Urim, Joseph Smith, Book of Abraham, King Follett, part 3. Joseph Smith and Seer Stones.

Howard Coray’s letter demonstrates a fallacy that has many supporters in popular Mormonism. The fallacy is this: When Joseph Smith finished the translation of the Book of Mormon, he gave up using his revelatory instruments. The basis for this belief is a statement by Orson Pratt to the effect that he once observed Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon producing a portion of the “New Translation” of the Bible. Pratt asked why the seer stone was not being employed in the work. According to Pratt, Joseph responded that since being ordained in the Melchizedek Priesthood he was able to obtain revelation without the use of such items.

But the facts are otherwise. Indeed, several witnesses show us that Joseph used “gazelem” to translate the Book of Abraham.[1] The reasons for pushing the “no stones” idea may stem from a wish to distance Joseph from “magical objects.” Another reason may be the consistent lack of evidence that Smith’s successors employed such devices. At the same time, there has been a segment of the Mormon population wishing for the opposite sort of consistency: If Joseph used seer stones, why not Brigham Young, John Taylor, etc. — a strong motivation for claiming Smith gave up using revelatory instruments because he no longer needed them. Pratt’s testimony is easily extended to apply to all of Joseph Smith’s activities.[2] I should make it perfectly clear that I believe Smith received revelations without the aid of stones. That is quite clear. And that is not the question.

What really happened? Joseph used such instruments to the end of his life. In the case of the Book of Abraham, Coray is not alone in his testimony. Moreover, Coray’s claim of seeing a seer stone in use dates some translation effort with the papyri to the 1840-41 timeframe, when he was employed as a clerk by Joseph Smith. This is an important addition to the translation timeline.

Who else saw the stone(s) used in Joseph’s later career? That’s another story.

[1] The name of Joseph’s white seer stone. The white stone and brown stone are in the possession of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[2] For a recent resurfacing of the “no stones!” idea see here. The reasons for such advocacy are almost surely the ones suggested here. I shall comment on Pratt’s statement elsewhere. In the meantime for information about Joseph’s use of such instruments, see Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, 2000).

6 Responses to Urim, Joseph Smith, Book of Abraham, King Follett, part 3. Joseph Smith and Seer Stones.

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I think that you are correct about what people want. Moreover, we want to systematize things. It seems to me that in several ways, Joseph Smith used many methods to accomplish something. I hate to be a Johnny-one-note, but healing is a great example of this. Why have so many ways to ritually heal, when you have charismatic power or sacred objects such as a handkerchief (or vice versa)?

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    You make an excellent point, J.

  3. Jared T. says:

    Thanks, WVS. Neat letter in part 1. I wasn’t aware that there was that much dispute that Joseph didn’t use a seer stone after the BoM translation. I mean, wasn’t it the same Pratt that reported Joseph’s use of a seer stone in Nauvoo (a white one, if I remember correctly) and BY’s Manuscript History has Joseph showing the “urim” to a group of people and saying that everyone should have one?

    Looking forward to more.

  4. W. V. Smith says:

    Right, Jared. I think we can’t blame Orson for the out of context emphasis I guess. In certain quarters (you can get an idea of what I mean from the link in the footnotes) it’s a pretty big deal that Joseph ceased to use stones.

  5. cadams says:

    Towards the end of Quinn’s Mormonism and the World Magic View has good research on seer stones and other ‘magical’ mediums. We sustain prophets as ‘seers’ every GC. I understand that meant anciently the use of the Urim and Thummim or some other divinatory means.

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