I remember the first time I learned about Joseph Smith's magic seer stone; it was after my mission. I was shocked! I brought it up to an LDS friend who actually got upset about it. He immediately accused me of reading anti-Mormon literature. He said that Joseph would have never done such a thing, for it would make the whole thing look contrived! When I provided evidence in a little known piece of LDS literature below he had nothing to say.
In an address given on the 25th of June 1992, at a seminar for new mission presidents, Missionary Training Center, Provo, Utah, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles disclosed the real means by which Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon:
The details of this miraculous method of [translating the Book of Mormon] are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:
“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.) Source: Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament; Ensign, July 1993. Also see here.
If one does some digging they can find other LDS magazines mentioning the seer stone. Just go do Lds.org and search "seer stone." However, after skimming these articles it seems that they are vague and don't discuss all the details I will present in this blog post. Official LDS Church images also mislead investigators and Mormons alike by depicting Smith actually translating from the plates which is blatantly false. I am not aware of any official LDS source that depicts Smith using his seer stone and his hat. The average LDS member today, who relies on official LDS sources, is left with the impression that Smith used the plates to translate today’s Book of Mormon; and if they have heard about the seer stone Smith used for most of the production of the BoM, they usually mistakenly think it is referring to the Urim and Thummim. The following post will correct these misconceptions and provide information from both critics and LDS apologists, showing that the LDS Church is not being completely forthcoming about the true methods used by Smith to produce the BoM.
[Again, a 2014-2015 Update: after this blog was published, after increasing pressure from former Mormons protesting the LDS church's false depiction of the translation of the gold plates. In 2013-2015, the online site lds.org published a series of articles in the Ensign that dealt with controversial issues, one of the articles was Book of Mormon Translation. This article was the most forthcoming the LDS church has ever been. In the article they corroborate much of this blog post, including Smith's use of the seer stone in a hat in producing the Book of Mormon. Note that I after this I have not changed the original blog post as it was written back in 2009 when the LDS church was not being fully honest and forthcoming about the details of the translation process of the Book of Mormon]
It is a historical fact that Joseph Smith followed in his father's foot steps to become a money digger. He actually pretended to put a magic rock (or peep stone/ seer stone) into a hat and then proceeded to bury his head in the hat and claimed to see where hidden treasure was buried underground, kind of like using a crystal ball. Through his money digging adventures Joseph Smith swindled superstitious people out of their money. He was even brought up on charges in court for his deception at one point.
For some Mormons this will be hard to believe but Smith used the same stone he used in money digging to "translate" the Book of Mormon (see here). In fact, according to historical data, the production of the BoM wasn't a real translation at all since Smith would put his seer stone in a hat and apparently claimed to “see” the words in the hat via the stone which he read out loud to his scribes. Thus, he never actually translated anything; according to witnesses he claimed to “read” words that magically appeared in or through a rock he placed in the bottom of his hat, thus dictating to his scribes the words of the Book of Mormon he claimed to see by staring at the rock.
Even if the LDS believer chooses to ignore all the historical evidence that Joseph Smith was a person with a questionable character in his youth, why would God choose a person to be his front man who pretends to use a magic rock to dig up treasure in the ground? Especially, if he would allegedly be asked to dig up gold plates in the ground? Isn't the issue of credibility an important one? If Mohammed had claimed to pull the Koran out of a hat after being a stage magician in his youth, would that lend credibility to Islam?
In his essay Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon , author Craig Criddle, provides the following timeline of Smith's money digging practices and how it corresponds with his claims to unearth gold plates:
Timeline of events 1822-1828 showing that at the same time Smith claimed to be receiving a supernatural visitor (red arrows) in anticipation of The Book of Mormon, he was also engaged in activities that show him to be a con man (blue arrows).
For more details on the alleged translation processes see here. The official Mormon History sold to investigators of the LDS church is not based on the facts but mere propaganda. It rejects full-disclosure and commits the sin of omission by presenting a false description of the alleged translation process.
In the past, many Mormons believed in magical seer stones. To see pictures of Mormon leader's seer stones click here.
