Joseph Smith Seer Stones: Don Bradley’s Insights into Joseph’s Translations (Part 1)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

So Mark Ashurst McGee, a good friend of mine from my BYU days, did his master’s thesis largely on the Joseph Smith seer stones. And Mark was looking, among other things, at traditional scribes, like different people who had seer stones in like the European tradition. For example, like what did they say made for like a good stone? And so he saw in the literature on that topic that they believed that a more opaque stone was not as good and a more clear stone was better, like a transparent stone was best of all. And so Mark started thinking, well, Joseph has brown stone, he has a white stone and then he gets an interpreters which is supposed to be something like transparent. So he was thinking he must go from, you know, like a progression from the brown stone to the white transparent. And so then he was like interpreting the historical sources in that light, because this is such a cool model – which it is a cool model, but is that really how it goes? And that we’d have to judge from the sources. So Mike McKay worked together with Mark on the Joseph Smith Papers, so he adopted Mark’s idea on that.

Now the one problem, so yeah, I was saying earlier, historical sources are messy. On this particular case, it’s like one of the almost impossible ones to figure out because we’ve got a bunch of sources about the finding of Joseph’s seer stones, and they seem so confused on which one was the first stone, whether it’s the brown stone on the white stone, it’s just like, there’s no way to make them all agree, they just disagree. And so then you’re left to try to figure out which one is closest to Joseph. And so Mark, and his analysis of the sources has worked it out that okay, the brown stone is first. Joseph sees the brown stone, he looks in Sally Chase’s stone, he sees this other stone off on the shores of Lake Erie 150 miles away, he goes out there and gets it and it’s the brown stone. And he’s thinking, well for the Chases, here’s the white stone. And then in 1827, the angel gives him some stone box that allows him to take the interpreters. So you’ve got this clear progression.

Now, I see that differently as far as those first two stones go. So one issue that I see with it, and I see several, but one is, notice the difference in the narratives of how he gets the stones. One of them is a quest, okay? He looks in this girl’s seer stone and he has to wait years to make this trek out about 150 miles away. It’s this dramatic event. There’s this dramatic narrative of how he digs all night under this tree, he finds the stone, he washes it in this creek, he puts it in his hat and like, time and space are obliterated, he can see anything, and he had acquired one of the attributes of deity and an all-seeing eye. And the source on that is the W.D. Purple account of Joseph Smith’s 1826 hearing. W.D. Purple actually had been asked by members of the court to take notes that day at the hearing. I can give a number of reasons to think that he’s accurate. But Joseph ends up finding the other stone. But in this one, there’s no grand narrative because there’s no big quest. Right? He’s just digging a well with the Chases. He’s not even the one who finds this stone. Willard Chase finds it and Joseph asks to borrow it and he looks at it and he’s like, ‘this is Seer stone, can I borrow this?’ And ends up keeping it.

So Joseph, as we know, gives the brown stone to Oliver Cowdery in 1829 after The Book of Mormon is translated. And he keeps the white stone the rest of his life. So why does he keep one stone and not keep the other? How does he decide which one to give away? So if the brown stone is the one that he has to make this grand quest to go get, that would seem like it would be a more valuable one to him. It seems like the one he’s made this quest to get would be the one he’s going to keep. The one he ends up keeping is the white stone. Then also, you have to ask, in Mark’s reconstruction of this, if the hierarchy of how good the stones are goes brown stone, then white stone, then transparent interpreters, why is this the one that Joseph consistently uses to translate the Book of Mormon? Why use the inferior stone to translate when you’ve got a better one? Well, the only thing I’ve come up with on this is the Chase Well stone would have been found within a couple of miles of Cumorah. There’s a connection between the Book of Mormon record and the seer stone because of proximity. This stone was found nearby, so in his mind maybe it’s connected with it. So he uses that stone to translate.
I don’t think that Mark’s account can give an explanation. I mean, maybe it doesn’t need an explanation, but he just can’t give one. The other thing I think he can’t give is, so in doing history – and I’ve applied this before to the Fanny Alger topic so let me use this analogy: So we have various historical sources saying the Fanny Alger relationship was either a marriage or it was adultery. Now one of the things that we need to explain as historians is not just the details of just ‘this’ source or ‘that’ source, but explain the spread of the sources. What explains why people see this so differently? So if we say it’s adultery, and that originally it’s just an adulterous affair, then why do some people, even early on, get the idea that it was marriage? Well that’s hard to explain, because adultery, you would usually think you explain it as just adultery. You don’t invoke polygamy in the explanation. Whereas if it was actually a secret, polygamous marriage, but people hearing the rumors about it didn’t know, all they knew is Joseph and Fanny had been found together, they’re not going to make the assumption that they were married, right? Like I mean, if one of your neighbors is found with some woman who’s not married to you don’t automatically think, “This guy’s a polygamist,” right? The default assumption is adultery. So if it is secret polygamy, that does a better job of explaining the spread of the evidence. So what we need to explain is why there is this spread of sources.

By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

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