This week the LDS church produced photos of the seer stone that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about it from my progressive/post-Mormon friends, and a noticeable silence from most of my true-believing Mormon friends. Back when I first started intensely studying church history in January 2015, I wasn’t totally shocked to learn Joseph Smith used a seer stone in a hat to “translate” the Book of Mormon. The LDS church essay on the Book of Mormon translation confirms this fact. I wasn’t surprised because I had already learned this from watching “All About Mormons,” an episode of South Park. I knew enough about Matt Stone and Trey Parker to realize when they lampoon something, they start with quite a bit of truth and go from there. What shocked me from my own study was to learn the plates weren’t used at all in the translation. They were either on the table in the open and covered with a cloth, or not even in the same room. When I first read that, I was trying to figure out whether I still believed the Book of Mormon was a historical account. “No, no!” I thought. “That can’t be! The plates had to have been used!” But then I saw it confirmed in the LDS church essay that Emma Smith, who sometimes worked as scribe, said the plates were in the room but were covered up with a cloth.
Translating Is Hard When You Don’t Know the Language
Let’s say someone gives you a book in Greek, and you don’t read or speak Greek, but you’re asked to translate it. What are your options? Someone could teach you Greek, which would take a long time. Even then, since you’re not a native reader of that language, your translation won’t be that great. If learning Greek isn’t an option, you could ask a friend to give you a translation. But at that point, who is really doing the translation? You, or the friend? Joseph Smith didn’t know how to read “reformed Egyptian,” the language the Book of Mormon says was used to inscribe the text on the gold plates. Maybe an angel could have taught Joseph Smith reformed Egyptian, but we have no reason to believe that ever happened. So now the only other way was for someone to tell Joseph Smith what is contained on the gold plates. Once you realize that, what does it matter how God told him? I was taught he translated using the Urim and Thummim. (These turn out to be a pair of glasses. Somehow the church never comes out and directly calls them glasses or spectacles, maybe because that sounds even more bizarre than a seer stone.) But the Urim and Thummim were only used for the first 116 pages, which were lost. After that, witnesses say only the seer stone was used. From what I understand, at the end of the process of writing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith didn’t even use the seer stone because he said God could just tell him directly what the text was. Calling Joseph Smith the “translator” isn’t really accurate. He couldn’t read reformed Egyptian, so how could he have translated the original text? He didn’t need the plates to even be in the same room, because it wouldn’t have made any difference. He had no idea where in the plates he was getting each sentence. For all he knew, the text he was getting could have come from anywhere. We don’t have the plates, so there’s no way to check if the translation was accurate or not.
Your Righteous Miracle Is Someone Else’s Evil Sorcery
Because many LDS members aren’t familiar with the seer stone, they may feel uncomfortable when they learn about it. It might seem like superstition or magic, but it’s really no more miraculous to translate by reading text off a rock than it is to use a pair of magic glasses. (So these glasses somehow automatically transform reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs into English? You could make a killing with a device like that.) The seer stone isn’t more miraculous than to just have each sentence put directly into his mind. To a non-LDS person, this could all sound like hocus pocus magic, or even something from the occult. But a non-Christian not familiar with the Bible might say the same thing about Jesus walking on water, turning water into wine, or raising the dead. Since I don’t take the gold plates as having ever existed literally, I don’t believe the creation of the Book of Mormon involved a miracle or magic. So, the seer stone doesn’t matter that much to me, other than it’s interesting to discuss. Maybe Joseph Smith used the seer stone as a way to concentrate as he dictated the text, or maybe it helped his scribes to believe what he was doing was an actual miracle.
One Way It DOES Matter
The LDS church has had the seer stone sitting in its archives for a long, long time. They knew Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by putting the seer stone in a hat, and then burying his head in the hat to look at the stone. There’s no way to avoid how silly this sounds and looks. In my opinion they have deliberately hidden this fact from common knowledge because of the embarrassment it could cause. For many who intently study church history, they learned about the seer stone long ago. But for those people like me who went to church their whole lives, including four years of seminary and a mission, nowhere in any lesson did it ever talk about the rock in the hat. With the information age we live in now, the church knows more and more people are learning the truth. Instead of letting someone learn about it from a source that isn’t friendly to the church, the church is proactively putting the information out there. Many adults are shocked when they learn about the rock in the hat, but maybe our kids and their kids won’t be shocked, because now the seer stone will be common knowledge. Whatever their reasons, I applaud the LDS church for being more transparent with their history. I hope this trend of the church opening up their history continues.
The Only Ones Who Really Should Complain Are Those Who Made the Plates
Since the plates weren’t used, maybe the only ones who can complain are people like Nephi, Mormon and Moroni. They slaved away to intricately engrave on metal plates, only for no one but God to ever read what they wrote. And by the power of social media, here they discuss the implications of the seer stone. Enjoy! (This was created by Paul Malan. I only wish I had been that clever.)