Domesticating Peepstones

July 12, 2006 | 34 comments
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I like Michael’s post about seer stones.

There was, of course, a time when talk of Joseph Smith and seer stones sent shivers up and down the spines of Mormons. (No doubt it still does for some.) It seems to me that we have gone through a couple of stages with this and related issues. First was denial. As I recall (only Mormon legal history in my office; sorry), Hugh Nibley once wrote an essay vociferously claiming that any suggestion that Joseph Smith had a connection with folk magic was a nasty and ignorant slur. Oops. Denial was followed by a period of intellectual angst. For some this has meant exit from the Church. “How could a prophet be involved in such things!” For most Mormons with an interest in peepstones, however, I suspect that the response was more along the lines of, “I now know the dark secrets of the past, but I will still hang on despite the crushing feelings of isolation in my esoteric knowledge.” Then we get analysis, Richard Bushman trying to delineate out magic from revelation and providing us with a narrative of gradual abandonment. (There are reasons to suppose that Joseph never quite “escaped” magical thinking with the neatness that Bushman suggested.)

Finally, we get theological domestication. Rather than denying seer stones, stewing in them, or trying to explain them away to the margins of the story, we embrace them and find ways of integrating them into our understanding of the Restoration and the ways that God reveals himself to man. (For my own attempt along these lines read this.) They remain an anachronism to be sure. (I have yet to meet a modern member who actually has a seer stone, but I would like to. More to the point, I want a seer stone!) But now they become an anachronism more akin to handcarts or oxen; something that we don’t use or do anymore, but which can nevertheless live on as a character in the stories that we tell one another about the gospel. I have my doubt about this as academic history, but it strikes me as very good theology.

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34 Responses to Domesticating Peepstones

  1. Russell Arben Fox on July 12, 2006 at 10:37 am

    I’ve never met a Mormon with a seer stone either. Nor do I particularly want one. But I have met a member of the church who could quite successfully dowse water with a stick, and I wish he would’ve taught me how it was done. Amazingly enough, magic hangs on, by other names, and if only by its fingertips, at the outskirts of Mormonism, in the same as it does through much of old weird America.

    Care to share your reservations about Bushman’s narrative, Nate? You didn’t mention any such criticisms in your review of Rough Stone Rolling.

  2. Frank McIntyre on July 12, 2006 at 10:48 am

    “Amazingly enough, magic hangs on, ”

    I have a puny little doohicky on my keychain that can hold 1 Gigabyte of data accessible on any computer. If that’s not magic I don’t know what magic is.

  3. Randy B. on July 12, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Nate, this is a threadjack, but should be short: One of these days, I would love to see a list of what makes up your collection of Mormon legal history. Some things are obviously there (Zion and the Courts, the Polygamy Question, Carthage Conspiracy, etc.). But I’m more interested in the non-obvious.

  4. Nate Oman on July 12, 2006 at 10:57 am

    Randy B.: Alas it is not that big. Without leaving my chair, I can see:

    Clifford Ashton, The Federal Judiciary in Utah
    Zion in the Courts
    Political Deliverance
    Forgotten Kingdom
    The Gentile Comes to Utah
    The Politics of Religious Identity
    The Utah Conflict
    Cathage Conspiracy
    The Mormon Question
    The State of Deseret
    Great Basin Kingdom
    Utah’s History
    The Mormon Experience
    Brigham Young: American Moses
    George Q. Cannon
    Rough Stone Rolling

    Obviously, most of these titles are not really legal, but I am currently using all of them in a legal project. The sad truth is that there isn’t all that much in the way of books on Mormon legal history. A couple of years ago, I also collected articles on Mormonism published in law views and had them bound in a book that I titled “Selected Articles on Law and Mormonism,” which is about 400 or 500 pages long. I also have a bunch of books on American legal history that are not related to Mormons, but are important for understanding Mormon legal history. These include (again from what I can see without getting up):

    American Jurisprudence, 1870-1970
    The Golden Age of American Law
    The Transformation of American Law vol. I & II
    A History of American Law
    The Law of the Commonwealth and Chief Justice Shaw
    Justice Accused
    and other stuff

  5. Nate Oman on July 12, 2006 at 10:59 am

    I also have photocopies of some nineteenth century sources in my files, e.g. Cannon’s _A Reply to the Decions of the Supreme Court…_, Baskin’s _Reminisciences of Early Utah_, CC Goodwin, A History of the Bench and Bar in Utah, as well as some court documents.

