The Jurisprudence of Seer Stones

September 28, 2005 | 23 comments
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It is time for the long-anticipated post on the law, Mormonism, and seer stones. While digging a well as a young man, Joseph Smith found a small stone. He reported to seeing visions of lost objects in the stones, and neighbors would hire him to find lost objects and buried treasure. He never found much treasure, and by the time he received the golden plates treasure-seeking seems to have largely receded into his past. Although, it is worth noting that Moroni rebuked and warned Joseph about getting the plates for gain, and later in life Joseph and Sidney Rigdon traveled from Kirtland to Salem, Massachusetts in search of reported buried treasure, an excursion that resulted in section of the Doctrine and Covenants telling Joseph and Sidney to seek their treasure elsewhere by saving souls.

Although, Joseph does seem to have gotten out of the treasure-hunting business, he held on to his seer stone, and used it not only in the translation of the Book of Mormon but also to receive some of his earliest revelations. After about 1829, however, Joseph seems to have stopped using the seer stone to get revelations or “commandments” as they were called and this caused something of a spiritual crisis for David Whitmer. For Whitmer, Joseph’s miraculous seer stone seemed to have warranted the truthfulness of his revelations and without the stone, he doubted the authenticity of Joseph’s commandments. Hence, he turned to Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses, who was also possessed of a seer stone through which he claimed to receive revelations. The result was perhaps the earliest internal leadership crisis in church history.

I have posted before about what I see as the anarchic tendencies of revelation. If any person can go directly to God, what is to keep the community from descending into a welter of competing and perhaps contradictory revelations? In his way, Whitmer grasped this problem. His solution, in a sense, was talismanic. He relied on the presence or absence of miraculous objects to mediate the welter of revelations. Seer stones were a way of fending off anarchy and certifying the genuineness of revelation.

Joseph’s response — and the revelation that he received (sans seer stone) when he inquired of the Lord — was essentially legal. Rather that dealing with anarchy by asserting the superiority of Joseph’s seer stone to Hiram Page’s stone, Joseph resorted to the idea of jurisdiction. Joseph was the First Elder of the Church, and he alone was entitled to receive revelation for the whole Church. Over and above magic objects or even pure charisma, the anarchy of revelation was dealt with institutionally using constitutional norms of authority and jurisdiction.

The law followed a similar line in its own growth. One of the earliest ways of dealing with disputes was by the casting of lots. Indeed, the Urim and Thummim referenced in the Old Testament may well have been sacred dice that were cast in order to answer questions and resolve disputes. In addition to sacred lots, there were other talismanic tests, such trial by water (throwing the accused into a pond to see if they floated) or resolving disputes by looking at the entrails of animals sacrificed as part of the trial. Lots and trial by ordeal gradually gave way, however, to resolution of according to rules.

Legalism tends to get a bad name. It is said to deaden genuine morality, etc. For better or worse, it also seems to be a way of deadening magic.

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23 Responses to The Jurisprudence of Seer Stones

  1. Kaimi on September 28, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    Nate writes: “In addition to sacred lots, there were other talismanic tests, such trial by water (throwing the accused into a pond to see if they floated) . . .”

    Sir Bedevere: There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
    Peasant 1: Are there? Oh well, tell us.
    Sir Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
    Peasant 1: Burn them.
    Sir Bedevere: And what do you burn, apart from witches?
    Peasant 1: More witches.
    Peasant 2: Wood.
    Sir Bedevere: Good. Now, why do witches burn?
    Peasant 3: …because they’re made of… wood?
    Sir Bedevere: Good. So how do you tell whether she is made of wood?
    Peasant 1: Build a bridge out of her.
    Sir Bedevere: But can you not also build bridges out of stone?
    Peasant 1: Oh yeah.
    Sir Bedevere: Does wood sink in water?
    Peasant 1: No, no, it floats!… It floats! Throw her into the pond!
    Sir Bedevere: No, no. What else floats in water?
    Peasant 1: Bread.
    Peasant 2: Apples.
    Peasant 3: Very small rocks.
    Peasant 1: Cider.
    Peasant 2: Gravy.
    Peasant 3: Cherries.
    Peasant 1: Mud.
    Peasant 2: Churches.
    Peasant 3: Lead! Lead!
    King Arthur: A Duck.
    Sir Bedevere: …Exactly. So, logically…
    Peasant 1: If she weighed the same as a duck… she’s made of wood.
    Sir Bedevere: And therefore…
    Peasant 2: …A witch!

