The Seer Stone

Most members of the LDS church accept that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by using his “seer stone,” a rock which he placed inside a hat. Apparently, using this stone, he could see the English translation of the words on the golden plates (which were not physically present during the translation, it seems). Elder Russell Nelson tells us:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

‘Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12.) – Elder Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament, Ensign, July 1993, 61

But what fascinates me is Joseph’s earlier, pre-prophetic career with the same stone. At the encouragement of his father, Joseph used the stone, which had been discovered while digging a well on a neighbor’s property, to seek buried treasure.

It was in this capacity of “glass-looker” that he was employed by Josiah Stowell to help locate rumored Spanish gold on Stowell’s property. While engaged in this endeavor, he stayed with the Isaac Hale family. Mr. Hale, considering a peepstoner to be a less-than-honest character, refused to allow his daughter, Emma, to marry Joseph Smith, so the couple eloped.

According to Isaac Hale, when they returned a married couple, Joseph swore off “glass-looking.” Peter Ingersoll recounts that Joseph “acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.” Isaac Hale says that “Joseph Smith stated to me, that he had given up what he called ‘glass-looking,’ and that he expected to work hard for a living, and was willing to do so.”

But he hadn’t really given it up. So, the question I have is this: could he really see buried treasure? There is no record anywhere of Joseph having found anything with his seer stone. Yet we are told that this same method is a valid way to translate scripture.

It seems to me that, to sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet, you would need to acknowledge his skill as a glass-looking treasure hunter. Otherwise, you are faced with the unpleasant possibility that his use of the stone was fraudulent in one or the other endeavor.


13 Responses to The Seer Stone

  1. Brad says:

    What? Fraud in the LDS church? Never 😉

    Some also point to Cowdery, Whitmer, et al to say that there were witnesses, so it must be true. But as far as I’ve seen (and I may be mistaken, so correct me if so), but they never looked at anything themselves, they only wrote what Smith told them to. Which, if so, makes them witnesses to nothing but Smith’s dictation, and not to any power of the Spirit that helped translate these.

  2. If only Willard Chase had made claim to the stone (it was after-all on his property), perhaps we would be Willard-ites instead of Joseph-ites.

    [i]They’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
    They’ll stone you just like they said they would
    They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home
    They’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
    But I would not feel so all alone
    Everybody must get stoned[/i]

  3. What bothers me more, is when Mormons know this, and still accept him as a valid prophet.

  4. Brooksrobinson,

    Methinks that believing Joseph to be a “valid prophet” despite knowing this isn’t any more bothersome than believing there to be “valid” prophets in the first place (in antiquity, or more recent history).

  5. Reformed_Egyptian says:

    “It seems to me that, to sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet, you would need to acknowledge his skill as a glass-looking treasure hunter. Otherwise, you are faced with the unpleasant possibility that his use of the stone was fraudulent in one or the other endeavor.” — Not “one or the other endeavor”…but in BOTH endeavors were frauds! 🙂

    “What bothers me more, is when Mormons know this, and still accept him as a valid prophet.” — It’s insane (yet completely normal in the world of cog-dis) for someone to still believe knowing these facts, and the 100’s of other facts pointing to fraud, for the Spirit (TM) never lies and therefore it’s ALL somehow cosmically and magically “true” (that is, until that critical ‘turning point’ many of us experience where our brains will no longer allow us to call ‘good’ ‘bad’ and ‘bad’ ‘good’).

  6. runtu says:


    It’s not that this one thing invalidates his claim to being a prophet. It’s just one in a rather large set of evidences that point to his not being what he claimed to be.

  7. bull says:

    Of course, I NEVER heard any of this in almost 40 years of activity in the church and I was considered well read and knowledgeable about the church. Which is why it really irritates me when apologist such claim that the church doesn’t hide this stuff and if you don’t know about it the it is your own fault.

  8. runtu says:

    What I don’t get is why Elder Nelson thought that this was somehow “precious insight.” What the… ?

  9. K*tty says:

    I don’t know, but I guess for pictures it looks more dignified that he pretended to translate looking at the plates. Something is just a little too weird with the hat method. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they were going over how they would keep the hat thing quiet.

  10. JLFuller says:

    I suppose at sometime we will find out the rest of the story. But it should also be pointed out that Jospeh acknowledge regretable error in his life. It sure sounds to me like a kid with a gift he was misusing. Bull commented too about something that resonates with me. The Church does protect such things as human fallacy. Personally, I am glad they do. It is hard enough to discuss the important issues of the Gospel without having the weaknesses of our leadership discussed instead. I know I sure don’t want my mean and contrary nature discussed in the open. Otherwise you people would no longer think I am perfect.

    But if what you talk about happened, and I don’t doubt it, then just what sins and shortcomings are acceptable in a prophet? No one is a perfect human being. Look at what is happening in this forum and others. When we find out about human frailties and misdeeds we focus on them and not on the point of the message. Just what should we expect from a youth who saw God and Christ, had angelic visitations and was given the burden Jospeh Smith had to bear at age where most kids are focused on pimples and thier voice changing. Even at a later age of early twenties, how many of us would have made the same choices we would make in our later years? At 60, I still make stupid choices, say dumb things and act like a lout.

  11. JLFuller says:

    I am going to take my baby bride, she is 59, my dog who thinks I am perfect, he is 8, and go off for the week end. All of us seriously middle age children of God will stumble our way to our favorite spot and contemplate how we fit in the universe. Or maybe we will take a few walks in nature and listen to another spy story on an audiobook. TTFN. Blessings-

  12. runtu says:

    JLFuller, I would have said the same thing a few years ago: Joseph’s personal flaws do not invalidate his prophetic calling. Where we differ is that I see Joseph’s prophetic career as being a product of his flaws, not their opposite.

  13. runtu says:

    Oh, and have a great weekend. I’ll be having a big barbecue with my family.

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