On Tuesday, August 4th, the LDS Church in conjunction with the Community of Christ held a press conference announcing the newest volume in the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project. This new two-volume work contains high definition color pictures of each page of the Book of Mormon “printers manuscript” (owned by the Community of Christ) on one side of each page spread, with a transcription on the other. It will be a wonderful boon to scholars and others interested in the Book of Mormon and processes by which it came into print.
What has overshadowed the news of this important publishing effort, however, is the fact that the book contains four full-color photographs of a chocolate-colored, striated stone that is purported to be the seer stone Joseph Smith used to receive the English words he used in dictating the Book of Mormon. Scholars and others well-read in Mormon origins have long known about this seer stone and its use in the translation process (and the Church last year actually released an essay in its Gospel Topics series that speaks about the stone), but actually seeing it has forced them to confront again–and startled others who are learning of it for the first time–just how steeped Joseph Smith and early saints were in what D. Michael Quinn has labeled a “magic world view.”
This publishing event now calls for careful and informed exposition. Didn’t Joseph Smith say there were interpreters (what Latter-day Saints came to refer to as Urim and Thummim) in the stone box containing the plates that were like spectacles attached to a breastplate? Did he use those interpreters at all? What, exactly (or as best we can tell from a scattered record), was the process by which the Book of Mormon came about? How did the words to speak come to Joseph? Were they printed English words that appeared on the interpreters/seer stone that he then said aloud to his scribes, or was the process less mechanical than that, more of a conceptual and revelatory process?
With D. Michael Quinn, Ann Taves, and Ron Barney as expert guides, this two-part Mormon Matters episode explores these and many other questions about the processes. It also spends a significant amount of time on the more meta-issues that are now arriving for those startled to learn of or see the stones. How could we as a church allow for so long such a mismatch between the typical version, told both in prose and visual images, of Smith’s translation of the plates and what the historical record actually shows? Has there been a deliberate cover up, or something less deceptive and more understandable given the historical knowledge level of LDS leaders? How do these panelists, as well as Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon, frame for their scholarly and/or faith lives a full awareness of Smith’s use of stones and other “magical” objects?
Please listen and then share your questions and thoughts in the comments section below!
Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton, 2011)
Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999)
Ann Taves, The Household of Faith: Roman Catholic Devotions in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (University Press of Virginia, 1986)
D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books, 1998, paperback)
D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994)
D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Signature Books, 1997)
D. Michael Quinn (ed), The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Signature Books, 1992)
Ronald O. Barney, One Side By Himself: The Life and Times of Lewis Barney, 1808-1894 (Utah State University Press, 2002)
Ronald O. Barney, Mormon Vanguard Brigade of 1847: Norton Jacob’s Record (Utah State University Press, 2005)
Mormon Matters Podcast #69, “Patriarchal Blessings” featuring Richard Bushman and Jared Anderson, January 10, 2012