  2. Nate Oman on September 28, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    A classic example of analogical reasoning, the mainstay of the common law. Ain’t it great!?

  3. Ian R on September 28, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    Cool post Nate. I guess the jurisdiction Joseph invoked was one of subject matter, i.e., those revelations that dealt with church-wide issues were exclusively vested in the First Elder. The difficulty here, as in law, is coming up with the precise line of where local subject matter jurisdiction ends and church-wide subject matter begins. What is the core church wide subject matter? The manner in which we draw that line will impact the analysis of Revelation and the potential for theological anarchy.

    Does the First Elder necessarily need to strip that subject-matter jurisdiction from other Elders? In other words, why not just place exclusive appellate jurisdiction in the First Elder? Magic, charisma, prestige would have perhaps survived as valid original forums operating with all sorts of interesting concurrent jurisdictional problems. This form would not have cured the anarchy tendency as well.

    To an extent this is how it works today: The ward is the trial forum, the stake the appellate, and The Church functions as a Court of Last Resort. But in terms of Revelation, all Church-wide jurisdiction is exclusively vested in The First Presidency. That is fine with me, so long as the subject matter jurisdictional test leaves some sovereignty left in the individual.

  4. Randy B. on September 28, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Kaimi beat me to it, but I can’t believe you left out the bit about the newt!

  5. Kaimi on September 28, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    I would have included that part, Randy, but she turned me into a newt. (It’s okay — I got better).

    Nate,

    For a fun time-killer, here’s a website with some comments that analyze the logical flaws in the reasoning of Bevedere and the peasants: http://www.churchofcriticalthinking.com/archives/000160monty_python_and_the.html . Scroll down for the comments. For example:

    . First, the connection made that because both witches and wood burn they are the same thing. There are many things which are flammable, not just witches and wood. If placed in syllogism form, the problem becomes very evident:

    Witches are flammable
    Wood is flammable
    Thus, witches are made of wood.

    Clearly there are two minor premises and no major premises in the argument which make the syllogism invalid.

    To place it in a different form:

    Major Premise: All things which burn are made of wood.
    Minor Premise: Witches burn.
    Conclusion: They are made of wood.

    This syllogism is in a proper form, but the major premise is flawed as there are some things which burn which are NOT made of wood.

  6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. on September 28, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    Kaimi: Yes, but the life of the law has not been logic but experience. Who cares about the logic of witch burning. The question is whether or not witch burning comports with the felt necessities of the time. If it does it will survive, if it does not it won’t and logic be damned either way.

  7. Nate Oman on September 28, 2005 at 2:39 pm

    Ian: I think that you are basically right about how you need to make sense of jurisdiction. One of the tricky things is to figure out the relationship between authority, “law” and revelation. Does law warrant authority and revelation? If so, what warrants law? If revelation or authority warrant law, then in what sense does law solve the problem of anarchic revelation?

    Maybe we are better off with just listening to the revelations the proceed from a particularly reliable rock. Mind you, after studying the law of evidence and civil procedure, as well as working in the federal courts and practicing law as a litigator, I have to say that there is something to be said for trail by lots or trial by ordeal.

  8. ryan lindgren on September 28, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Bushman makes the same points(Rough Stone Rolling p.119-122) regarding the precidence of Joseph makeing the seer stones a legal and authoritative matter more than a good versus bad seer stone issue with Hiram Page.

    Two notes bushman makes are that the English saints actually brought over seer stones, which Joseph approved of and encouraged when brought to him (maybe after 1838?) after the Hiram page incident, and President Taylor consicrater a seer stone on the alter of the Manti Temple in the 1880’s.

    Made me think about my fantasy of going indiana jones like into the Church vaults to look at seer stones, missing books (the book of Joseph), and maybe even the ark of the covenant.

  9. Nate Oman on September 28, 2005 at 3:05 pm

    Ryan: I don’t think that there is any evidence that Joseph ever repudiated the idea of seer stones per se. Rather, he seems to have repudiated the idea that they provide any particular warrant for the authenticity or authority of a revelation.

    Also, I think it was Wilford Woodruff who conscerated the seer stone in Manti, since as I recall John Taylor was dead before the Manti Temple was dedicated. I have never seen any seer stones, but I have been in some of the Church’s vaults, which contain some cool stuff. As a kid I was especially thrilled to be able to handle Joseph Smith’s pepper-box pistol. I figured any prophet who had such a cool looking gun had to be a true prophet ;->. My father works as curator of acquisitions at the Museum of Church History and Art, which means that he is primarily responsible for going out and getting the artificats that are then placed in the Church collection. This is basically the job that Indiana Jones had, and as a kid I always described my father’s employment as “Indiana Jones for the Mormon Church.” He never had a whip, pistol, or cool hat. He did, however, have a kind of goofy, soft leather briefcase that he dragged to far deserets in search of lost relics. It made for some fun road trips as a kid.

