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.