In early 2017, I published a short Q&A for the Deseret News on Joseph Smith and seer stones. The article was intended for a general audience and based upon a book by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Nicholas J. Federick, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones. This is the full text of an addendum interview with Nicholas Frederick from November 5, 2016.
Where did Joseph get his seer stones?
Nicholas J. Frederick: According to one theory, Joseph looked into the seer stone of a Palmyra resident named Sally Chase and saw a (probably) brown seer stone buried somewhere near Lake Erie, which he retrieved perhaps as early as 1822. A short time later, Joseph discovered a second, (probably) white stone which he uncovered while digging a well. While Joseph appears to have owned other seer stones, these two are the most important ones.
What did Joseph Smith use seer stones for?
Nicholas J. Frederick: Early on in his life Joseph may have used his seer stones to look for money or buried treasure. After retrieving the Gold Plates, he uses a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. He also received several revelations that became canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants through his seer stones. Parts of the inspired Bible translation (JST) and the Book of Abraham were likely received through a seer stone. Additionally, Joseph appears to have given patriarchal blessings through a seer stone, as he did for Newel K. Whitney.
Seer stones seem strange. Are they?
Nicholas J. Frederick: Yes they are. They are very strange. 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.
But that barrier didn’t exist in the Bible or the Book of Mormon, and while Joseph Smith did grow up in a post-Enlightenment world, there was little to separate religion from magic, science from theology.
For a lot of early converts to the Church of Christ (LDS), a prophet would be expected to have a connection with the divine world, such as a seer stone. It gave Joseph prophetic credibility in the minds of his listeners. 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 Saint 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. It was these mystical events that gave converts the assurances they needed to follow Joseph Smith and place their trust in the Book of Mormon.