The image presented at the church run websites and magazines misrepresents the facts – omitting the rock in the hat act – and shows Smith with his finger on the plates or in a similar manner as if he is actually translating the plates like one would a foreign language. The fact is that the alleged gold plates were nowhere in sight for much of the writing of the Book of Mormon, and Smith never translated anything, but dictated to his scribes out of a hat.
After reading several articles by Mormon apologists I learned that they generally conclude that the Gold Plates were not “directly” used in the alleged translation process of the BoM. For example, in the online PBS video The Mormons in Part 1:3 titled, The Early Revelations LDS apologist Daniel Peterson is honest and admits that, “We know that Joseph didn’t translate in the way that a scholar would translate, he didn’t know Egyptian. … There were a couple of means that were prepared for this. One was that he used an instrument that was found with the plates that was called the Urim and Thummim. This is kind of a divinatory device that goes back into Old Testament times. Actually, most of the translation was done using something called a seer stone. … He would put the stone … in the bottom of a hat, presumably to exclude surrounding light. Then he would put his face into the hat. It's kind of a strange image for us today …” To read the transcript see here.
Notice how Peterson says Smith used the Urim and Thummim but doesn’t specify what it was used for. That is because the Urim and Thummim that allegedly came with the plates were never used to “translate” any of the Book of Mormon that was finally published, which Mormons read today. In the fair.org article, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, author Brant A. Gardner is even more forthcoming and clear on the matter. Toward the end of his article he writes:
“As the early saints transitioned from a collection of believers into a formal religion, they began to see themselves within the Great Tradition [that is popular/formal religion]. As with early Christianity, the stories they told of themselves naturally were recast to distance themselves from their Little Tradition [small-town folklore type superstition] heritage and provide an acceptable Great Tradition history. One of the obvious places to see this process in action is with the tools of the translation. We [LDS members] all know that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon—except he didn't. The Book of Mormon mentions interpreters, but not the Urim and Thummim. It was the Book of Mormon interpreters which were given to Joseph with the plates. When Moroni took back the interpreters after the loss of the 116 manuscript pages, Joseph completed the translation with one of his seer stones. Until after the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim belonged to the Bible and the Bible only. The Urim and Thummim became part of the story when it was presented within and to the Great Tradition [acceptable traditional church going investigators]. Eventually, even Joseph Smith used Urim and Thummim indiscriminately as labels generically representing either the Book of Mormon interpreters or the seer stone used during translation.
The Urim and Thummim were traditionally divinatory rocks, but most importantly, they were biblically acceptable divinatory rocks.53 From the Great Tradition [traditional religion] perspective, their presence in the Bible made them religion, not magic. I suspect that the two interpreters made a natural comparison to the two stones, one Urim and one Thummim, from the Bible. Calling the biblical divinatory tools "rocks" instead of Urim and Thummim seems to demean them. The reverse process, calling the interpreters and seer stones Urim and Thummim, places them in a more appropriate religious category where they belong because of the sacred use to which they were put in translating the Book of Mormon.
This recasting of history was a story the Saints told themselves as much as what they presented to the world. I doubt that there was any conscious attempt to reconcile their history with Great Tradition [popular religious] expectations, let alone any attempt at deception. It was simply the natural response to their self-definition as a religion rather than a folk belief. It was a story told in a way that they subliminally knew was appropriate for a Great Tradition religion. The new history did not deny the past or alter the facts, but recolored them with a new vocabulary.”
So if Smith alledgedly unearthed Gold Plates and the Urim and Thummim (or interpreters, i.e. two divinatory stones set in the rim of a silver bow functioning as spectacles or reading glasses, see images here, here, and here) but never used the plates nor the spectacles to translate today’s published Book of Mormon, why did Smith unearth them in the first place? If all he used to “translate” the final version of today’s Book of Mormon was the same seer stone he used while money digging – the same stone he found in a well and used to pretend to see where treasure was buried – why did he need to unearth the plates and the spectacles in the first place!?
Some apologists admit that the plates weren’t involved in the translation process and speculate that the plates served other purposes. See the fair wiki article Book of Mormon/Translation (Aug. 2009) here. But the Anton affair mentioned in this fair-wiki section is hardly helpful to those who have studied the details from a critical perspective. Second, the plates being used as mere evidence of an ancient artifact is hardly useful, for as Faun Brodie pointed out Smith could have produced a fake replica of gold plates, or the witnesses could have imagined them with their perceived "spiritual eyes,” hallucinated, or simply made it up, etc.
