitioners who sometimes appealed to seer stones as the source of their visions. It’s been a while since I looked into that but I recall Brigham trying rather significantly to reign in the use of seer stones.

    If he’s trying to stop their no ecclesiastical use saying he used one would potentially be counterproductive. Further, as the article noted, even Joseph moved away from their use. So I suspect it makes sense to say they are non-essential.

    It’s an interesting question since arguably (without getting specific) there’s still a ritual use of a “virtual seerstone” in key LDS ordinances.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

  12. John, is this a new photo? I could have sworn I’d seen that photo before.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

  13. Amy, I don’t think that there is any evidence one way or another which stone/stones Jane MJ saw, or others like WW, who also saw one/them in Nauvoo.

    Clark my understanding is that these are very recent photos and this is their public debut.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2015 @ 2:00 pm

  14. Were there any other photos? I know most of the common photos are of other seerstones such as the Whitmer one B. H. Roberts published, or the Belcher-Smith-Dibble stone that I think was recently sold to private hands. But I could swear I’d seen a black and white photo pretty similar to the one above. Of course it could be my memory playing tricks on me.

    BTW Claire, the LDS article of the Book of Mormon Translation does mention treasure hunting. I don’t know when that was added to the website. I don’t think it’s new.

    Quoting from that article

    The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” 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. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

  15. There are other photos included in R3, but I don’t believe that previous photos of this stone are extant.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

  16. ” is this a new photo? I could have sworn I’d seen that photo before.”—Clark

    You’re wondering, Clark, if you saw beforehand this just-released photo of a seer stone?

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 4, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

  17. Doesn’t the Church allegedly have one or two other seer stones in its possession? Are they all portrayed in the new volume, or just this one (which I understand to be the Chase stone)?

    Comment by JimD — August 4, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

  18. “By 1833, Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including both the Nephite interpreters and the single seer stone.”

    Isn’t this historical revisionism of the first order? What textual evidence is there that the seer stone pcitured was referred to as “Urim and Thummim” separately to the object with that name recovered with the gold plates?

    Comment by Peter O — August 4, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

  19. Peter, lots of evidence.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 4, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

  20. I am curious why this is just coming forward now when the church had the stone in its possession for a very long time.

    Comment by John — August 4, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

  21. J Stapley,

    Let’s have it then!

    🙂

    Comment by Peter O — August 4, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

  22. Thanks for looking that up Clark. The earlier use of the stone deserves more airplay, IMO.

    I need to think about whether “magic” could be replaced by a better term. I think “folk tradition” misses the supernatural expectations.

    Comment by Clair Barrus — August 4, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

  23. Thanks Ben for posting the news and excerpts from the essay. Huge kudos go to Richard, Mark, and Robin. More historic progress with this publication of BoM manuscripts and photos of the seer stone. Quite a journey from the Tanners’ expose of seer stones in the 1960s, to Mike Quinn’s treatment of folk magic and seer stones in 1987’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, to LDS Hist. Dept. discussion of BoM manuscripts and seer stones in 2015 — at the Boise conf., in the Joseph Smith Papers publications, and in the Oct. Ensign. Unknown aspects of LDS history continue to be excavated for the public, as information evolves from the cognoscenti to the critical mass.

    Comment by Maxine H. — August 4, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

  24. So cool. I bet that sucker would skip across a lake pretty well.

    Comment by Jeff T — August 4, 2015 @ 5:17 pm

  25. Great write-up, Ben. One thing I’m unclear on: Does the Church own two or three seer stones?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 4, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

  26. John (16) I had thought I’d seen a B&W photo of this particular seer stone as opposed to the oft seen photos of the three other main seer stones that get discussed. Apparently my memory is betraying me though if photos haven’t been displayed before.

    Jim (17) At least one of the stones attributed to Joseph’s ownership is in private hands. Doing a google it looks like it was last sold in 1993. The purchaser isn’t mentioned and might have been the Church through an intermediary. But I’ve not heard that. The Whitmer seerstone is also in private hands and is oft shown with its distinct holes.

    Quinn claims in Magic World View that the Church has three seer stones although I don’t know the providence of the other two (unless the two mentioned above are actually owned in secret by the Church).

