The Friend and a Seer Stone

By February 5, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-05 at 1.40.17 AMSince 1971, The Friend has been the LDS Church’s magazine for children. An article in the September 1974 issue of The Friend detailed that in addition to the Urim and Thummin “Joseph [Smith] also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating [the Book of Mormon] called a seer stone.”[1] After combining and revamping church magazines in 1971, this was the first mention of a seer stone. Three years later, historian Richard Lloyd Anderson published an article on Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon that likewise included mention of Smith’s seer stone usage.[2] This might surprise many Latter-day Saints today as Joseph Smith’s seer stone usage has not always played a role in the devotional narrative of Smith’s life and many might have believed the seer stone to be a part of antagonistic tall tales.

In the official LDS magazines, there was no mention of Smith’s seer stone usage in the 1980s.[3] The 1990s brought three references: one in a timeline of Joseph Smith’s life, one by Russell M. Nelson, and the last by Neal A. Maxwell. Nelson and Maxwell quoted David Whitmer and Martin Harris respectively talking about the Book of Mormon translation. Both accounts detail Smith looking into the seer stone and seeing sentences that he would voice and Oliver Cowdery would transcribe. In contrast, multiple times during those years, there were mentions of Hiram Page’s seer stone in church magazines—always considered in a negative sense as producer of counterfeit revelations.[4] After 1997, there was not another mention in church magazines for almost twenty years.

In August of 2015, the LDS Church History Department held a press conference for the new volume of the Joseph Smith Papers—volume 3 of the Revelations and Translation series. That day the main attraction was two pages of glossy high-resolution photographs of Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone. Prior to the photographs, the Gospel Topics essay on the “Book of Mormon Translation” including a more detailed account of Smith’s use of the seer stone in the translation was published on lds.org though little publicized.

Almost immediately after the press conference, the work of the Church History Department to re-enter seer stones into the devotional narrative of the Restoration became evident. The fall 2015 finish of a new LDS Historic Site at Harmony, Pennsylvania included the rebuilt home of Joseph and Emma. The kitchen table includes a hat (in which to place the seer stone) near covered plates and Book of Mormon manuscript pages just waiting for Joseph to pick up the translation again. That October the seer stone photographs were likewise published in both the Ensign and the worldwide Liahona in an article titled “Joseph the Seer.” The 2016 opening of the new central exhibit of the LDS Museum of Church History tells the narrative of the Restoration and features the seer stone photographs prominently. In the last few months, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released additional images of the brown seer stone online.

Screen Shot 2017-02-04 at 12.10.28 AMThis month, the February 2017 issue of The Friend, the official LDS children’s magazine, includes a game—“From Gold Plates to Book of Mormon.” One of the steps in the game recognizes Joseph’s primary use of the seer stone in translation. Though not the first time, within this context entrance into the children’s magazine would seem to denote entry into the general devotional narrative of LDS origins. If this continues, we will witness a sea change in how Latter-day Saints talk about their history. Most Gospel Doctrine classes talked about the Book of Mormon in the last couple of weeks, did they use the gospel topics essay on Book of Mormon translation? Did they mention or avoid seer stones? Has talking about seer stones normalized? Has the sea change already happened? Will it still ebb and flow?

 

 

__________________________________

[1] “A Peaceful Heart,” The Friend, (Sept. 1974).

[2] Richard Lloyd Anderson, “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign (Sept. 1977).

[3] The only other addition here is a negated rumor about an Alvin Smith seer stone after Mark Hoffman’s document forgeries. Richard L. Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign (Aug. 1987).

[4] Though I have not completed an exhaustive search of manuals during the same period, seer stone references are absent unless referencing the non-authorized revelatory stone of Hiram Page.

 

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Wow. I hadn’t seen or heard about the latest issue of The Friend. This is really interesting.

    Comment by Christopher — February 5, 2017 @ 9:26 am

  2. I had no idea, either. Very interesting, JJ.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 5, 2017 @ 11:02 am

  3. Not an avid Friend reader, I came across it as I was looking for something else. I’m fascinated.

    Also David Grua noted that the museum opened conference weekend 2015, I have corrected the text to reflect that. I had not realized just how coordinated the roll-out was…

    Comment by JJohnson — February 5, 2017 @ 11:56 am

  4. Good stuff. Very interesting that they’re choosing to integrate this into the children’s curriculum so much, which I think is a great idea.

    Comment by Ben S — February 5, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

  5. My sense is that at this point it has become pretty normalized.

    Putting things like this in the Friend should be a no-brainer. If we’re matter of fact about it from the beginning rather than modeling a freak-out over it our children will grow up thinking it’s no big deal.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 5, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

  6. Briefly mentioned seer stone and Urim and Thummim in our lesson on Book of Mormon translation. Dicussion seems normalized, and no need to spend more time than on the plates themselves.

    Comment by Devan Jensen — February 5, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

  7. In 1971 my wife Valerie, then a student at Rick’s college, became interested in the subject of seer stones after a discussion in religion class. Later she came to SLC to attend General Conference. While there she visited the Church Historians office to ask about the seer stone in their possession.

    Upon being told of her inquiry, Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then the Church Historians, offered to show her the stone. To her later regret she declined, worried about missing her ride home.

    I mention this to point out that at least that long ago the stone was both available and a topic of discussion.

    Bill Cobabe, Rexburg, Idaho

    Comment by Bill Cobabe Jr. — February 6, 2017 @ 7:42 am

  8. I don’t think it was ever really controversial. What happened was the big growth of the Church in the 70’s onward. I don’t know off the top of my head what percentage of active members are converts or 2cd generation. I bet it’s well above half and maybe up near 70% despite the large number of members in the Mormon corridor with older roots.

    For those people (and presumably many with stronger roots not exposed to the ideas during that era) it’s a bit more of a shock as are many other things probably more familiar to members in the 40’s or 50’s. (Who may have even had old polygamists in their communities while children)

    Comment by Clark — February 6, 2017 @ 10:40 am

  9. I gave a talk last week and I mentioned the seer stone in the hat as part of the translation process. Guess what? No one mentioned it or asked me about it afterward. Seems everyone knew about it. Funny that!

    Comment by Marvin Radding — February 7, 2017 @ 10:22 am


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