  6. John Mansfield on July 12, 2006 at 11:48 am

    Here‘s an early-Utah peepstone story for you that I just came across.

  7. Michael McBride on July 12, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    I always knew I was more spiritually advanced than Nibley. But now your post seconds that notion. The law of witnesses makes it official!

  8. Clark on July 12, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    The problem with the anti-peepstone move is that we have the Urim and Thummim which sound like only a slight variation on the theme. Further we have D&C 130:11 and Rev 2:17 which suggest each of us will get one. Then there are the symbolic hints of the same in the endowment.

  9. bbell on July 12, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    I also want a peepstone.

    I am not sure how controversial the idea of peepstones is to the average member. Peepstone equals Urim and Thummin????

    I brought up peepstones, translation issues with the hat etc in YM’s last year and I got a collective yawn. To a boy they all indicated that they had heard all this stuff in seminary

  10. Kurt on July 12, 2006 at 12:48 pm

    Leave the Church over this? Theological domestication? Nothing like the Bible to assist in that, huh? How about Deut. 33:8, 1 Sam. 28:6 and Rev. 2:17.

  11. Jim Cobabe on July 12, 2006 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve been trying to think of some new imaginative approach to creative priestcraft — ways to make money off the church. Your note suggests a vast untapped market in selling seer stones. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen any at Deseret Book. I can see it now — they should go on the same aisle with CTR rings and Angel Moroni statuettes.

    To be sure, there are a lot of appropriate stones available in this locale that could be readily adapted, with just a bit of work to collect and polish them up a bit.

    Nate — will I have to share royalties with you?

  12. Randy B. on July 12, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    Nate (#4). Thank you. My reading stack just grew significantly.

    When you say “The Utah Conflict,” do you mean “The Mormon Conflict” by Furniss? Couldn’t find a book entitled “The Utah Conflict.”

    Also, I hate to pester, but if you have an index of those articles, I’d be very interested in the list. If you already have an index, perhaps you could pdf it to me (pretty please)?

    Sorry for the treadjack. Thanks again.

  13. Kevin Barney on July 12, 2006 at 2:15 pm

    As part of the denial phase, NIbley once stated that if the money digging stories were true, it would be the death knell of the Church. Clearly he was wrong about that.

    I sort of went through your stages on an individual basis WRT the one thing I’ve encountered that gave me serious pause about the Church: the Salamander Letter. When I first read it, it kind of freaked me out, since it was so different from anything I had encountered and I was completely unprepared for it.

    I didn’t go throug a denial stage; at that time, I assumed the letter was authentic. Instead of losing my faith and giving up, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. I studied the historical literature relative to folk magical practices from the preceding century. This literature had exactly nothing to do with Mormonism (this was before Quinn’s first edition of Magic World View appeared). But gaining an understanding of the people and the context and the thought made all the difference, and I decided I didn’t have a problem with the SL after all.

    Which was a good thing, because although the SL was eventually determined to be a fraud, JS was legitimately engaged in folk magical practices related to money digging, such as scrying with peep stones. But now I was prepared to deal with that literature and those evidences without being overly defensive about it.

    I think the whole Mormon history profession has kind of gone through the same process, as reflected most recently in RSR.

  14. bbell on July 12, 2006 at 2:21 pm

    OK,

    I have a long time ago heard rumors of actual peepstones still in individual members possession. I have also heard stories about J Golden Kimball and peepstones. Quinn relates in his book about this topic that he had met active members that claimed to be in possession of seerstones

    Let the possessors of any such stones please come forward.

