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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: How a seer stone helped in the Book of Mormon translation

Last week we talked about the frontier treasure-digging environment in which Joseph Smith lived and how his own pre-prophet world view was shaped by that environment. As we've discussed in past articles, Joseph — like any other prophet — was a fallible human with preconceived ideas, opinions, and assumptions, who was divinely called to an important role. Worldviews don't change immediately or all at once. God reveals his word, line upon line, and those who listen can enlarge their understanding of truth a little here and there as they are willing to grasp new concepts. In approximately 1819, Joseph borrowed a seer stone from a friend to find another whitish seer stone in an iron kettle 25 feet underground. Then, in 1822, Joseph found a brown stone while digging a well for Willard Chase. In Joseph's world, the ability to use a seer stone to "see" the location of lost objects was a gift from God. Joseph, his family, and many of his associates believed he had this gift. Martin Harris recounted an incident when he literally lost a needle in hay (shavings and straw) and asked Joseph to find it with his seer stone. In a manner common to frontier diviners, Joseph put his seer stone into the bottom of a hat and then put his face into the hat — obscuring all ambient light — and somehow was able to see something in the stone. Martin watched Joseph closely to see that he did not peek from out of the hat. According to Martin, Joseph "reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin" (Tiffany's Monthly [June 1859], 164). We don't know how Joseph was able to do this, and we don't know what his success rate was for finding lost or hidden objects. The important thing is that Joseph believed that he was able to find lost objects and that this gift was granted him by God. When Joseph received the plates and the Nephite Interpreters, the Interpreters would have seemed both familiar and peculiar; familiar in that they were stones that could be used as tools to see things as shown by God; peculiar because they were to be used to translate a strange text. We don't know what instructions Joseph received in utilizing the Interpreters but it seems that he may have been on his own to figure them out. Since they were shaped like glasses, Joseph apparently tried to use them — at least initially — as one would use spectacles. This proved to be difficult, however, because the lenses were set wider than Joseph's eyes and caused eyestrain. Apparently Joseph likened the Interpreters to his seer stone and, according to Martin Harris, tried to use them in the bottom of a hat but found they were too big to fit. Somewhere during the early stages of translating, Joseph tried his seer stone and found that they — like the Nephite Interpreters — could serve as a tool for receiving the Book of Mormon translation. Once Joseph used his seer stone for translating, he never went back to divining. Martin Harris, Joseph's first scribe during the translation process, wanted to test the veracity of Joseph's seer stone and related the following incident: During a break from translating, the two men would sometimes go to the river and throw stones. Once, Martin found a rock that closely resembled Joseph's seer stone and, when the prophet wasn't looking, switched the stone with the one in the hat. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then complained that he was unable to see the translation. Martin confessed to switching the stones because he wanted to "stop the mouths of fools" who said that Joseph merely memorized material and repeated it back to Martin. Eventually, Joseph dictated 116 pages of text. Martin begged Joseph to let him take the pages to show his wife who was skeptical of the entire venture. After repeatedly petitioning the Lord — who initially told Joseph "no," Martin took the pages to his wife and ended up losing the translation. Joseph was reprimanded and the Lord took away the plates, the Interpreters, and Joseph's ability to translate. When the plates were restored, so was Joseph's gift and the remainder of the Book of Mormon was likely translated by way of the seer stone. More on the Book of Mormon translation in the next issue.