Ramblings about Stones, Expectations and Faith
July 3, 2009 2 Comments
We (sane?) humans have a well-known tendency to systematize our thought-environs. We desire to not only have reality match expectation, but many of us desire that our sincere beliefs not be paradoxical and furthermore have no gaping rational holes. Perhaps such tendencies, assuming they exist, arise from the paradigms of science or perhaps from an inherent desire to have things make sense—to have deductive logic connect the pieces. Do these tendencies motivate us to make and hold to seemingly rational conclusions about faith (theology?), even when empirical evidence “proves” they don’t match reality? When logician Kurt Godel was asked if (based on a cosmology which includes time-travel ) one could go back in time and kill their own great-grand parents, he replied that this would create a paradox, and so could not happen because “logic is powerful.”
By analogy, and to be specific, I think sometimes we Mormons (or believers in general) can become attached to theological derivations which for one reason or another we want to match certain points of faith. I offer one little example (at least I think it’s an example):
Joseph Smith used physical aids (seer stones), by his own testimony, and the testimony of eye-witnesses, to translate the Book of Mormon. Moreover, evidence shows that he had some skill with rod-working as well as these seer stones. I will not review the history of these objects, however it was evident that they were originally graded by capability. The brown stone was the least capable, the white stone next and the spectacles were most capable in seeric uses. Eventually it seems that Joseph improved his skill to such a degree that the brown stone could be used in translating the Book of Mormon.
David Whitmer stated that Joseph gave the brown stone to Oliver Cowdery when the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, while Orson Pratt related that Joseph had no further need of it. By some accounts at least, Joseph’s receipt of the Melchizedek Priesthood was suggested as a reason for this.
But for some Mormon exegetes, it has become a point of (derived) faith that the stones were no longer used by Joseph after the Book of Mormon. Others have claimed that Joseph gradually found them superfluous when he tried them out in the JST process, or the Book of Abraham. For some, this has become such a point of honor that to suggest otherwise will get you a vigorous lecture. But this belief is empirically false. Joseph did use the white stone (gazelem) to translate the Book of Abraham text, both in Kirtland and in Nauvoo. He apparently did not use it for the matching games and pronouncing exercises of the scribes in the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP).
For his part, Joseph did not mention the use of the stone(s) directly and visitors seeing the Egyptian relics were not treated to any seer stone lore while those who acted as scribes for the Book of Abraham generally did not divulge Joseph’s use of stone(s). The reason: the scribes seem to have been asked not to tell, and generally did not. Joseph’s response to Hyrum when the latter suggested that Joseph be frank about how the Book of Mormon was translated suggested that the world was not invited to that party and apparently the same went for the Book of Abraham. While such caution may have been meant for a little Enlightenment respectability outside Mormonism, it also became a point of faith in some modern Mormons. Get away from those stones! Perhaps another reason for this is that Joseph’s successors have never claimed the use of such objects. Making them superfluous for Joseph perhaps makes them superfluous for others? Modern authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not discussed such matters, though stories about the use of such things still circulate on the Mormon rumor mill. As for current authorities shying away from the issue, this is not true. But their time is spent with products, not much with the means. Was Joseph just different in this matter? I think so. None of Joseph’s prophetic successors have done any equivalent translating chores as far as we know. And Joseph’s Enoch texts suggest that one does not need a stone to be called a seer.
 Perhaps the single best source for Joseph’s use of seeric aids is Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Utah State University, Masters Thesis, 2000). Richard Bushman mentions parts of the issue in his JS bio.
 The best sources were recently “discovered.” Two of these include letters to home by a pair of Quakers who got the papyri tour from Lucy Mack Smith in the summer on 1846. She’s quite clear about Joseph’s use of the stone in the hat, and that he did not need missing parts of the papyri since he could see what they should have been (evidently this didn’t include missing parts of a hypocephalus original for Facsimile No. 2 of the Book of Abraham). (My thanks to Connell O’Donovan for this one). Another such source is a previously unpublished letter from 1840-1841 scribe Howard Coray, which I recently placed on boap.org in the journals and diaries section. Several other sources are now known, but I won’t go into them here. You can find them if you look hard at the Book of Abraham commentary. As for the JST, I expect the Pearl of Great Price portions came from the stone. There is evidence he “read” Genesis with it.