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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Seer stone, Nephite interpreters are religion, not magic

Last week we talked about the Nephite "Interpreters" and how they may have transferred from the brother of Jared to Joseph Smith. We also explained that their more common label, the "Urim and Thummim," has been applied to more than one tool through history. This week we'll continue by noting that in Joseph Smith's day the term "Urim and Thummim" applied to two different translating tools — the Nephite Interpreters as well as a special "seer stone" owned by the prophet. For members who aren't familiar with the seer stone some questions or concerns may arise.What was Joseph's seer stone? Where did it come from? How did the prophet use it to translate? Why would he use two different tools? And why are some members unfamiliar with the seer stone? In order to answers these questions, we need to understand the context in which Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. The place to start is with the "treasure digging" world-view of many frontier Americans.In Joseph's day many people (of all levels of education) believed in divining and treasure digging. Many people today still accept such practices. Diviners, wielding rods or seer stones, were often called to locate lost objects or treasure. Believers of such "magical" techniques were often devout Christians or even clergymen and typically attributed these powers to manifestation of Godly gifts. Frontier Christians had no problem integrating Christianity with what some call "magic."The label "magic," however, is problematic. In religious discourse, the term is loaded and often implies something false, deceptive, or maybe even Satanic. People tend to invoke the term to denote those things which they find distasteful, or for those things which they believe are disapproved by God. "What you do is magic; what I do is religion." Due to the ambiguous and pejorative nature of the label "magic," many scholars suggest that it be jettisoned from academic discussions on religion.All religions rely on some things which — from an outsider's view — can be termed as magical or superstitious. The Bible, for example, records several instances or forms of "magic" as practiced by the righteous followers of God. We read, for instance, that Aaron had a magical rod (Exodus 7:9-12). Jacob also used magical rods to produce speckled offspring from Laban's cattle (Genesis 30:37-39). We read that a priest could tell if a woman had committed adultery by seeing if her thigh swelled after drinking a special potion (Numbers 5: 11-13, 21). The Old Testament Joseph had a silver cup which he used to divine (Genesis 44:2, 5). Modern scholars refer to practice as "hydromancy" and explain that it was also practiced by the surrounding pagans. The casting of lots (known as "sortilege") to choose a new Apostle (see Acts 1:26) was known and practiced by the pagans of Jesus' day. Even some of Christ's miracles were similar to the magic of surrounding pagans. Jesus' healing of the deaf man by putting his fingers in his ears (Mark 7:33-35) and Jesus' healing of the blind man by touching his eyes with spittle and clay were also common pagan practices.God works through men according to their environment, intellect, language, and worldviews. As we learn from the Doctrine and Covenants, God reveals things to his servants "in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (1:24).While those who reject God may scoff at supernatural practices as "magic," believers know that God has the power to perform miracles, to reveal His word, to manifest his power, and to advance His work, in spite of — and even according to — the weakness of mankind. Joseph Smith wasn't raised in a cultural vacuum. There is ample evidence that the Smith family was no different in cultural beliefs than the rest of their contemporaries. Joseph and some of his closest associates — including Methodist leader Willard Chase — believed that Joseph had the God-given ability to discern hidden and lost objects or treasure by looking into a seer stone. When Chase heard rumors that Joseph had acquired golden plates he was angry and felt that he was owed a share of the booty. He and a dozen other men sent for a Baptist diviner, who lived 60 miles away, to come find Joseph's plates. Later, Chase's sister used a green glass to divine for the location of Joseph's plates, and nearly found them! Next week's installment will discuss how a seer stone played a role in translating the Book of Mormon.