Thursday, June 29, 2017

Book of Mormon "translated" via the use of a brown stone in a hat

It was back in 1987 that I first began a serious, in depth study into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church or Mormon/s). [For more on my early exploration into the LDS Church, see the opening paragraph of THIS POST.] I began collecting (and reading) hundreds of books, journals, articles, et al., which included the monthly journal, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. At that time, I was able to obtain all the past issues up to 1987, and began a subscription. As I started reading through the issues, one of the many articles that caught my attention was Richard Van Wagoner's and Steven Walker's, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing'" (Vol. 15.2, Summer 1982 - LINK).

Wagoner and Walker examined the extant eyewitness accounts concerning the translation process of the Book of Mormon, and provided the following synopsis of those accounts:

These eyewitness accounts to the translation process must be viewed in proper perspective. Most were given in retrospect and may be clouded by the haze of intervening years. Many were reported second hand, subject to skewing by nonwitnesses. Yet there are persistent parallels among these scattered testimonies. Consensus holds that the "translation" process was accomplished through a single seer stone from the time of the loss of the 116 pages until the completion of the book. Martin Harris's description of interchangeable use of a seer stone with the interpreters, or Urim and Thummim, refers only to the portion of translation he was witness to—the initial 116 pages. The second point of agreement is even more consistent: The plates could not have been used directly in the translation process. The Prophet, his face in a hat to exclude exterior light, would have been unable to view the plates directly even if they had been present during transcription. (Page 53.)

Prior to this detailed article, the common perception of the translation process was much different among the vast majority of Mormons. Artist depictions and written descriptions have Joseph Smith directly using the metal plates and the "Urim and Thummim" at the same time in the translation process. Wagoner and Walker make reference to this dichotomy between the extant accounts and the common Mormon understanding, writing:

The concept of a single seer stone is another problem area, for we have been taught since the Prophet's day that the Urim and Thummim were used. The term itself is problematic. The Book of Mormon does not contain the words "Urim and Thummim." Ammon describes the instrument as "the things . . . called interpreters"—"two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow" which were "prepared from the beginning" and "handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages" (Mosiah 8:13, 28:13-14). Joseph Smith adds in the Pearl of Great Price that "God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book" (Joseph Smith—History 1:35). Furthermore, the Nephite interpreters were not referred to as Urim and Thummim until 1833, when W. W. Phelps first equated the two in the first edition of the Evening and Morning Star: "It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim)." (Ibid.)

I was soon able to ascertain that Wagoner's and Walker's well researched article had little impact on the vast majority of believing Mormons. Of the literally dozens of LDS missionaries that have contacted me during the subsequent 30 years, it was not until this last year that any of them had knowledge of the single stone in the hat translation process. The same held true with lay Mormons I have met (in person and on message boards). However, this near unanimous consensus understanding started to undergo reductions at the end of 2015, and this due to an article published in the official LDS Church magazine, Ensign. The October, 2015 issue contained a contribution by three LDS scholars— Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin S. Jensen and Richard E. Turley Jr.—under the title, "Joseph the Seer". [Full issue available online HERE.]

This Ensign article (pp. 48-55) mentions the use of, "at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light" (p. 51). It also includes a large color photograph of the "chocolate-colored stone", that "has long been associated with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon translation effort" (p. 53). For the first time in LDS Church history, knowledge of a single stone in a hat translation process had been disseminated amongst the majority of lay Mormons.

But, as important as the Ensign article was/is for Mormon studies, it was my recent purchase and reading of the above pictured book that prompted me to write this post.

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones, by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, was published in 2016, through B.Y.U.'s "Religious Studies Center" (LINK). I obtained this book in early May of this year, and read it the very next day. The following is from the back dust-cover of the book:

When the Church released photos of the brown seer stone that was owned and used by Joseph Smith, the news ignited a firestorm of curiosity and controversy. People wanted more information and wondered why they weren't aware of the stone's existence before.

This book discusses the origins of Joseph Smith's seer stones and explores how Joseph used them throughout his life in a way that goes beyond translating the Book of Mormon. I also traces the provenance of the seer stones once they leave his possession.

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones, is a book of 243 pages, and by far the most comprehensive treatment I have yet to read on the topic of Joseph Smith's "seer" stones. It is well written, and easy to read. It references dozens of other important contributions that will provide the more curious investigators with days, if not months, of informative reading. In upcoming posts (the Lord willing), I shall delve into some of those works that I have obtained, and have been researching. Until my next post, I would like to recommend to folk interested in this topic that they look into the following article from BYU Studies, 55.1, pp. 73-93 (also published in 2016):

Grace and peace,