  10. ryan lindgren on September 28, 2005 at 3:13 pm

    thanks for that correction. And thanks for the story-what a fun experience to have. I was able to attend a fireside given by one of the Smith’s descendants (which I’m sure many of you have seen as he toured) where he shows I think it was the box the plates were in and a shirt and few other items. Objects seem to help link us with the past.

    any other cool things you were able to see in there? mummies, papyri,etc? I kno I’m off the topic but had to ask.

  11. Akash on September 28, 2005 at 5:54 pm

    Wow, Nate, you’re the first Mormon I’ve seen to raise this in (semi-)public discourse. I appreciate both that you raised the issue and discussed it in a novel way.

    Question, since you seem to be informed on the issue (and I haven’t read Bushman in years): where is the stone that Pres. Woodruff consecrated in the Manti temple now located? I for one would love to see it, but I have a hunch that it’s kept out of public view, not just because of its value but also because it jibes with the more-or-less “official” history involving Joseph’s continuing use of the Urim and Thummim. I find this particular aspect of the official history particularly fascinating because even a casual reader of the D&C can tell that once the Lord removes the U&T from Joseph, He never gives them back, and the logical question is precisely what he used to translate things later in his prophetic career. Doesn’t bother me what device was used as long as the Lord was involved, eh?

  12. manaen on September 28, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    I attended seminary in the slide-rule sixties, when the most efficient mechanisms for storage and retrieval of static information were microfilm and large readers or tapes/punch cards and room-filling computers. Mechanisms for using information with motion or sound were even more inefficient. When I read about the white stone/personal Urim & Thummim that will be given to each person who overcomes (Rev. 2:17, D&C 130:10-11), I wondered how all that information could fit into such a small object. I just folded my acceptance of the white stone into a general testimony.

    It required progressively less faith to believe it as I watched the emergence of desktops, laptops, Blackberries, and then wireless connections to the internet. Now, all knowledge doesn’t have to exist in the object, but it can exist in some remote source and be received through space. When I explained to a friend my wonder at how technology has made the white stone unremarkable, he observed that we’ll probably turn it over and find a sticker that says, “Intel Inside.”

    As for historical relics, did you ever wonder what happened to the gold plates Moroni recovered? Did you ever wonder why the statue of Moroni on the SLC temple is gold-plated? Did you ever wonder why Moroni’s statue is placed so high that you can’t read what’s on it? “Gold plates Moroni” recovered —> “gold-plated Moroni”… think about it!

  13. ryan lindgren on September 28, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    I’ve always thought of seer stones as a type of prepatory medium for Jospeh. I think Jospeh had got the hang of recieving inspiration from God later in his life, and seer stones were a cultural understanding that God worked through.

    At this time it seems like the book of mormon is used as a way of getting members tapped into personal revelation. Or going to the Celestial room. Or fasting. Different behavior we have of drawing nearer to God.

    As for gold plated Moroni made from gold plates-thats kind of a leap. Lots of moroni myths out there. here in LA people have told me that moroni will spin and blow it’s horn at the second coming. I’d never heard the spin part before.

  14. Ronan on September 28, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    Another great Oman post. You should write this up for Archipelago.

  15. Marvin on September 28, 2005 at 8:15 pm

    Sorry this is a little off subject, but does anybody have any thoughts on what “higher kingdoms” the white stone is supposed to reveal to those who receive it? Aren’t they already in the “highest kingdom”?

  16. Jared on September 29, 2005 at 10:42 am

    Re #15

    I’ve always thought of it as expanding areas of jurisdiction. So, as an analogy, you can know not just what is going on in your city, but also your state and federal goverment.

  17. gst on September 29, 2005 at 1:08 pm

    Manean, you have given me a lot of ammunition to use against my wife when she condemns me for fiddling with my Blackberry through meetings. Reading an online version of Boswell’s Johnson got me through the last stake conference.

  18. manaen on September 29, 2005 at 1:08 pm

    15
    Marvin, thanks for your question. The third time I re-read D&C 130 because of it, I noticed something new to me.

    “9 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.

    “10 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)

    The earth will become a general U&T for the people that dwell on it – manifesting things pertaining to inferior/lower order kingdoms.