And if the plates were meant to merely persuade the witnesses that Smith was using his rock in a hat act to translate a real record, why didn’t the angel give the plates to Smith to show to the witnesses AFTER the dictation of the BoM, which he performed using his money digging seer stone? Then the Gold Plates wouldn’t have been needed at all during the alleged translation process; thus, no reason to hide them and risk them being stolen. Why the whole hiding of the plates in the woods and in a box and covering them up? Why the whole ordeal of being chased and put in harms way by those who wanted to allegedly steal them; was all that necessary when Smith didn’t even use them to translate (and in fact there was no actual translation at all)? And if the plates were to act as physical evidence to an ancient record why did the angel take them up to heaven instead of them being evidence for all to see? After all, if the seer stone Smith used to create his Book of Mormon is still in possession of the church why weren’t the plates or the spectacles (interpreters) left with the church? It seems odd that the angel took back everything Smith allegedly unearthed and all we are left with is his seer stone he used for money digging, which no LDS prophet, “seer,” and revelator has used since to reveal anything even though these LDS leaders are called seers.
This takes way too much mental gymnastics to rationalize. Common sense says Smith used the same rock in a hat act he used to dupe people into believing he could unearth gold treasures to dupe people into believing he unearthed gold plates. Thus the plates were a “prop” for added affect, to add some authenticity to his story. It would have probably been too difficult to actually create a huge book of gold plates with ancient writings on it. The witnesses could have seen that some of the plates were blank and Smith missed a spot to scribble fake characters that he made up. The seer stone in a hat was a better way to go, for without the actual original language he could never be tested. And the alleged characters he allegedly transcribed from the plates to give to Anton has never been corroborated by a reputable scholar to be anything other than mere scribbling.
Other apologists speculate that the plates served in some magical way to help Smith dictate to his scribes even when the plates weren’t in the same room with him. As they admit that the plates were either covered or weren’t in the same room when much of the BoM was being written. Thus to summarize, all the facts to the alleged translation processes present the following picture.
Joseph put his face in a hat and stared at a stone and claimed to see words on or through the stone and thus allegedly dictated the Book of Mormon while the plates were either covered -- so that no one, including Smith, could see them -- or while the plates were hidden somewhere outside. Thus Smith obviously didn’t need the plates for the formation of the Book of Mormon that was published; and all the evidence shows that he used a seer stone and not the actual plates, nor the Urim and Thummim, to dictate the contents of today’s published Book of Mormon. Thus he didn’t actually translate ancient languages off the plates into English using some spectacles he found in the ground like a modern translator might translate an ancient record; but instead its claimed that he read the contents of the Book of Mormon by allegedly seeing the words in or through the same seer stone he used for money digging; using the same method of placing the rock in a hat just as he did when he would claim to "see" where treasure was buried.
Keep in mind that the average LDS member does not read Mormon apologetics and is encouraged not to read things not officially published by the LDS church. The LDS apologetic sites exist because members read non-Mormon history books and Mormon critics and learn things the official LDS church doesn’t disclose openly. So fair.org and the Maxwell Institute act as damage control that’s caused by the official church withholding information and suppressing the whole picture.
Some Mormon apologists argue that the official LDS church is not hiding the rock in the hat act since it is mentioned in one or two Ensign articles. The problem is these are obscure references in only a few official LDS articles, and you have to dig deep in past issues to learn about Smith’s rock in the hat act. Official LDS articles are also inconsistent and contradictory, for example, the Sept. 1977 Ensign doubts Whitmer's claim that Smith used the rock in the hat act and claims a real translation took place with Smith's direct use of the plates. The 1977 article thus contradicts the Ensign article mentioned above, and the 1977 article also contradicts a recent Maxwell Institute article by A One-sided View of Mormon Origins by Mark Ashurst-McGee. In the process of trying to answer Grant Palmer’s research McGee admits that the image of Smith actually translating gold plates in front of him, that is used by the church in its official publications, is inaccurate. He admits that Smith did use the rock in the hat method and the plates in fact were nowhere in sight during the production of the Book of Mormon.
