“If Any of You Lack Wisdom”: Seer Stones and John Dee’s and Joseph Smith’s Religious Quests

By August 9, 2015

A number of scholars have argued for a connection between Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the commencement of his treasure-digging activities, a trend nicely summarized by Mark Ashurst-McGee in his seminal work on Joseph Smith’s seer stones:

When Joseph went to the grove he was not just wavering between Presbyterianism and Methodism, but between organized religion and folk magic. Should he join one particular denomination or were they all wrong together? Should he convert to Evangelicalism or obtain his seer stone? “Go thy way,” the Lord told him, and rejected the churches of the day in part because, as he told Joseph, they taught “the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.” As historian Marvin Hill notes, the power and gifts of God were not denied by the treasure seers and diggers and other practitioners of folk magic. Richard Bushman explains that the First Vision would have driven Joseph away from the organized churches in his mother’s social orbit toward the treasuring-seeking culture of his father.

Ashusrt-McGee goes so far as to ask, “Did Jesus instruct Joseph to obtain a stone?”[1]

Interestingly, as Bushman argues that the First Vision moved Smith away from his mother’s religiosity to his father’s, neighbors who knew Joseph Sr. in Vermont claimed that it was Joseph Sr.’s idea to find his son a seer stone. In a letter addressed to Joseph Smith in 1844, the Vermont Green Mountain Boys declared, “[Y]ou ought to have given [Joseph Sr.’s] full history for you was old enough when you left here to remember a great many things about him and how he used to tel[l] about your being born with a veil over your face, and that he intended to procure a stone for you to see all over the world with.”[2]

As I discussed in this post, Joseph Jr. had a number of traits that would have potentially made him a seer in Euro-American folk culture: born near Christmas, born the third son, and, according to the Green Mountain Boys, born with the veil or caul. Yet Smith did not procure this stone until after his vision pushed him towards his father’s religiosity.

Piecing together the nature of Joseph Sr.’s religiosity is challenging, but it included things like Universalism, supernaturalism, dreams, treasure digging, and a handful of parchments that contained supernatural diagrams called lamens.

Michael Quinn demonstrated that the Smiths’ lamens drew upon diagrams found in certain grimoires, or magic books, and many Mormon ideas can be found in such books, including Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, the spurious Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy (which Agrippa didn’t write but was attributed to him) and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.[3]

Another book that was used as a grimoire not only had numerous Mormon ideas but also described similar uses for seer stones: John Dee’s spirit diary that was published by Meric Casaubon as A True and Faithful Religion of What Passed between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits (1659). Similarities found in A True and Faithful Relation include using a seer stone to understand an unknown language (in Dee’s case, the Enochian language), focusing on Enoch, and being commanded by angels to engage in shared marriages. The fact that Joseph Sr.’s dreams that Lucy related had a number of similarities with visions recorded in A True and Faithful Relation, suggests Joseph Sr. himself may have been influenced by that text.[4] If so, perhaps Joseph Sr.’s desire to find his son a seer stone was also influenced by Dee.

Dee picture

Casaubon published Dee’s diaries to discredit him and to present him as a Faustian figure whose excessive desire to know hidden things led him to be deceived by evil spirits. (A True and Faithful Relation consists mostly of angelic conversations that Dee’s scryer, Edward Kelley had while using Dee’s seer stone). Not surprisingly, Dee described his quest differently than did Casaubon. In A True and Faithful Relation, Dee told the Holy Roman Emperor, “All my life time I had spent in learning … and I found (at length) that neither any man living, nor any Book I could yet meet withal, was able to teach me truths I desired and long for: And therefore I concluded with my self, to make intercession and prayer to the giver of wisdom and all good things, to send me such wisdom, as I might know the natures of his creature. And also enjoy means to use them to his honour and glory.”[5] In another journal that Casaubon did not publish, Dee referred to “What good Counsell the Apostle James giveth, saying, Si quis vestrum careat sapientia, postulat a Deo, &c”; that is, “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God.”[6]

For Dee, this meant turning to scrying in order to speak with angels, and Smith’s own religious quest, inspired by the same scripture, pointed him in a similar direction.

[1] Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” MA Thesis, Utah State University 2000, 219, 223.

[2] Green Mountain Boys to Thomas Sharp, February 15, 1844, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:597.

[3] Quinn, Magic World View, 104-14.

[4] Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism” (PhD Diss. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014), 123-25.

[5] John Dee, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits , ed. Meric Casaubon (London, 1659), 231.

[6] Quoted in Stephen Clucas, “John Dee?s Angelic Conversations and the Ars Notoria : Renaissance Magic and Medieval Theurgy,” in John Dee Interdisciplinary Studies In English Renaissance Thought, ed. Stephen Clucas (Springer Dordrecht: The Netherlands, 2010), 248.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for this, Steve. Very helpful!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 9, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

  2. Thanks, Steve, for this brief overview of the suddenly mainstream mystical Joseph. Perhaps bishops should now be buying copies of Quinn and Brooke for their ward libraries.

    Comment by Dave — August 9, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

  3. Really interesting stuff, Steve. Thanks.

    Dave, I’ve found your comments surprisingly bizarre in the wake of the seer stone announcement. Can you help explain them to me a bit more? Do you believe the church owning its most mystical past necessitates it embracing it as a model moving forward, or are you advocating such? Or are you just being snarky?

    Comment by Christopher — August 9, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

  4. Thanks guys.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 9, 2015 @ 11:21 pm

  5. Good stuff Steve. There’s so much fascinating about Dee, although I think we should note that it’s just one influence among many. (You noted this with your mention of his mother and her Methodism, but also universalism and much more) What’s weird that I think I mentioned in the other thread is that Dee’s seer “stone” (it as flat and more like a mirror) came from the Aztecs. Weird American connection there and I wonder if Joseph was aware of that.

    Dave, I don’t think those books would be good for Mormons in the least. Also while both have very valuable sections both also have sections that one has to be less charitable towards. I do think that a good populist book summarizing a lot of these things for a more casual yet faithful audience would be quite valuable though.

    Comment by Clark Goble — August 10, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  6. Yes, thanks for the link to Dee’s seer stone that you linked to on the other post. In terms of how it was described, most sources repeated what Dee said: that he got it from the angels (not surprisingly, most of the sources said this was nonsense). So that’s probably what JS would have heard.

    And yes, many influences, I try to list a lot in the dissertation, but I also argue that Dee may have been one as well.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 10, 2015 @ 9:55 am

  7. […] 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 focusing on the […]

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