Seer Stones and the Book of Mormon Translation

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

A Peculiar Topic of Study

An understanding of how the Book of Mormon came into being as reported in the history and doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints requires at least some grasp of the concept of seer stones. Most importantly, an understanding of a very specific “pair” of seer stones called the “Urim and Thummim.” Technically, these objects all perform the same function, However, in LDS beliefs, a common seer stone in a rural location like Palmyra, New York in the early 1800s would have been interpreted as part of local folk traditions as practiced in that era, much like a divining rod used to decide the best place for digging a well. The Urim and Thummim, however, has a somewhat different meaning for Latter-day Saints. It refers to an object utilized by high priests or prophets in ancient times to receive revelation from God.. 

The process of translating the gold plates, reportedly found by Joseph Smith in 1827, is believed to have required just such tools. A familiar tenet of Mormon doctrine is that the gold plates were etched in an ancient American language and translated into English by Joseph Smith. Initially, efforts to evoke the translation process required the utilization of a Joseph Smith seer stone, or a personal stone that he, like others of his day, kept in his pocket for the purposes of divination. For example, it is documented that Joseph used a “peep” stone for such mundane and self-serving ventures as hunting for buried treasure. 

Two Methods of Translating the Plates

During the three-year process of receiving the gold plates (a process overseen by an angel named Moroni), Joseph learned that hidden in the same location as the plates was an ancient artifact known as an Urim and Thummim. For Latter-day Saints, this item is generally considered far more sacred in character than a common seer stone. And yet it is generally believed that Joseph used his private stone to translate early sections of the Book of Mormon, including the original 116 manuscript pages lost by Martin Harris. There remains some confusion as to whether Joseph used his private seer stone or the ancient Urim and Thummim to translate what we know today as the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, Dr. Jack W. Welch, PhD., has clarified that when Joseph recommenced the translation of the plates with the scribal services of Oliver Cowdery, his primary tool for translation was, in fact, the Urim and Thummim and not his personal seer stone or any other artifact.

Some dismiss Joseph’s usage of like a “Mormon seer stone” as evidence of the sketchy or fraudulent nature of the entire affair. However, it’s important to remember that in Joseph’s era such practices were not unfamiliar nor considered in conflict with the practice of Christianity. In early American culture, the usage of “peep stones” or seer stones to find lost objects or seek revelation was commonplace. Joseph Smith’s engagement with such activities ties into a broader contextual tradition of seeking divine insight, with the term “seer” echoing biblical references to prophets and visions.

Might Joseph Be Described as a “Prophet in Training?”

One interpretation has been that God “re-purposed” Joseph’s practice of this folk tradition to prepare him for what would become a much more fundamental and sacred exercise–the translation of the Book of Mormon. After all, the Urim and Thummim (from ancient Hebrew meaning “lights and perfections”) was purportedly used by ancient prophets to receive divine guidance and is mentioned in both the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament

A common portrayal of the translating process shows Joseph Smith placing a seer stone into a hat and leaning his face tightly against the rim while blocking out any other light. According to witnesses, this method made words appear before Joseph’s eyes. He would say these words aloud to whomever was acting as his scribe. 

The Urim and Thummim, on the other hand, is described as a pair of stones set into a metal frame, like eyeglasses. These frames were somehow attached to a breastplate that held the “eyeglasses” in front of a user’s face. The precise way this device worked is unclear and, unfortunately, further details simply don’t exist. 

Joseph Sets a Historical Precedent

At a General Conference in 1831, only a year after the Church was organized and less than two years after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph’s older brother, Hyrum, publicly asked Joseph to describe the translation process to everyone in attendance. According to the minutes of this conference, as recorded by Oliver Cowdery, Joseph responded to his brother’s request by saying, “…it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.

Joseph never revisited this subject, nor did he provide additional details in any known historical account. Thus, we cannot presently describe the exact process and procedure whereby the Book of Mormon or any other ancient record was translated. What little imagery we have comes from historical accounts provided by witnesses who described the translation process as it occurred prior to the arrival of Oliver Cowdery, who served as Joseph’s scribe for the full text of what is today called the Book of Mormon. In other words, any description that speaks of private seer stones or staring into hats does not reference the translation process as it actually took place during the creation of the current text today defined as the Book of Mormon. For this reason, it seems more practical to simply emphasize the divine nature of the process and attribute it to the “gift and power of God.” 

Any exploration into the origins of the Book of Mormon must necessarily address the ancient tradition of seer stones. Unfortunately, our present understanding is not wholly satisfactory. It leaves just enough mystery to suggest a possible depth to Mormonism’s foundational narrative that mingles a  convergence of traditional beliefs with new revelation, further challenging our ordinary perspectives regarding divine guidance. 

A Last Word

Although we may not fully understand the role of seer stones or the Urim and Thummim in the translation of the Book of Mormon, it nevertheless underscore significant themes in the early development of the LDS worldview, including the sacredness of divine instruments, the personal nature of spiritual gifts, and the ongoing quest for understanding our connection with the divine. These narratives not only provide insight into the early days of one of the fastest-growing world religions, but also invite reflection on the broader themes of faith, revelation, and the pursuit of spiritual truth.

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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