In a land of myth and a time of magic, the destiny of a great kingdom rests on the shoulders of a young man. His name … Joseph.
If you couldn’t tell from the text above, my wife and I have been watching the TV series Merlin lately. We’ve rather enjoyed their take on the Arthurian legends. To me, there is something fascinating about stories that are told and retold time and time again for hundreds of years. Now, I inserted Joseph’s name into the opening sequence of that TV series for this post because while the United States isn’t a land lost in myth and legend like Camelot, the early days of our religion were, for many adherents, a time of magic.
To be fair to them, they didn’t necessarily see what they were doing as magic—more often they viewed it in religious terms. For example, in this week’s readings for “Come, Follow Me,” we come across an interesting portion of Section 8 that discusses Oliver Cowdery having “the gift of Aaron.” While the nature of this gift is obscured in the text of the Doctrine and Covenants, the earliest extant version of the revelation states that Oliver had “the gift of working with the sprout,” which was a “thing of Nature” and that it was “the work of God.” A subsequent version of the text rendered this as “the gift of working with the rod.” The Joseph Smith Papers site note about these phrases explains that: “Green, flexible shoots or rods cut from hazel, peach, or cherry trees were sometimes used as divining rods.” This puts Cowdery’s gift as working with objects that have been called divining rods, dousing rods, or witching rods—rods generally used to locate water or treasure through supernatural means. While most of us aren’t very comfortable claiming the work of rodsmen to be “the work of God,” the 1829 revelation is very clear in stating that “there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.” Section 6 also speaks of Oliver having “a gift” that is “sacred and cometh from above” through which he could “inquire [and] know mysteries,” which could be another mention of his ability to work with a divining rod. Something that seems like superstition or magic to us today was seen by them as a sacred gift from God.
The seer stones or scrying stones of which Joseph Smith made frequent use are similar in this regard. Most of the revelations up through 1830 (most notably the Book of Mormon) were received through the use of these stones or the related object that we call the Urim and Thummim. For example, Section 7 was an answer to a dispute about the fate of John the Beloved that Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith “mutually agreed to settle … by the Urim and Thummim, and the [revelation] is the word which we received.” The Joseph Smith Papers website places the use of these seer stones in the context of “a European tradition of folk belief reaching back at least into the middle ages,” where “quartz crystals or other stones could be used to find missing objects or to see other things not visible to the natural eye.” Referring back to Merlin, this means that Joseph Smith was a practitioner of the same tradition of abilities that Morgause and Merlin are depicted as having when they look into certain crystals and are able to see events unfolding in other locations or in the future.
In many ways, this does seem to be similar to how Joseph Smith used his abilities with the seer stones. For example, Josiah Stowell was willing to hire Joseph Smith in his treasure hunting endeavor because Joseph Smith gave a demonstration where he “looked through stone and described Josiah Stowell’s house” correctly while still in Palmyra. A record of an 1826 court trial indicates that Joseph Smith claimed to have “frequently ascertained … where lost property was of various kinds; that he has occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years.” In one example of this, Martin Harris later recalled that Joseph Smith found a pin in a pile of shavings with the aid of a seer stone. Later on, Elder B. H. Roberts wrote a description of his own experience with a seer stone that had once been owned by W. W. Phelps in a discussion about how the Urim and Thummim may have worked:
The bright stones of Urim and Thummim were for the purpose, no doubt, of fixing the gaze of the seer for purposes of concentration of mind. Taking this stone in one’s hand—I did so with the Phelps’ perforated stone—and drawing it toward the eyes until it reaches the right focus, the two holes become, of course, in appearance but one, and this a single bright spot of light, with all else excluded, which becomes the bright field in which the vision of the seer … appears. A glass of clear water is said to answer at times the same purpose. In a bit of seership in action … [in one account] Joseph Smith makes use of a glass of water as a Urim, in his vision of, and his description of, the Rocky Mountain valleys—which he had never seen but in vision—as the habitat of the Latter-day Saints.
