“Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, October 2015, 48–55
On April 6, 1830, the day Joseph Smith organized the Church of Christ (later to be called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),1 he proclaimed the words of a revelation to those assembled. “Behold,” the voice of God declared in it, “there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou [Joseph Smith] shalt be called a seer” (D&C 21:1).
The most visible sign of Joseph Smith’s role as a seer in the newly formed Church was the Book of Mormon, which he repeatedly explained was translated “by the gift and power of God.”2 Many of those closest to Joseph in the year before the Church’s organization had witnessed the process by which the Book of Mormon came forth and had some understanding of the meaning of the word seer.
What did seer mean to the young prophet and his contemporaries? Joseph was raised in a family that read the Bible, which mentions seers repeatedly. In 1 Samuel, for example, the writer explains: “Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, thus he spake, Come, and let us go to the seer: for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer” (1 Samuel 9:9).
The Bible also mentions people receiving spiritual manifestations by means of physical objects such as rods,3 a brass serpent on a pole (which became a widespread symbol of the medical profession),4 an ephod (a part of the priestly clothing that included two precious stones),5 and the Urim and Thummim.6
“Seeing” and “seers” were part of the American and family culture in which Joseph Smith grew up. Steeped in the language of the Bible and a mixture of Anglo-European cultures brought over by immigrants to North America, some people in the early 19th century believed it was possible for gifted individuals to “see,” or receive spiritual manifestations, through material objects such as seer stones.7
The young Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects. Since the biblical narrative showed God using physical objects to focus people’s faith or communicate spiritually in ancient times, Joseph and others assumed the same for their day. Joseph’s parents, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, affirmed the family’s immersion in this culture and their use of physical objects in this way, and the villagers of Palmyra and Manchester, New York, where the Smiths lived, sought out Joseph to find lost objects before he moved to Pennsylvania in late 1827.8
For those without an understanding of how 19th-century people in Joseph’s region lived their religion, seer stones can be unfamiliar, and scholars have long debated this period of his life. Partly as a result of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, a period that emphasized science and the observable world over spiritual matters, many in Joseph’s day came to feel that the use of physical objects such as stones or rods was superstitious or inappropriate for religious purposes.
In later years, as Joseph told his remarkable story, he emphasized his visions and other spiritual experiences.9 Some of his former associates focused on his early use of seer stones in an effort to destroy his reputation in a world that increasingly rejected such practices. In their proselyting efforts, Joseph and other early members chose not to focus on the influence of folk culture, as many prospective converts were experiencing a transformation in how they understood religion in the Age of Reason. In what became canonized revelations, however, Joseph continued to teach that seer stones and other seeric devices, as well as the ability to work with them, were important and sacred gifts from God.10
Seer stones also appear in historical accounts describing Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon translation. Joseph’s official history, begun in 1838, describes the visit of an angel, identified as Moroni, who told him about golden plates buried in a nearby hill. Joseph recounts that while he was conversing with the angel, a “vision was opened” so clearly in his mind that he “knew the place” when later seeing it in person (Joseph Smith—History 1:42).
In the history Joseph began drafting in 1838, Moroni warns him “that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich.” This the angel forbade, Joseph recounts, saying that if he had “any other motive” than building God’s kingdom, he “could not get them” (Joseph Smith—History 1:46). In his earlier 1832 history, Joseph explains, “I … saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandme[n]t that I should have an eye single to the Glory of God.”11 As a result, he was required to return to the hill annually for four years until he was prepared to receive the plates (see Joseph Smith—History 1:53–54).
Joseph related that when he finally obtained the plates from Moroni in 1827, he also received two stones to be used in translating them. He and close acquaintances left accounts of these stones, describing them as white or clear in appearance, set in silver bows or rims like modern eyeglasses or spectacles, and connected to a large breastplate.12 As described, this seeric device would have been bulky. Joseph Smith’s mother said that he detached the stones from the breastplate for convenience while using them.13
The text of the Book of Mormon calls these stones “interpreters” and explains that they “were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages,” being “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 28:14‒15, 20).
The book also recounts how the Lord gave “two stones” to the brother of Jared, with a promise that they would aid future generations to recover his words. “Write these things and seal them up,” the Lord directs him, “and I will show them in mine own due time unto the children of men.” These stones, the Lord explains, “shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (Ether 3:24, 27).
By the time Joseph Smith finished dictating his translation of the Book of Mormon to scribes in mid-1829, the meaning of seer had been further clarified in the text. The Book of Mormon contains a prophecy attributed to Joseph of Egypt declaring that one of his descendants—clearly Joseph Smith—would be “a choice seer” bringing other descendants “to the knowledge of the covenants” that God made with their ancestors (2 Nephi 3:6, 7).
In another Book of Mormon account, Alma the Younger gives the interpreters to his son Helaman. “Preserve these interpreters,” Alma counsels him, referring to the two stones in silver bows. But Alma also quotes a prophecy that appears to refer to a single stone: “And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:21, 23).
Notably, although given in the context of “interpreters” (plural), this prophecy speaks about giving a future servant “a stone” (singular), “which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”14 Early Latter-day Saints believed this prophesied servant was Joseph Smith.15
In fact, historical evidence shows that in addition to the two seer stones known as “interpreters,” Joseph Smith used at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light. According to Joseph’s contemporaries, he did this in order to better view the words on the stone.16
By 1833, Joseph Smith and his associates began using the biblical term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to any stones used to receive divine revelations, including both the Nephite interpreters and the single seer stone.17 This imprecise terminology has complicated attempts to reconstruct the exact method by which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. In addition to using the interpreters, according to Martin Harris, Joseph also used one of his seer stones for convenience during the Book of Mormon translation. Other sources corroborate Joseph’s changing translation instruments.18
Following the publication of the Book of Mormon in March 1830, Joseph Smith and his clerks began work on what is now known as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, a prophetic revision of the King James Version.19 By Joseph’s account, using the Nephite interpreters for this translation project was not an option because he no longer had them.
Joseph’s history explains that “by the wisdom of God, [the plates and interpreters] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day” (Joseph Smith—History 1:60).
As President Brigham Young (1801–77) explained it, “Joseph put the U[rim and] T[hummim] back with the plates when he [h]ad done translating.”20
Joseph had other seer stones, but in the words of Elder Orson Pratt (1811–81), a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later Church Historian, Joseph had also matured by this time in his spiritual understanding. At a meeting on June 28, 1874, attended by President Brigham Young and many other General Authorities, Elder Pratt told his audience about being “present many times” when Joseph Smith “was translating the New Testament.” Seeing no interpretive instruments in use during the translation process, he wondered why Joseph “did not use the Urim and Thummim, as in translating the Book of Mormon.”
As Elder Pratt watched the Prophet translate, “Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit, and did not need the assistance of that instrument.”21
Brigham Young told an audience of his thoughts about receiving a seer stone. “I don’t [k]no[w] that I have ever had a desire to have one,” he reflected.22 Brigham’s statement expressed his understanding that seer stones were not essential to being a seer.
On October 25, 1831, Joseph Smith attended a conference in Orange, Ohio. During the conference, his brother Hyrum said he “thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.” According to the minutes of the meeting, Joseph “said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon” and “that it was not expedient for him to relate these things.”23 Having matured in his role as seer and coming to believe that seer stones were not essential to revelation, perhaps he worried that people might focus too much on how the book came forth and too little on the book itself.
The most salient point Joseph Smith made about the translation of the Book of Mormon was that he did it “by the gift and power of God.”24 The book itself, he taught Church leaders, “was the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion,” and by obeying its precepts, readers would get “nearer to [G]od … than [by] any other book.”25