  15. Nate Oman on July 12, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Mormon Conflict not the Utah Conflict. Sorry. It is the Furniss book.

    I unfortunately don’t have an index of the articles. FWIW, I am hoping to pull together a more or less comprehensive bibliography of Mormon legal history this year for a project. It will take a while, but I think it ought to be useful.

  16. Mark Butler on July 12, 2006 at 4:30 pm

    The question about magic as such is ultimately a question about advanced spiritual / material hybrid technologies.

    The reason why a first class seer does not need a seer stone is because his eyes and brain are adequate to the task, when filled with the spirit. Visions are not ‘magic’ per se – they are based upon spiritual technology – both perception (direct vision) and communicative (dramatization). Actual information transfer is going on – information transfer requires some sort of medium, some sort of encoding and some sort of presentation, otherwise no communication takes place.

    The human body is the greatest technology ever made – the technology of God – capable when endowed with the spirit of things biologists generally don’t even dream about. So why can’t God do the same with a stone?

    And the Lord said unto Enoch: Go forth and do as I have commanded thee, and no man shall pierce thee. Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance, for all flesh is in my hands, and I will do as seemeth me good. Say unto this people: Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you.

    Behold my Spirit is upon you, wherefore all thy words will I justify; and the mountains shall flee before you, and the rivers shall turn from their course; and thou shalt abide in me, and I in you; therefore walk with me. And the Lord spake unto Enoch, and said unto him: Anoint thine eyes with clay, and wash them, and thou shalt see. And he did so.

    And he beheld the spirits that God had created; and he beheld also things which were not visible to the natural eye; and from thenceforth came the saying abroad in the land: A seer hath the Lord raised up unto his people.

    And it came to pass that Enoch went forth in the land, among the people, standing upon the hills and the high places, and cried with a loud voice, testifying against their works; and all men were offended because of him.

    And they came forth to hear him, upon the high places, saying unto the tent-keepers: Tarry ye here and keep the tents, while we go yonder to behold the seer, for he prophesieth, and there is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us.
    (Moses 6:32-28)

  17. Mark Butler on July 12, 2006 at 4:33 pm

    And we should not forget:

    “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
    Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
    (Phillippians 3:20-21)

    Working whereby? Technology by another name.

  18. cadams on July 12, 2006 at 4:38 pm

    For those of you not only interested in the topic but also possibly interested in experimentation, I would suggest reading “Reunions” by Raymond Moody. He also wrote “Life After Life,” which revolutionized the study of near death experiences (NDEs) and out of body experiences (OBEs) in the 70s. Reunions is about his and other’s experiences with obtaining visions through mirror gazing. I found it compelling enough to get a mirror and have begun experimentation myself. No success yet but just started. Like some of you, there’s some things I’m not very interested in at the moment, such as seeing my ancestors; but there’s other things I would love to get a knowledge of, such as learning things from history that we have lost or forgotten or has been kept from us. That’s what I want to know about – kind of like Faust getting bored with books and pursuing magic. Anyways, I’ve reviewed some statements by the prophets and I see no prohibition against a reasonable amount of experimentation.

  19. Mark Butler on July 12, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    The problem is that if you do not know that a particular scheme is endorsed by the spirit of God, then it is all too easy to be entrapped by evil ones. Very scary territory, requiring considerable prayer and consideration.

    “Lay hold of every good gift, but touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing”
    (cf. Moroni 10:30)

  20. Clair on July 12, 2006 at 8:10 pm

    “It seems to me that we have gone through a couple of stages with this and related issues. First was denial.”

    That doesn’t sound much different from my economics training. In grad school, we had to unlearn half of what we learned in undergrad classes. At least, we learned that when we relax some of the assumptions made in earlier classes, the conclusions could be reversed. We used the same models, but more generalized versions of them.

