On Seer Stones, Faith, and Magic

There’s been yet another bit of an online brouhaha in Mormonville the last week or so. (It’s getting to feel like there’s always a brouhaha to be found in Mormonville these days, but I suppose that’s a topic for a different post.) On the docket this time? The church recently published pictures of the seer stone Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. That’s it at the top of this post.

Yup. It’s a stone. A pretty cool looking rock, but still a rock. It doesn’t glow in the dark. (I don’t think. Granted, they didn’t release any pictures of it taken in a dark room.) But there don’t appear to be any Hollywood-style special effects associated with it.

So where’s the beef?

A bit of backstory for some of you who might not know: According to LDS belief, the Book of Mormon is an ancient volume of scripture detailing the history of a group of people who left Jerusalem in 600BC and came to America. It tracks their history up through about 400AD, including an account of Christ visiting them after he was resurrected. It was written on gold plates and buried before that civilization basically was killed off in 400AD. Joseph Smith was shown the location of the plates by an angel, and he (Joseph) translated them into English (since they were written in “Reformed Egyptian” (another post for a different time)).

So. Got it? Gold plates. Reformed Egyptian. Translated by Joseph.

The beef is that a lot of people in the church had understood Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by pretty much looking at the gold plates and then reading off what they said in English. Sort of like in this picture:

Why would they think that? Well, that’s the way it’s typically portrayed in Mormon art. (That’s the cover of the LDS magazine from 2001, for example.) But from the historical accounts we have of the actual process, that wasn’t really how it happened. From the church’s official essay on the subject, we get this description:

“Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”

(Read the full article for a better explanation. I don’t have time to put the whole thing here.)

So there was a seer stone and a hat involved, from what we can tell. Why wasn’t it portrayed like this in church publications, videos, and art? Probably because some feared it would seem a lot more strange. I personally wish it had been consistently portrayed as described in history books. Why?

Because this whole brouhaha seems to me sort of like the arguments fans get into nitpicky things that only fans can care about. Like whether or not the eagles should have just carried Frodo straight to Mount Doom, or whether Han shot Greedo first or not. It’s stuff that if you’re a big fan, that it all makes sense and seems really important, but if you’re not a fan, you just think it’s stilly trivial details.

Did Joseph translate the plates or not? That’s a big topic. I believe he did, but (again) that’s a topic for a different post. How did he translate them? By the power of God. What exactly that process looked like is kind of irrelevant, in my opinion. It’s magic. Whether he’s looking at golden plates and dictating aloud or looking at a rock in a hat and dictating aloud. The end result is still the same. So why not show it like it happened? When you try to depict it differently, you end up with people getting upset and feeling like they were tricked, which is where we are now.

(And yes, I realize some are arguing that the church mentioned the seer stone long ago, numerous times. While true, the vast majority of depictions didn’t include hats or seer stones. So quit trying to split hairs.)

I see the picture of the seer stone, and I think, “Cool!” It connects me to history in a unique way. I love it. But then again, I’d also read up on the seer stone before I ever saw a picture of it. That’s just how I roll. I can see how it would be disconcerting to members who haven’t come across the history before. But in my mind, those days need to be over. The more the church can do to be open about its history, the better.

People who don’t believe Joseph actually translated the Book of Mormon aren’t going to change their minds because they’re told he did it by looking at the ancient scripture and was inspired with the translation, and people who have prayed about the matter and developed a testimony that he did translate the book shouldn’t be dissuaded if they hear that a seer stone and a hat were involved. The end result (the book) doesn’t change at all. It’s still there to be studied and analyzed.

I imagine if we found out the details of a lot of miracles, they’d seem much less miraculous.

And that’s all I have to say on that for now. Comments welcome, but keep ’em civil.

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