    For a certain period I think seer stones were fairly common until there was a centralization of authority. I don’t have my copy handy but I think there’s a paper in Women and Authority that goes through the use of the stones as a kind of non-hierarchal revelation people relied upon that Brigham Young saw as a threat. (That’s a fairly old paper – I don’t know if people have critiqued any of it’s arguments)

    John (20) as I understand it the seer stone was kept in the church vault along with some other key items and documents – many of which are considered extremely sacred and that will probably never be open to the public (like temple texts). Although who knows. As I had alluded I thought there were some photos of many of the items there in B&W that passed around informally at BYU in the 90’s but my memory might just be wrong in terms of what I’d seen. Honestly I’m a little surprised the Church did publish color photos like this. Although honestly if they show color pictures of the Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake City temple I guess this isn’t more sacred than that.

    Clair (22) I think the problem is that there’s just an inherent tension between magic and religion. It’s all supernatural from a certain perspective I guess (without getting into the underlying philosophical issues – I’m fine with angels but reject the category of the supernatural ala Hume). But look at the New Testament where Christ uses contemporary magic acts for some miracle narratives. It’s very blurry. Often the divide is made between magic as kind of technological/engineering while religion is beseeching some supernatural entity. But even that breaks down since both European and near eastern traditions often are invoking supernatural beings in various ways.

    It’s fine if you contextualize everything in a book drawing upon carefully crafted categories already established in the field. However even then things can go horribly awry as we saw with magic as a category in Quinn’s Magic World View. Personally I just think it’s best to describe the rituals, objects and beliefs without trying to draw it under an often distorting broad grand category. But that might just be the post-structuralist in me coming out. I tend to find latent structuralist projects underlying a lot of categories that end up being more distortive than helpful.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

  27. Oh, I didn’t mention it but the fourth oft mentioned seer stone is the Bidamon Seer Stone that I think some claim to be the stone he used for translation rather than the one the Church just released pictures of. It’s owned by the Wildord Wood Museum in Bountiful. Unfortunately there aren’t great public pictures of it. This is the best I could find. It’s providence is that Emma had it who gave it to relatives of her 2cd husband (thus Bidamon Seer Stone) I’m not sure how it ended up in that museum.

    There’s also an other Whitmer seer stone with photos from I think around 1911. I’m not sure where that stone is, although the photos is in the LDS archives so maybe that’s one of the stones Quinn said the Church had.

    You’d expect given many claimed to use seer stones that there would be more family heirlooms that were seer stones. Maybe the BYU folk tale collection has some of these or at least photos. But it’s not something you encounter much, although of course it’s not hard to find non-Mormon connected seer stones from various folk and esoteric traditions. There were several other contemporaries of Joseph in his area in the 1820’s with seer stones including Sally Chase, Samuel Lawrence and others. Joseph’s green seer stone (which I don’t think has ever been found – although some tie it to that one in private collection that’s yellowish) came from Jack Belcher. Both Quinn and Brooke go through some of these in their books.

    And of course one of the early competitions to Joseph’s authority comes from Hiram Page using a seer stone. I don’t think that stone is in any known collection.

    I did a quick google and apparently Quinn’s claim of three stones in the Church vault comes from Mary Brown Firmage in 1982. She claims she was told by the First Presidency’s secretary that there were three seerstones in the vault and she was allowed to see the brown one in the OP. This was in an interview with Richard Van Wagoner, 11 Aug 1986.

    Comment by Clark — August 4, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

  28. Fascinating pic of Joseph’s seer stone! I was however disappointed that the article never addressed the question of where Joseph acquired the seer stone and how he used it prior to the Book of Mormon translation. It briefly mentions that neighbors “sought out Joseph to find lost objects,” but that seems pretty vague. I also feel it was a little unfair to excuse any misconceptions about the translation process on a particular artist’s “own views, research, and imagination.” If any of those paintings were ever used in official publications of the Church (the Ensign, Institute manuals, etc.) then they need to take partial responsibility for these misconceptions. Just my opinion anyway.

    Comment by Tai — August 4, 2015 @ 11:43 pm

  29. I had thought the photo was in Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, but in looking at my revised edition (1998) he had photos of the “green stone” and the “sandy colored stone” not the one in the photos here. I can’t put my hands on my original 1984 edition, but they are likely the same. Perhaps Gary Bergera (who had a large hand in bringing us both books) could enlighten us more.

