God has a history of using inanimate objects to fulfill His objectives. For example, the staff of Moses and/or Aaron initiated many of the plagues of Egypt. Moses later hits a rock with his staff, and water comes out. Later the Israelites are plagued with poisonous serpents. Moses raises up a metal snake on a pole and anyone who just looks at it is healed.
In the New Testament, Christ wipes mud on a man’s eyes to heal him. Paul uses a handkerchief to heal people. Going back to the Old Testament the Israelites used two stones called the Urim and Thummim, or in Hebrew, oo-reem veh too-meem, meaning, “lights and perfections.” According to Bible.org, which is not a Latter-day Saint website, mind you, “most scholars believe [the Urim and Thummim] to be two sticks or stones, perhaps precious stones, that God used in a miraculous way to reveal His will.”
Obviously, these objects have no power in and of themselves, it comes from God, but if you’re a Christian, God’s use of everyday objects, like rocks and sticks, should not be surprising. They were used anciently, but let’s also take a look at how inanimate objects, in this case, seer stones like the Urim and Thummim, have been used in more modern times.
Joseph Smith took the ancient ‘golden plates’ of The Book of Mormon out of the ground in September 1827. But the stone box contained more than the plates. “… there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”
Finding a Urim and Thummim wouldn’t have been too surprising for Joseph because he actually already owned at least two seer stones. One he found in 1819, it was white. The other he found in 1822 while helping to dig a well for his neighbors. That one was brown, we even have a picture of that one, but, as you can see, it just looks like a rock, just as Moses’ walking stick looked like a walking stick.
Initially, Joseph used his seer stones to help people like Josiah Stowell in 1826, without much success, to find buried treasure—a personal bucket list item for me, but that’s beside the point. Sometimes Joseph gets a bad rap for his history of folk-magicky stuff. I frankly don’t don’t really care. I mean, Paul in the New Testament was an accomplice to the murder of Stephen before he found the truth. Turned out to be a solid guy, though. Historian Richard Bushman quoted one of Joseph’s friends, Alva Hale, saying that,
“Joseph told him that the “gift of seeing with a stone” was “a gift from God” but that ‘peeping’ (seer stones in relation to folk magic were also called peep stones) was all d—d nonsense”; he had been deceived in his treasure-seeking, but he did not intend to deceive anyone else. By this time Joseph apparently felt that “seeing” with a stone was the work of a “seer,” a religious term, while “peeping” or “glass-looking” was fraudulent.”
Joseph started translating The Book of Mormon in 1828. Initially, he used the Urim and Thummim. Later he switched to one of his other seer stones, and eventually as he became more experienced with revelation, he wouldn’t need anything at all to help translate. Joseph had multiple scribes, including his wife, Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery. David Whitmer, who was a witness of the existence of the golden plates, explained how the seer stone would work:
“A piece of something resembling parchment would appear [on the stone], 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.”
Now when I work on my laptop, I like to work outside. But I oftentimes can’t because it gets so bright outside that I can’t see my laptop screen as well. Apparently, Joseph had a similar problem with his seer stone. So to block out the light, his simple solution was to put the stone in a hat. Kind of a funny image, but what works works!
This is what he’d do for hours at a time. An average of 8 pages per day. His scribes say Joseph had no reference material around him. No secret pre-written manuscript pages stuffed in his hat. If you want to believe the Book of Mormon is a fraud, which you are certainly free to do, you’ve either got to believe that his scribes were in on it (which in my opinion makes no sense if you look at their history and circumstances), or Joseph perfectly memorized his secret manuscript and then rattled it off seamlessly to the scribe.
But anyways, now you know a bit about seer stones, how they were used anciently, how they were used by Joseph Smith.
- From the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/2QINs3r
- What the Joseph Smith Papers have to say: https://bit.ly/2UT2h5e
- Read The Book of Mormon: https://bit.ly/1FOGiwL
- Misc. criticisms having to do with folk magic: https://bit.ly/2ViZ4f0
- A great article about Joseph’s use of seer stones
- A video discussion of the use of seer stones