    The main problem with this stepwise approach to learning is when final conclusions are formed too early. It is fine, and even necessary, to teach undergrads simplified forms of the models so that they can learn to use the models. It is a mistake, however, to teach them that the conclusions derived predict much about the actual economy.

    Likewise, in seminary and SS classes, we can teach the basics of church history, but being careful to also teach that there are other elements to the story that we aren’t covering now. We should also be careful to not instill conclusions that we know are challenged by credible evidence. Then those elements won’t create as many conflicts when (if) they are learned later.

  21. Mark N. on July 12, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Now, if you can come up with three peepstones that glow when you bring them together like the sacred stones in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (or, rather, should I compare them to the Brother of Jared’s shining “riding in the dishlike boats” stones?), then you’ll really have something.

  22. Mark Butler on July 12, 2006 at 9:13 pm

    Clair (#21), I think that is one of the most perspicacious comments I have ever read about the nature of the gospel, and the problems with the premature axiomatization of religious belief.

  23. Jeff Day on July 12, 2006 at 11:14 pm

    Nate, I am glad to hear someone else bring up this subject. I just recently started attempting to locate and use Seer Stones myself. You may find at least some amusement in the story of my first dig, First Attempt at Scrying that I wrote about on my blog, however I did not specifically mention the stone I used in the article — I did use one.

    I have been reading up on crystallomancy from the oldest sources I can find, and have found some information that corroborates with Joseph’s usage of the stones quite nicely, especially with the use of a hat or some type of black cloth.

    I encourage you in your efforts. I know of no reason not to attempt this, the scriptures only indicate that usage of the Urim and Thummim is restricted to certain purposes of God, but use of “ordinary” seer stones seems to have been relatively wide spread in the early LDS Church and I see nothing forbidding it as a practice.

    If you are serious about your endeavors, we should keep in touch regarding our progress in this area. You may find some of my other blog posts interesting, especially my recent attempt at restoring text.

    ~Jeff, a “Mormon Gnostic

  24. John Remy on July 13, 2006 at 1:07 am

    Nate, can Mormons talk about seer stones “and find ways of integrating them into our understanding of the Restoration and the ways that God reveals himself to man” and ignore magic rods, talismans, and a greater sense of interaction with the world of the spirits and angels and devils than we generally have today? I think that we like to project our tidy, rational worldview back onto the early 19th century. It makes me wonder what Mormons a hundred years from now will find strange in how we approach God, revelation and the world. Can we say that God speaks to his people not only in their own tongue but in terms of their culture as well?

    By way of illustration: on my mission we helped reactivate a Brazillian family (in Tokyo) who was convinced that their aunt was a witch and was cursing their home and their baby. Fortunately our repertoire included the ability to cast out evil spirits in the name of the Lord, and I know that this comforted them. I think they had a different experience of the Church, revelation, and the world of the spirits (I purposefully refrain from using the term “Spirit World”) than many mainstream American Mormons have, but I don’t think that they were any more or less Mormon for the differences in their beliefs or experiences.

  25. Mark Butler on July 13, 2006 at 2:49 am

    I have had just enough experience with evil and questionable spirits of various natures that my first instinct is to stay far away. The knowledge of a true spiritual gift should generally come by personal revelation. Looking over occultist and hermetic texts makes me feel all creepy inside – even if there is something of value in there it is typically mixed with so much confusion, error, and often outright evil, that one tends to want to close it before it taints your soul. I felt the same way about the “Magic the Gathering” cards one of my younger brothers was collecting, a considerable variety of related material, and some not so related, like the “peace” symbol – definitely an evil spirit about that (not metaphysically, but indirectly of course).

  26. Jonathan N on July 13, 2006 at 6:49 am

    Nate, this realm of “magic” is not such an anachronism as you may think. I was first introduced to water dousing by a BYU professor, who was frequently employed to find underground water. I used it often myself while I worked in landscaping as a student when we needed to find underground sprinkler and main water lines. (I’ve since used it in my own lawn for the same purpose.) There is no scientific explanation for it, but it is reliable.

