While working on a review of a book about Joseph Smith and seer stones, my daughter came home from church and told me they had talked about seer stones in Sunday School. “The teacher said we should believe Joseph Smith was a prophet,” she said, “even though he made mistakes like using seer stones.”
The comment provided a good opportunity to discuss how seer stones were not a mistake, but rather a common tool of the age in which Joseph Smith lived – though he certainly came to use seer stones in ways previously unheard of.
It also gave us more time to talk about how new thoughts can appear threatening and we should be patient with those who are trying to reconcile historical truths with religious beliefs.
The following 10-question Q&A was originally published in the Deseret News on Feb. 26, 2017. The answers to the questions come from the book, “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones,” as well as a short email interview with one of the authors.
Seer stones have long been a part of religious history but are largely absent from religious discussions today. Nonetheless, seer stones are currently undergoing something of a renaissance.
The LDS Church released photographs of a seer stone used by Joseph Smith in a volume of the Joseph Smith Papers in 2015.
What is a seer stone?
In the context of the restored gospel, a seer stone is a stone through which a seer receives divine communication. The Book of Mormon defines a seer as a “revelator and a prophet also” (Mosiah 8:15-16).
In the context of a generally religious 19th-century America, seer stones were used by many with spiritual inclinations for a variety of purposes.
The Second Awakening embodied an environment where alternative means were sometimes used to find answers organized religion could not yet provide. Seer stones not only provided this outlet but, according to the authors in the “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones,” also contributed to a belief “that supernatural or spiritual experiences functioned as proof or evidence that they were returning to the ancient church.”
Did Joseph Smith have any seer stones?
Yes. Joseph had several seer stones. Although records from the time seldom make clear which seer stones are being referred to, MacKay and Frederick write that we can confidently say Joseph used three seer stones: a white stone, a brown stone and two additional stones that functioned as a single seer stone.
Where did Joseph Smith get his seer stones?
Joseph obtained his seer stones at different times from different places.
The challenges associated with interpreting historical records make it difficult to know for certain where each stone was obtained. Nonetheless, explained Frederick in an email interview, “there are two primary stories that are generally told about Joseph Smith’s seer stones.” One story states Joseph found a stone at Lake Erie while another states he found a stone digging a well. The two Nephite seer stones that comprised a single device were given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni.
Is Joseph Smith the only prophet to have used a seer stone?
Many prophets have used seer stones throughout history. For example, MacKay traces in the book the use of seer stones throughout the Book of Mormon and shows that both Mosiah II and the brother of Jared used seer stones. The Bible also contains examples of physical objects, including seer stones, being used for spiritual purposes.
What did Joseph Smith use his seer stones for?
Frederick explained in an email that before Joseph received his call as a prophet, he used his stones much like other people of the time. This included (unsuccessfully) looking for money or buried treasure. After his prophetic call, Joseph used seer stones in a manner strikingly different from anyone else and sought to bring forth scripture. Joseph used the stones in translating the Book of Mormon as well as portions of the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Abraham.
“Joseph appears to have given patriarchal blessings through a seer stone, as he did for Newel K. Whitney,” Frederick wrote.
How were the seer stones used in the translation of the Book of Mormon?
Most of the accounts of the translation indicate whether a seer stone was used, but there is not as much information about how they were used. Joseph apparently explained the process in private conversations, but left no public record.
Minutes from an October 1831 meeting included in the book indicate Joseph said, “that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”
Nonetheless, published accounts did shed some light on the process, and it also is included in “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones.” These accounts suggest Joseph would look into the seer stone and see sentences formed. He would read the sentences a word at a time and spell proper names one letter at a time. When the scribe had properly written down the characters, the next word or sentence would appear. Joseph would often place the stone in a hat to block out light and more clearly see what was written.
Is there a difference between a seer stone and the Urim and Thummim?
Urim and Thummim is largely a synonym for seer stones, though at times the Hebrew term meaning “lights and perfections” or “revelation and truth,” depending on the translation, have been used to describe certain stones in particular. For example, Joseph first used the term to refer to the Nephite stones but later used the term to describe any seer stone. Thus, MacKay and Frederick show in their book, the Urim and Thummim and term seer stone are used interchangeably to indicate seer stones as a revelatory tool.
Where are the seer stones today?
MacKay and Frederick write in the book about the difficulty tracing the complete provenance of the seer stones. They explain we only know for certain of the location of one of Joseph’s main seer stones, namely the brown stone which is in the possession of the church as part of the First Presidency’s collection. The white stone is likely part of the same collection though we do not know for sure. Additionally, the Nephite stones were taken from Joseph by the angel Moroni.
Can we look at any of the seer stones?
The LDS Church released photographs of the brown stone in connection with the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers volume “Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Parts 1 and 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon.” These pictures can be seen online in association with this article, as well as in the October 2015 Ensign‘s “Joseph the Seer” and in hard copies of the Joseph Smith Papers book, “Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 1: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi-Alma 35.”
Seer stones seem strange, are they?
Seer stones were associated with prophetic work in the days of Joseph, but seem quite peculiar to many today.
“They are very strange,” Frederick said. “But that’s because in 2016 as a society we’ve erected a pretty firm barrier between the natural world and the supernatural world, between the scientific world and the religious world.”
Frederick concluded that “it’s strange to think that many of the events surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon that cause faith crises for some Latter-day Saints today, such as angelic visitations, scripture written on plates of gold or English words appearing on stones, had largely the opposite effect for 19th-century converts.”
More on seer stones
Readers can learn more about Joseph and seer stones from a variety of sources, including through the Joseph Smith Papers Project online at josephsmithpapers.org/topic/seer-stone, the book “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones,” and the Gospel Topics essay on lds.org titled “Book of Mormon Translation.”