    The white stone will be a personal U&T for each person that receives one – making known things of higher-order kingdoms.

    D&C 88:20, 25,26 say that the earth will be sanctified and that its purpose is to be possessed by those of the celestial kingdom.

    I wonder whether this means that everyone living on earth will have manifest things of a lower kingdom and only people with a white stone will have manifest things of a higher kingdom. Would this be part of the difference between people exalted and people not exalted in the celestial kingdom? I have no idea. I will dig into sources out of curiosity but I don’t see this as essential to my progression now.

  19. Michael on September 29, 2005 at 8:49 pm

    Nate, I seem to recall that in TPJS or maybe in Brigham Young there’s an interesting “secrecy corollary” to the thesis that the anarchic tendencies of individual revelation are resolved through jurisdiction.

    On one view of the jurisdictional approach to resolving conflicting claims to revelation, because Joseph was the First Elder, it followed that God would not reveal any general truths about the gospel to anyone else. Personal revelation, on that view, will only concern (1) confirmation of the general truths given by the prophets; and (2) specific advice & knowledge about how to live the specific individual’s life (or about others under that individual’s stewardship).

    The passage I’m thinking of did not take that view of the matter. Rather, it preserved the possibility that a person through faithfulness might receive many revelations of general truths that had not yet been made known to the church. However, Brother Joseph (or Brigham, whoever it was) went on to tell his listeners that if they got a revelation that went beyond the revelations given to the church at large by the prophet, they should hold it close to their breasts and not reveal it until such time as the Lord made it known through the prophet.

    On this view of revelation, the difference between the jurisdiction of my personal revelation and that of the prophet has to do not with subject matter jurisdiction but with personal jurisdiction: both of us can receive revelation about, e.g., the three degrees of glory or the nature of those little white stones described in Section 130. The difference is just that I’m expected to keep my mouth shut about it.

    And speaking of those little white stones, is it significant that the urim & thumim for making things known about lower orders is something we all share (the earth), while the one for making things known about higher orders seems to be profoundly individual (not only do we each have our own, but each has a “a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it”)?

    Given my general understanding that we are moving toward Zion, I would have thought that the upward-directed urim & thumim would have been the communal one, not the individualistic one.

    But to tie the two parts of this comment together, in both cases it seems there are times where our community and our progression depend on our keeping something secret which the Lord has revealed to us alone. We are to be a community of the Lord’s confidants.

  20. mrs on September 30, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    > Sorry this is a little off subject, but does anybody have any thoughts on what “higher kingdoms” the white stone is
    > supposed to reveal to those who receive it? Aren’t they already in the “highest kingdom”?

    One intepretation is that it would reveal things pertaining to the differences in glory and intelligence and “kingdoms” between ouselves and God, thus allowing us to reach his level eventually — immediately after obtaining the celestial ki ngdom, we’re very unlikely to be in God’s state immediately. People in other kingdoms are stopped in progress because they do not have the opportunity to progress any higher, perhaps because they are not capable of it, and therefore do not receive this knowledge. I doubt all will be at the same level of spiritual progress in the celestial kingdom – but all who do receive that inheritance will be prepared for future progress, which is the key distinguishing feature of the celestial kingdom.

    Another interpretation is if one follows the supposition that God went through a similar process as we do to obtain his/her deified state, and that there are chains and chains of Gods, the stone would reveal things according to a higher level along this chain.

  21. Gavin McGraw on September 30, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    I had a Seerscone once. By reading how the butter filled the nooks and crannies, you could tell what you were ordained to eat later that day. Of course, this didn’t go over well with my wife because I kept seeing filet mignon and grilled mahi mahi, when she had already bought the tater-tots. So she made me eat the Seerscone. Now I can only tell what I’ve eaten after the fact.

    Later I saw a Seersnail. You could tell by looking at him that he wasn’t going to go anywhere fast.

    ….

  22. manaen on September 30, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    21
    Such light-mindedness is unbecoming, so let’s keep this dark-minded.
    Please be seerious.

  23. mormon fool on October 1, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    For those interested, I typed some notes on seer stones from a book about seer stones.

    A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Villiage Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet by Mark Ashurst-McGee (A-M below), Masters Thesis 2000, USU

    It can be shown that Joseph Smith had two seer stones and the Urim and Thummin which were each progressively more powerful. Additionally Joseph purchased a green geode stone from a Pennsylvanian, but there is no evidence of him ever using it, and he gave it to Philo Dibble. Joseph found another seer stone on the shore near Nauvoo. So I can verify at least four of the seer stones Joseph is reported to have.