On a Mormon message board in 2009, Jeff Ricks of postmormon.org, made the following observation:
There are lots of examples where Mormonism misrepresents the facts to the public. The first one that comes to mind is the way the Church misrepresents Smiths's method of producing the Book of Mormon. On the Church's website there are at least four or five different paintings showing Smith poring over the gold plates line by line, while he or someone else writes down what he dictates, as if he's acting as a translator. But the church admits, when pressed, that Smith's actual method of producing the Book of Mormon was looking at a rock in a hat. Hmmmm....so the church has on its site at least four paintings that misrepresent Smith as a translator, while they don't have a single painting that I can find that shows him doing it by looking at a rock in a hat.
This is not a minor oversight. Church leaders have said that the Book of Mormon is the foundation of the Church, and the Church will admit that the book was produced by looking at a rock in a hat. Therefore, if the Church were more honest about its origins, that rock would be a centerpiece of the Church's story to the public. Instead, it continues to knowingly misrepresent Smith as a translator.
Let's summarize: The Church knowingly misrepresents its 'product' to the public, as we speak, and it takes in massive sums of money that's aided, in part, by that misrepresentation (I'm sure the Church's conversion rate, and therefore income stream, would reduce if the dorky rock-in-hat method were more honestly represented). In the real world, that's a serious matter. It's an ongoing willful misrepresentation that, by normal standards is unethical and immoral, and is a matter that, in the real world, possibly merits prison time, yet the Church gets a bye on that kind of dishonest, unethical, immoral behavior. Why?........ "Truth Restored"? I think not. It's more like, "Truth Distorted." ...
[Another person on the message board added the following] ... Another point of contention is they have the actual rock that Joseph Smith used to translate the BOM. If they wanted to, they could put it on display for members to view the mystical magical object. ... They don’t display the magic rock (one of two I believe they have) ... because it would bring to the surface the methods used to translate Mormon doctrine, and provide people that may not know about the arrest of Joseph Smith for glass-looking using the same "money-digger" method.
If Joseph Smith was enchanted with seer stones as a kid would that childish belief in magic rocks enter into his adult writings? Unfortunately, for the faithful Mormon it does. We find that Smith's writings do in fact echo his money digging past. In one of many passages in the Book of Mormon that gives reference to magic rocks, Joseph tells a story of God actually giving one of his faithful servants a stone: “And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me” (Alma 37:23; also see here).
The Book of Mormon is full of parallels to Joseph’s money digging past. A startling example is that just as in Smith's real life – when he was a money digger he’d claim the treasure was moving under the earth and that's why the people who hired him couldn't dig it up every time they tried - likewise, the Book of Mormon people begin hiding treasures in the earth and using sorcery but the treasures are slippery and cannot be held or retained (see Mormon 1: 18-19).
In 1 Nephi 16 of the Book of Mormon a magic ball (the Liahona) suddenly appears outside Lehi’s tent to guide him in the right direction, which is very similar to the way the seer stone worked when Smith was seeking buried treasure; and just as Lehi found the Liahona Smith found his seer stone.
Pressing credulity to the max Joseph Smith writes his fascination with seer stones into the story of Jared who wonders how an air-tight oval shaped barge or submarine like container with no windows could allow the occupants to see in the dark? One wonders why he didn’t ask how they were going to steer the barges? Or what they were going to do with all the human feces accumulated by the passengers? Nevertheless, Joseph decides to fix the problem of darkness with Jared’s glow in the dark rocks to provide light for the Nephites (See Ether 3 & 4).
Joseph's fascination with magic rocks doesn't stop with the Book of Mormon. After Joseph Smith founded the LDS Church, in 1836 Joseph had read in the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph that a treasure lay buried beneath a house in Salem. What do you think happened next? It is obvious to all impartial investigators that at this point Joseph regressed to his money digging ways and unintentionally showed the hoax of his revelations.