    Comment by Terry H — August 5, 2015 @ 8:41 am

  30. Whoops. 1987 edition, not 1984.

    Comment by Terry H — August 5, 2015 @ 8:42 am

  31. Terry, I’m at work and don’t have my copy with me (I’ll check when I get home) but did Quinn say who had the green stone? I thought it was lost for some reason and didn’t recall Quinn even had a picture.

    Comment by Clark — August 5, 2015 @ 10:07 am

  32. Terry @29. I don’t think photographs of any of the Church’s seer stones have ever been published before, which makes yesterday’s news all the more newsworthy.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 5, 2015 @ 10:17 am

  33. […] Gary Bergera: Coming to the October […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 20 Questions to Ask a Seer Stone and its Pouch — August 5, 2015 @ 2:40 pm

  34. So…the FP is rumored to have three seerstones in it’s possession. Here’s my summary, if I’m counting correctly

    1) This rock (from the OP) is the Chase seer stone, found at the bottom of a well in the 1820s, and owned by the Church.

    2) The Dibble/Belcher seerstone, which was apparently donated to the Church a few years back. (See http://www.rickgrunder.com/HistoricalArchive/belchersmithdibble.htm and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-R47M3tTZQ at about 3:00 mark)

    3)The original Urim and Thummin “in silver bows” buried with the plates, and possibly the same as those referred to in Mosiah. No photos of this one (I’m holding out for next year’s issue with a photo of the sword of Laban)

    In addition to these, there are a few others extant, including the

    4) Brigham Young seerstone, on display at the DUP museum,

    5) The Whitmer seerstone (green with the two holes)

    6) The Edwin Rushton seerstone (visible in the video linked above). If Rushton sounds familiar, he’s the source of the White Horse prophecy.

    Any other known seerstones of reputable provenance out there?

    Someone more knowledgeable and credentialed than me should compare seer stones with the Stone of Scone.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 5, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

  35. Correction: I’ve seen two photos of the Whitmer stone. One is wider at the ends than the middle (like a bowtie) the other is almond shaped. Which is real?

    Also, JFS (jr.) claims the original Urim and Thummim (#2 above) was returned with the plates, so if there’s a third in the FP vaul it’s a mystery.

    In addition, there’s a seventh seerstone mentioned in this comment thread:

    7) The Bidemon stone that looks like a flying saucer full of holes, currently in the Wilford Wood museum.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 5, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

  36. Thanks Ben. Nice summary. Hopefully, the stone will be on display at some point.

    Comment by WVS — August 5, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

  37. […] release of the photos of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as well as the pouch made by Emma Smith that protected it, illustrates the sheer viscerality of […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor | 20 Questions to Ask a Seer Stone and its Pouch — August 6, 2015 @ 9:36 am

  38. Sorry for being late to this thread. Was fishing in Canada last week (and it’s a shame there aren’t seer stones for finding fish).

    One thing I haven’t seen is any discussion of the stone/rock itself. Did those who used seer stones typically shape and polish them? This doesn’t look like something one would find in the ground as currently pictured. And what sort of stone is it? The striations are beautiful. Are there other (non-Mormon) seer stones that look like this one? Or is it pretty distinctive?

    Comment by John Turner — August 10, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

  39. Other Clark, I think there are two separate Whitmer stones. One is the son’s and the other the fathers. I’ll see if later I can find a quote to that. While they are similar (and oddly much closer to Dee’s original seer stone than any of Joseph’s) there definitely are distinguishable as you note.

    I think one of the other ones that *may* be in the vault is the green one that is sometimes mentioned. No idea on the third unless it’s one of the Whitmer ones.

    Is there a Brigham Young seerstone? I know there were a few quotes of Young saying he didn’t have one and didn’t see the need for one. Anyone know when he obtained this? Was it part of a ritual or something he did himself. Very curious on this one.

    I think there are a few others. I’ve heard of a few family heirlooms that have been passed around families. (Not mine) Don’t know if any have been donated to BYU or other historical sites. I’d imagine they’d only care if it belonged to someone famous.

    John (38) I think it depended upon the person. Some clearly were polished and shaped. Others were likely more naturally shaped. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of consistency to them from what I can see.

    Comment by Clark — August 10, 2015 @ 8:54 pm

  40. […] volumes. When R3 was released, photographs of Joseph Smith’s seer stone dominated attention here on the blog. This guest post sheds light on the history of the printer’s manuscript by […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Guest Post: 1923 Photographs of the Book of Mormon Printer’s Manuscript — August 28, 2015 @ 11:04 am


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