These accounts involve Joseph Smith looking into the stone and being able to see visions of things that weren’t readily seen otherwise.
Just like how Cowdery’s ability with divining rods was held as sacred, so too was Joseph Smith’s ability with seer stones. A Book of Mormon passage dictated around the time of the revelations for Oliver Cowdery contains a discussion about a king who “can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look … and it is a gift from God. … And the things are called interpreters. … And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer. … A seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have.” This places Joseph Smith’s work with the seer stones as being a gift from God, and even indicates that his calling as a seer was based primarily on his ability to work with the interpreters or seer stones in translation. (Though, if in the course of the obligatory Sunday School discussions where people try to tease apart what the different words mean when we call our Church leaders “prophets, seers, and revelators,” you gave the narrow definition that a seer is someone who sees things in magic rocks, you might quickly end up becoming someone who sees things inside the bishop’s office.) The fact that so many of the early revelations in the Church were received through the medium of these seer stones places their use at the heart of our early sacred history.
From a scholarly perspective it is easy to place these beliefs in the context of rural folk magic in the early United States and the ways in which those beliefs melded with religion. Richard Lyman Bushman made note of this in his biography of Joseph Smith, stating that educated ministers and newspaper editors “scoffed at the superstitions of common people,” but those common folk “apparently had no difficulty blending Christianity with magic.” These common beliefs about divining rods and seer stones “can be read as evidence of their general faith in invisible forces. Christian belief in angels and devils blended with belief in guardian spirits and magic powers.” He also points out that these ideas were not unique to Smith and Cowdery—in Joseph Smith’s neighborhood alone, Bushman found references to at least two other families who owned and used scrying stones and noted that one of Cowdery’s childhood neighbors dabbled in using a rod to find treasure. Information like this helps to put the use of objects like seer stones and divining rods in context of the times.
While understanding context is useful for knowing how the early saints came to believe in seer stones and divining rods, we still are faced with the difficulty of how to make sense of them being an integral part of the origins of our faith in a modern culture that scoffs at belief in magic or divinely-powered objects. From my perspective, there are three main approaches that we can make in approaching this subject: rolling with it, minimizing it, and viewing the objects as tools co-opted by God.
In the “rolling with it” approach, we simply accept the claims of early Latter-day Saints at face value. In other words, there really are objects that the Lord works through to provide revelation or administer miracles. We pretty much have to do this with Joseph Smith’s seer stones to be considered orthodox Latter-day Saints, since they’re central to the origin of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s initial calling as a prophet, seer, and revelator. And there is a decent amount of support for this approach in the scriptures. In addition to Section 8’s endorsement of Oliver Cowdery’s use of diving rods discussed above, we have the following summary from the Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon Translation:
Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpent, holy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.
The biggest difficulty for taking this approach is that we don’t really see God working through these means today, which raises questions about whether they truly worked in the past. In any case, just rolling with the claims of using objects is one approach we can take, and it is an approach with some scriptural support.
The second approach is to minimize or dismiss as much as we can of early Latter-day Saint belief in magic as being an interesting cultural artifact, but not central to our religion. While it is difficult to get away with doing this for Joseph Smith’s seer stones, this is the approach that we have historically taken with Oliver Cowdery’s rod-related abilities. The language in the revelation was changed for the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants to Oliver having “the gift of Aaron,” which has largely obscured the original meaning of the text to modern Latter-day Saints. For example, the most common interpretation of the “gift of Aaron” in the mid-to-late twentieth century was that it meant Oliver would act as Joseph Smith’s spokesperson, just as Aaron did for Moses. (To the Church’s credit, more recent publications have been more transparent about the original context of this “gift of Aaron”.) And while we generally accept Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, we tend to do our best to ignore the fact that other early Latter-day Saints and early Americans also owned and used similar scrying stones. The major exception to that is Hiram Page, since we have another revelation that dismisses his experience with a seer stone: “Those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and … Satan deceiveth him.” In many ways, that incident provides a template for making the seer stones that are integral to our history unique or different from the broader culture of using similar objects. So, doing our best to minimize or dismiss as much as we can of magic from how we understand the founding story of our religion is another approach we can take.