He actually claimed to receive a revelation from the Lord on the matter that is contained in today’s LDS Doctrine and Covenants. Smith spoke as the Lord and said, “I have much treasure in this city [of Salem] for you…you shall be led, and [it] shall be given you…you shall have power over [the city]…and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours…in the place where [the treasure is] …[it] shall be signalized unto you by the peace and power of my Spirit, that shall flow unto you…there are more treasures than one for you in this city” ( D&C 111: 2-4, 8, 11). This theme of seeking treasure is rather familiar to his money digging past. As a money digger his seer stone also allegedly “signaled unto him” where buried treasure could be found. Smith did not take power over the city and was not led to gold or silver. Joseph returned from his treasure hunt with nothing but a failed prophecy.
If Joseph Smith was influenced by the pretend powers of seer stones ever since his youth would he go so far as to have God himself use a seer stone just like he did? It appears that Smith could not resist. In superhero, comic book, fashion Joseph paints his god as a finite exalted-man who gets his super powers from a magic rock the size of a planet, which acts like a super-computer or crystal ball giving him infinite knowledge. Smith writes:
“ ...we shall see him [God] as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves. And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there [in heaven]… In answer to the question—Is not the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time, according to the planet on which they reside? I answer, Yes. But there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it. The angels do not reside on a planet like this earth; But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord. The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim [i.e. a giant seer stone]. This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s. Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known…” (D&C 130: 1- 10, words in italics are my own).
Besides claiming that that the earth will one day be magically transformed into a giant crystal ball, Joseph Smith explains that God is limited to a physical body with finite limitations so he and the angels live on, and use, a planet size Urim and Thummim (giant seer stone) that makes all information and knowledge available to those who use it. This brings to mind images of the Death Star, the giant planet in the Star Wars movies where Darth Vador lives and derives some of his powers. Joseph's thinking might have been, "if people already believe that my little rock can find treasure and help me come up with the Book of Mormon, then I'll say God himself must have a HUGE magic rock that he resides on, that gives him magical powers. This will also explain how my idea of God as a finite man can know all things when he can't be everywhere at once." And last but not least, Smith says that those Mormons who make it to the highest degree of his heaven will receive their very own white stone that will act as a crystal ball, whereby advanced knowledge will be made known.
One can’t help but see that Smith’s idea of the Godhead became a projection of himself. For just as Smith’s extramarital affairs were projected onto his god, who became an exalted man who needs several concubines to populate the earth (see D&C 132: 63), Smith’s money digging seer stone days is projected onto his deity who becomes a polygamous man who lives on and operates via a huge planet size magic rock.
If you’re a true believing Mormon do you really think that God lives on and works through a giant rock and that the earth will one day "be renewed [transformed] and receive its paradisiacal glory" (See Articles of Faith 1: 10), that is, turned into a giant crystal ball? If you do believe in these things, how is your god going to accomplish this other than you just saying, "Well, it's like magic?" And why believe in such a thing as opposed to believing the earth will one day turn into a giant Rubik's Cube, each square representing a level of higher intelligence?
Why believe in Joseph Smith's story that a deity living on a giant seer stone, together with a council of gods, organized our universe out of self-existent/uncreated materials and organized the earthly bodies of humanity and produced their souls by having celestial sex with his wives and concubines as opposed to any Greek mythology?
If you believe a magic rock can help someone translate a foreign language do you believe in crystal balls?
Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822, "Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind."
For more facts surrounding Joseph Smith, peep stones, and treasure digging derived from 100% church-friendly sources click here.
For a brief history of Smith's money digging see: The Locations of Joseph Smith's Early Treasure Quests by Dan Vogel. Dan Vogel has several other fascinating videos I highly recommend that shed light on Smith's seer stone and the alleged gold plates. Go to his YouTube page to watch videos like Occult Context of Joseph Smith's 1823 Discovery of Gold Plates, Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial, and Joseph Smith Brings the Plates Home, etc. I cannot recommend these videos enough, there is so much interesting and informative data in this videos I never heard before.
For additional historical information on Smith’s seer stone see here.
For information on Joseph Smith's personal biography and more information on the Seer Stone here.
For a discussion of whether or not Smith put up a curtain to hide the translation process see here.
And for a historical analysis of the gold plates click here.
For more details from both LDS members and critics see here.