    “In 1966, Grant Palmer observed both stones at the same time. Twenty-five years later he remembered the white stone being smaller than the brown one”

    sources: Palmer to Marquardt and Palmer to A-M in telephone interviews.

    “LDS president Lorenzo Snow showed the white stone to Richard M. Robinson and told him it was ‘the Seer Stone the Prophet Joseph used.'”

    source: Robinson 1934

    “Most historians hold that Joseph discovered his brown stone while digging a well on the Chase farm.[252] The stone found there was white and was Joseph’s second stone. David Whitmer, who spoke frequently about the brown stone, but never the white one, observed Joseph using the brown stone while living with Whitmer family in 1829.”

    sources: [252] Quinn, Bushman, Vogel, an Alex Baugh; Whitmer “An Adress. . .”
    notes: Joseph gave it to Oliver who gave it to Brigham.

    The brown stone

    “President Young also said that the seer stone which Joseph first obtained he got from an Iron kettle 15 feet underground. He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had” –Wilford Woodruff journal

    notes: The other person could be Sally Chase, Luman Walters, a Stafford, or S. Lawrence.

    A-M “tentatively dates the first seer stone vision to 1819 or early 1820 and the actual disinterment to 1821 or early 1822.”

    “He said the stone was under the roots or shrub as large as his arn, situated a mile up a small stream that puts in on the South side of Lake Erie” – Purple 1877

    Stowell testified it “could see things fifty feet beneath the surface of the earth.” The brown stone could not be used to see into futurity or holy things (including JS Sr.’s “holy shirt”). [Saunders to Kelley]

    The white stone

    -was found under the pretext of digging a well on the Chase property. Then there was an ongoing feud who it belonged too.

    –was more powerful

    “prisoner pretended to him that he could discern objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a Hat at his dark colored stone as he said it hurt is eyes” –1826 court record

    “about 1825, Hyrum borrowed the stone on behalf of the Smith family because ‘they wanted to accomplish some business of importance, which could not very well be done without the aid of the stone.'” — Willard Chase in Howe

    A-M links the white stone to Rev 2:17 and this teaching: “with a white stone ‘all things pertaining to an higher order of kingdoms even all kingdoms will be made known and a white stone is given. . . ‘” JS 1843

    –enabled Joseph to find the Urim and Thummin and the location of the plates.

    “Joseph . . . described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The family likewise told me the same thing.” Martin Harris in Tiffany’s 1859

    notes: there is some debate whether or not the seer stone was involved when this account is compared to others. Additional support comes from Chase, Stout (from Brigham Young), and Purple.

    –Joseph could have the plates if he brought the right person along according to Moroni.

    “Then he looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale.” Joseph Knight

    The Urim and Thummin

    –The ultimate seer stones

    “They are ten times Better then I expected. . .I can see anything; they are Marvelus.”–JS to Knight immediately after Joseph gets the plates.

    “he could see everything–past, present, and future.” — Lapham 1870

    “I [Martin] never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said ‘no man can see God and live,’ and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind.” –Harris in Tiffany’s

    “[Urim and Thummin] was to supersede the further use of the magic stone” –Pomeroy Tucker

    Book of Mormon translation

    –instruments used

    “[Joseph] possessed a seer stone, by which he was able to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummin, and for convenience he then used the seer stone” Harris through Edward Stevenson

    –for convenience?

    ” the instruments were much too large for Joseph and he could see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other. By putting his head in a hat or some dark object it was not necessary to close one eye while looking through the stone with the other. In that way sometimes when his eyes grew [tired] he releaved them of the strain.”–William Smith to J.W. Peterson

    The spectacles, according to Anthon were too large. A-M concludes “Joseph apparently disassembled the spectacles.”

    –evidence for using the white stone before the brown stone in translation

    Joseph preferred the white stone.

    Hyrum wouldn’t return the white stone in 1830 “for Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible” –Chase in Howe

    “Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had the white stone”– 1830 account traced back to Martin Harris. A-M writes “Because Martin Harris served as Smith’s scribe during the first phase of the Book of Mormon translation, Smith’s use of the white stone should be dated to this period. Witnesses of Joseph’s later translations in Harmony and at the Whitmer farm in Fayette reported Joseph’s use of the brown seer stone”

    Joseph uses the brown stone after Moroni returns it and the plates to him. The brown stone is the weakest and earlier it wasn’t able to view holy things. Perhaps this is why Oliver is asked to help with the translation (and fails in the early D&C sections). But Joseph’s progression as a seer allows him to use this weaker stone.