    I know several active LDS people who use dowsing, pendulums and kinesiology in their daily lives, but so far I haven’t met anyone who uses a seer stone–or at least who admits to using one.

    Perhaps Mark’s point about a perception that this type of activity is linked to evil explains why people keep these activities to themselves. I like the idea of “theological domestication,” even if it raises a risk of Hiram Page incidents. After all, it seems clear that had Joseph Smith shunned seer stones, we wouldn’t have the Book of Mormon.

  27. Nate Oman on July 13, 2006 at 9:46 am

    John: Yes. I am all for domesticating water dousing, divining rods, treasure seeking, and all of the rest of it. (My dad has actually done some water dousing and insists that it works.) When I was in law school we had a wonderful — and thourghly demented — West Indian sister in our ward who was very into voodoo. One day, Archie, a zealous old man who had recently been baptized, and the missionaries went over and “de-voodized” Edith’s apartment. Edith responded by “re-voodizing” it (she wasn’t going to let the evil spirts get into her refrigerator, thank you very much.) However, rather than using images of the sacred heart and the blessed virgin, she used church distrubtion prints of Jesus, Joseph Smith, and President Hinkley, at which point Edith and Archie declared a truce on the matter.

  28. Christian Y. Cardall on July 13, 2006 at 10:01 am

    A companion of mine had a similar experience in Chile. He told a new convert she ought to get rid of her image of Mary with a candle burning beneath it. On a later visit Mary was replaced with an image of Pres. Benson, but the candle remained burning beneath it.

  29. Jeff Day on July 13, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Jim said: “I’ve been trying to think of some new imaginative approach to creative priestcraft — ways to make money off the church. Your note suggests a vast untapped market in selling seer stones. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen any at Deseret Book. I can see it now — they should go on the same aisle with CTR rings and Angel Moroni statuettes.”

    I beat y’all to the punch. You can find unique Seer Stone and Hat sets here, to satisfy all your early saint nostalgic cravings.

    Enjoy!

  30. Dave on July 13, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    I have heard about seer stones since I was a kid and never thought the church was in denial about it, but maybe I am too young. I was also taught about them in seminary.

  31. Tatiana on July 13, 2006 at 6:52 pm

    It is rather hard to know what is magic and what is just God acting through our enabling faith. Many people use prayer like magic, to attempt to influence events in what strike me as unrighteous ways, (like my high school football team, who would call time out to huddle and pray for a touchdown). Magic elides into religion, and religion into magic, in ways that are hard to tease apart. Sometimes physical things are important, such as the actual water in baptism, or the bread and water of the sacrament. Might laying on of hands work through the medium of the internet? I suspect if our faith were sufficient it could. It’s also possible that virtual water would work for valid baptisms, someday. Who knows? Perhaps it becomes magic when we attempt to impose our own will through these rituals, objects, or processes, rather than using them to seek and bring ourselves into harmy with the will of God.

  32. Tatiana on July 13, 2006 at 6:53 pm

    *harmony

  33. Jim Cobabe on July 18, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    Dowsing is not magic, though the traditional rationale may be superstitious folklore. I would rather see it as simply a non-arbitrary approach to arriving at an arbitrary decision — like tossing a coin. The dowser is intensely focused on the dowsing rods, which then seem to direct and act on their own. The concentration on the dowsing rods distracts the dowser from the burden of committing to what would otherwise be a difficult arbitrary choice.

    Quite possibly, the seer stone may function in a similar manner. The stone provides the user with something on which to focus his concentration, providing a channel through which he may close out distraction and thus be more sensitive to the reception of certain mental impressions.

    I understand that Joseph Smith’s dependence on the seer stone tapered off with time, perhaps as he became more accustomed to reaching the same state of focused mental concentration without the use of any particular enabling object.

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