A third approach I have mentioned is to view the objects as tools co-opted by God in training early Church leaders. That is, the objects may not have actually had the powers attributed to them, but God knew that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery believed they had abilities to learn God’s will through those objects, so He used the objects to reveal His will through them as a metaphorical set of training wheels until these early saints gained a better understanding of how to receive revelation directly through the Holy Spirit. Elder Orson Pratt made some statements that support this idea about the Urim and Thummim. For example, in 1871, he is recorded as stating that:
As Joseph used the Urim and Thummim in the translation of the Book of Mormon, he [Orson] wondered why he did not use it in the translation of the New Testament. Joseph explained to him that the experience he had acquired while translating the Book of Mormon by the use of the Urim and Thummim had rendered him so well acquainted with the Spirit of Revelation and Prophecy, that in the translating of the New Testament he did not need the aid that was necessary in the 1st instance.
If accurate, this would seem to indicate that Joseph learned to receive revelation through the early seer stones but became less dependent on them as he learned how to work directly with the Spirit.
To a certain degree, Sections 8 and 9 show a similar pattern taking place with Oliver Cowdery. While I have focused in on one aspect of these revelations, the overriding theme is about learning to receive revelation. Section 8, for example leads by introducing that Oliver Cowdery has “the gift” of “the spirit of revelation,” and that the Holy Ghost will give him knowledge about “whatsoever things you shall ask in faith” before it affirms that he has “another gift, which is the gift of Aaron.” While the revelation acknowledges that he has the latter gift, the first gift is the one he is encouraged to “apply unto,” or work on. These instances seem to offer support for the idea that the objects were used to train early Latter-day Saints to receive revelation.
Thus, while these early revelations that we are studying this week have roots in a culture of magic that is not shared with the modern, western worldview, there are ways to understand the beliefs our early co-religionists. The three that I have mentioned are to view them as training wheels used by God to teach them about revelation, to dismiss them as cultural beliefs of their time that aren’t important today, or to simply accept that seer stones and divining rods really worked. Whatever the case may be, even though I have written this post focusing on the subject of using seer stones and witching rods, I do believe that the more important parts of the revelations we are studying this week are to focus on learning to receive revelation for ourselves and focusing on being “saved in the kingdom of God, which is the greatest of all the gifts of God.”
 The Kingdom of God, that is.
 D&C 8:6.
 “Revelation, April 1829–B [D&C 8],” p. 13, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-april-1829-b-dc-8/2
 “Book of Commandments, 1833,” p. 19, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-commandments-1833/23
 “Revelation, April 1829–B [D&C 8],” p. 13, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-april-1829-b-dc-8/2.
 D&C 6:10-12.
 “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 15, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/21
 “Seer stone,” Glossary, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/topic/seer-stone.
 Quoted in Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 49.
 Cited in Dan Vogel, ed. Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003), 4:250.
 Tiffany’s Monthly, Aug. 1859, 164.
 Roberts, B. H.. Studies of the Book of Mormon (p. 274). Signature Books. Kindle Edition.
 Mosiah 8:13-17.
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 50.
 Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 49-50.
 “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng/ accessed 27 January 2021.
 See, for example, the section on “What Was the Gift of Aaron?” in the Institute manual on the Doctrine and Covenants. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-student-manual/section-8-the-spirit-of-revelation?lang=eng.
 See Jeffrey G. Cannon, “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” Revelations in Context, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/oliver-cowderys-gift?lang=eng.
 D&C 28:11.
 Minutes of the School of the Prophets, Salt Lake City, 14 January 1871, Church History Library, quoted in Robert J. Matthews, A Plainer Translation: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, a History and Commentary (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1985), 40.
 D&C 8:1-6.
 D&C 8:4.
 D&C 6:13.