Between 1827 and 1830, Joseph Smith transcribed the Book of Mormon from ancient golden plates, translating their ancient Egyptian language into English by means of a brown, egg-shaped “seer stone.”
This is that stone.
To non-Mormons, of course, the story seems fantastical, heretical, or a con. Perhaps all of the above. But to Mormons, belief in the golden plates—revealed to Smith by the angel Moroni, and discovered near Manchester, New York—is a matter of faith. Still today, every copy of the Book of Mormon contains the testimony of the 11 men who swore they saw the plates—before Smith returned them to Moroni, never to be seen again. Just check your night table at the Marriott.
How Smith “translated” the plates is even harder for skeptics to swallow. He would place the seer stone inside of a white stovepipe hat (a bit like the kind Professor Marvel wears in The Wizard of Oz) and stare down inside into the blackness, his head blocking out the light. In the darkness of the hat, English words appeared, which Smith dictated to his secretary, Oliver Cowdery.
For 185 years, Smith’s seer stone was preserved in secret by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and no one but the church’s leadership ever saw it. Until yesterday.
The photograph of the stone was included in a new publication of Smith’s papers. The new book also includes the original “Printer’s Version” of the Book of Mormon compiled by Cowdery, which had long been in the possession of a smaller rival sect, the Community of Christ.
So why would the LDS Church, currently at its high-water mark of mainstream respectability, choose this moment to publicize such a bizarre, superstitious aspect of its doctrine and history?
In fact, the new release is part of a recent effort to be more transparent about the LDS Church’s previously secret doctrines, including the “Mormon Underwear,” the decades-long ban on black clergy, and the belief that Mormons receive a planet to rule over after they die.
Perhaps most controversially, the Church admitted last October that Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives, no fewer than 11 of them were under the age of 18 and many of whom were married to other men before Smith took them on.
In a way, the entire campaign is an effort to “get ahead of the story,” as when celebrities own up to embarrassing disclosures rather than leave it up to their followers’ imaginations. (Lenny Kravitz’s recent exposure comes to mind.)
In this case, with The Book of Mormon now a fixture on Broadway, and in the wake of embarrassing (and sometimes inaccurate) details about Mormonism during the 2012 presidential campaign, the LDS Church has decided that coming clean is better than trying to keep secrets.
Especially since a host of anti-Mormon, ex-Mormon, and merely skeptical websites already publicize the scandalous details, and with varying degrees of negative spin. At least this way, the Church can tell its side of the story.
Contrast that approach with the Church of Scientology, which still denies its most ludicrous doctrines about intergalactic warfare and the deification of L. Ron Hubbard.
In fact, the “seer stone” would’ve been one of the more easily accepted aspects of Mormonism in the 19th century. Such stones were commonplace at the time, and often used like divining rods to find water, gold, and treasure, often for hire. Smith himself used his seer stones in this way.
The stone in question was found in a well in 1822, and subsequently polished into its present form. Another one in Smith’s possession had been found three years earlier by gazing into a crystal ball (actually a “green glass”) and looking at the roots of a tree.
In 2015, this all sounds like hokum and hucksterism. But in the 1820s, it was actually a more reasonable, even scientific, alternative to traditional religion. Mainstream Christianity operated in the realm of the supernatural, with its heaven and hell, invisible deity, and denial of the sensual world.
In contrast, freemasonry, the branch of Western Esotericism which was an obvious doctrinal source for Mormonism, operated in the realm of the natural. The magical-natural, yes—a world filled with occult forces and esoteric secrets—but a material, even scientific, world nonetheless.
Joseph Smith’s seer stone was part of the same world as alchemy’s philosopher’s stone. Both were material objects that had magical, but physical, properties. Both were alternatives to the spiritual, otherworldly claims of mainstream Christianity. And both were commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries, among both spiritual eccentrics and clever hucksterers.
Smith, based on the historical evidence, was both.
Mormonism, like Freemasonry, is an exceptionally physical ideology. As with the debate over planets for the righteous, its promises are physical, material; it’s an actual planet, not some metaphorical one. And as with the LDS Church’s massive real-estate holdings, they often involve this—worldly, financial success, not some reward in a world to come.
In early Mormon teaching (before it was whitewashed under vicious anti-Mormon persecution), God has a physical body, and human beings can become divine. Abundant sexuality is honored (in early Mormonism, of course, not contemporary iterations).
The physical Garden of Eden was physically located near Independence, Missouri.
All of these doctrines, reluctantly disclosed by the LDS Church, seem ridiculous today. Contrary to the best efforts of the Church to appear normatively Christian, they seem foreign to the sorts of spiritual things religion is supposed to be about. They’re more like bad, discredited superstition. The seer stone in particular seems like a curiosity that undermines Mormon claims to rationality. It’s easy (and perhaps appropriate) to ridicule the magical rock, not to mention those who believe that Joseph Smith used it to “reveal” a scripture that is, in significant part, a bad parody of the King James Bible, phony Hebraic names and all.
But actually, the seer stone is a remnant of an earlier form of proto-technological thinking. And indeed, the intervening 180 years have been a resounding victory for just that kind of thought. Consider: as between the technology it represents and the spiritual religion it displaced, which has emerged victorious? As one Mormon believer recently put it (albeit for the wrong reasons), the seer stone was the Smartphone 1.0.