New York, 1820s—Because my initial exposure to Mormonism wasn’t through Church-approved material, it led to some awkward moments when I was LDS. Like when I mentioned to investigators that the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon left the Church but never denied their testimonies. What better proof that the book is divine can you get? But no one was impressed with me. At least my own independent research showed and still shows ‘anti-Mormons’ that I wasn’t the gullible, uninformed or unquestioning kind they want to portray us as.
2—How it all began: teenagers looking for religion.
7—‘Mormon History—Revisited’: A boy called Joseph Smith and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. An unorthodox but respectful approach to the genesis of the Mormon religion.
I still love digging for Mormon doctrine and history. Let me go to an ‘old and rare books’ store in Utah and I can stay there for hours. That’s why I’ve started peppering this personal blog with my take on some crucial Mormon episodes. The first one was the First Vision—an event that cannot be put back in time with certainty. ¹ So, here’s the official beginning of Mormonism—the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
Whenever I watched an episode of Deadwood, the HBO series set on the American frontier, I dreamed about a similar non-Mormon quality series about early Mormonism that would feel real. The opening credits would feature folk music and the first scene would show men digging— a young man by their side using a ‘peep stone’ to help them find a treasure.
When Joseph Smith was 19, back in 1825, he started working at Josiah Stowel’s farm in Bainbridge, New York, where he also went to school. Stowel asked Joseph—whose reputation as a money-digger was established—to help him locate treasures. One night, Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, their father and Josiah Stowel were among the men digging where Joseph indicated. When something hit a plank five feet deep, Joseph looked into his hat and said a treasure had been buried there by Indians. But the men didn’t find it. The stone didn’t always work: “the enchantment was too strong.” ²
One year later, Joseph was arrested for being a ‘disorderly person and an imposter.’ The trial was brought about by the children of Stowel, worried their wealthy father was being duped. 20 year-old Joseph said he’d been a ‘glass-looker’ since 1823, when he started using a ‘seer stone’ he’d found while digging a well. The said stone was exhibited in court. Stowel and the other men swore Joseph’s gift was real but he was found guilty.
Whenever I watched Deadwood, the HBO series set on the American frontier, I dreamed about a similar non-Mormon quality series about early Mormonism
Meanwhile, Joseph had become acquainted with Emma Hale while boarding at her father’s house with his own father and other ‘money-diggers’. Mr. Hale didn’t approve of Joseph’s activities (and thought he was too young for his daughter). The couple eloped and got married.
On the night of September 22, 1827, Joseph and his new wife rode to the place were he said he found the golden plates that would become the Book of Mormon. Emma prayed while Joseph used his ‘seer stone’ and found where the plates were concealed.
Affidavits (signed by anti-Mormons in the 1830s) claim that Joseph’s father said his son had a visitation from a spirit who told him about a place where was “a record on plates of gold.” He said that “if it had not been for the stone, he would not have obtained the book.”
Money diggers rules meant the band of men had as much right to those plates but Joseph said he hid them “in an old black oak tree top which was hollow.” A heavenly messenger told him to part ways with those men and to mend his life. He informed in father-in-law that he was giving it up.
Emma’s father knew the couple had brought a book of plates with them—supposedly a sacred record of the ancient inhabitants of the land, and Joseph set about to translate the plates, using the stone in his hat.
David Whitmer—one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon—said Joseph would put his face into his hat (where he had put the stone) and “in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.” The writing would appear.
Emma said her husband would spend hours with his head in his hat, dictating. The spiritual light would shine and he would see the words.
Martin Harris—another witness of the Book of Mormon—explained in 1858—after he parted way with Joseph and the Mormons—that he once lost a pin in the hay and Joseph put the stone in “his old white hat,” closed it over his face, and stretched his hand to pick the pin. Harris also wrote that he once substituted the stone to trick Joseph who was then unable to translate.
Isn’t it strange that the modern LDS Church never mentions ‘seer stones’ and that LDS art portrays Joseph leaning over the plates on his desk, translating them like a scholar would?
George Q. Cannon (from the First Presidency), LDS historian B. H. Roberts (from the Seventies) and LDS Apostle John Widstoe, all accepted that the stone found in the well qualified as the biblical Urim and Thummim through which “Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.” ³
But times have changed. In the 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use seer stones to find things, see things or receive revelations. Fortune telling was even relied upon by some churches. However, the authorities of the Church started to warn the Saints as early as the 1840s that the Devil could speak through peep stones. Today, such practices do not seem ‘Christian’ and anti-Mormons accuse Joseph of ‘witchcraft.’
The use of the seer stone never troubled me. In France, country folks used olive tree rods to locate sources and dig wells. Besides, before I converted to Mormonism I used a Tarot deck and tried using a Oui-Ja board. Never did I turn to Satan or the ‘dark side.’ More modern and sophisticated Christians will appreciate that both the Old and the New Testament describe some strange practices too.
In any cases, Emma and Joseph’s mother wrote that the plates were wrapped in a cloth, on the table, when Joseph was dictating, and Martin Harris said he could even translate when they were hidden in the woods. Emma said her husband would spend hours with his head in his hat, dictating. The spiritual light would shine and he would see the words.
The translation lasted 2 and a half years. Finally, the Book of Mormon was printed and made available to the public on March 26, 1830.
Joseph later said that, although he retrieved the plates in 1827, he knew about them since September 21, 1823. He said a heavenly messenger—the ancient prophet Moroni—appeared to him and helped him located them. He said he saw a stone box which was partly visible without digging, “obtained a lever” and with effort managed to raise it.
When Joseph tried to take the plates he received a shock, then another. “Why cannot I take this book?” The angel who had given him directions told him it was because he hadn’t kept the commandments of the Lord. (Times and Seasons, Vol. 2, pp. 392-3). Was the ‘money digger’ tempted to sell the gold? The messenger said Joseph wasn’t ready, so he waited until 1827 to retrieve and translate them.
The actual plates were never seen again. Joseph said the heavenly messenger took them back—and anti-Mormons still have a field day with that one!
As for the stone, it was brought to Utah by 1856. The Millennial Star (official publication of the Church) said that it was oval and of a chocolate colour. Eye witnesses said it was also smaller than a hen egg and with some layers of colours. in 1888, President Wilford Woodruff consecrated the stone upon the altar at the Manti temple. It is still in possession of the Church.
² This account and all the quotations in this post are taken from numerous original sources quoted in Mormonism, Shadow or Reality? 5th Edition, pp. 32-49D, unless otherwise stated.
³ George Q. Cannon stated: “One of Joseph’s aids in searching out the truths of the record was a peculiar pebble or rock which he called a seer stone, and which was sometimes used by him in lieu of the Urim and Thummim. This stone had been discovered… at the bottom of a well; and under divine guidance they had brought it forth for use in the work of translation.” (Life of Joseph Smith, George Q. Cannon, page 56). LDS historian B. H. Roberts accepted that the stone found in the well qualified as the biblical Urim and Thummim through which “Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.” LDS Apostle John Widstoe said: “This was a stone found while the prophet assisted in digging a well… By divine power that stone was made serviceable to Joseph Smith in the early years of his ministry.” Some have said that the old tools called Urim and Thummim found in the stone box with the plates were used for the 116 pages of the translation that were lost, and Joseph then used his seer stone. For William—Joseph’s brother—and Wilford Woodruff—4th President of the LDS Church—the stone was the Urim and Thummim. President Joseph Fielding Smith made the same comment in Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, p. 225. Emma Smith also wrote in a letter dated 1876 that “the entire Book of Mormon that we have today, was translated by the use of a stone.”