Joseph Smith Pulls Religion Out of a Hat
Joseph Smith was the first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the founder of Mormonism. He described himself as a prophet, seer, and revelator in the last days and was responsible for bringing forth a divine record known as The Book of Mormon. This book was a canonical record of ancient Jews who emigrated to the new world and founded an ancient civilization said to be numbered among modern day Native Americans. The book itself was said to have been written in a Hebrew hybrid language known as reformed Egyptian on a collection of gold plates. Joseph was charged with translating this record by the power of God and bringing it forth as a companion to the Bible. The process of translation often depicted in Church publications shows him sitting over the plates and reading directly from them.
This is, however, well-documented as being false and is understood not to be the way in which Joseph translated the plates. Even the LDS Church admits that Joseph used other tools to translate The Book of Mormon. One such tool was a seer stone (or peep stone, often used for finding treasure in folk magic) that he had found while digging a well for Willard Chase.
Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses of The Book of Mormon and a scribe to Joseph, described the seer stone as a “chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum.” Upon finding the stone, Joseph insisted it contained special properties for treasure seeking and would use it for such purposes over the next several years.
In 1825, Joseph was hired by Josiah Stowel to perform menial labor on his farm in Bainbridge, New York. It was during this time that Joseph insinuated to Mr. Stowel that he was sitting on a large sum of treasure and that Joseph could find it using the seer stone that he had in his possession. Intrigued, Mr. Stowel hired Joseph and his father to help him find the treasure, but as was the usual custom with treasure seeking, they came up empty-handed due to a misstep in the process of retrieval.
The following excerpt from the Justice of the Peace in Bainbridge describes the relationship Joseph Smith had using seer stones for treasure seeking purposes:
Prisoner examined. Says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of the time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school; that he had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold-mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times, and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr.Stowel had been engaged in digging for them; that at Palmyra he pretended to, by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennslyvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was, of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account its injuring his health, especially his eyes – made them sore…
Justice of the Peace, Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York, March 20, 1826
According to the folk magic of the time, failing to find treasure was a common occurrence that was usually the result of guardian spirit protecting the treasure or a ritual not being performed in the correct manner. In Joseph Smith’s case, it was the mark of a con artist who would later admit to his father-in-law, Isaac Hale, that he had in fact never been able to use the stone to see anything of value.
Shortly after this, Joseph found himself desperately in love with the young Emma Hale. They quickly eloped and ran off to live with Joseph’s family. In need of money and furniture, Emma wished to return to her childhood home and collect some of her possessions. This meant that Joseph would have to see Isaac Hale and make amends with his father-in-law. Though somewhat furious with Joseph for taking his daughter, Isaac broke down and wept for the loss of his daughter to a treasure seeker. In order to make amends Joseph admitted to all of his wrong doing, including his use of seers stones. The following account was written by a Peter Ingersoll, a friend of the Prophet who was hired to move Emma’s belongings from her father’s home:
When we arrived at Mr. Hale’s in Harmony, Pa. from which place he had taken his wife, a scene presented itself, truly affecting. His father-in-law (Mr. Hale) addressed Joseph, in a flood of tears: ‘You have stolen my daughter and married her. I had much rather have followed her to her grave. You spend your time in digging for money — pretend to see in a stone, and thus try to deceive people.’ Joseph wept, and acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false.
Both the statement from the Justice of the Peace and Joseph’s own admission to his bereaved father-in-law are simply evidence that he was using a seer stone to conduct magical ceremonies or treasure seeking exploits, neither of which were legitimate or successful. However, Joseph would continue to use the stone the rest of his life while forming his newly crafted American theology.
After Joseph had retrieved the plates (some speculate by use of the stone), he began the translation process in a very unique manner. Emma Hale Smith, his first scribe, described the process to her oldest son Joseph III:
In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.
Many similar accounts by the scribes of Joseph Smith recount how the prophet would peer into a hat to close out the light and view written characters through his magic seer stone. This would all be happening while the plates were covered or hidden in an undisclosed location. It is also interesting to note that none of the scribes ever saw Joseph dictating from the plates directly, as they were forbidden from viewing the plates themselves. One of Joseph’s scribes, Martin Harris, describes the process in an article from the Millennial Star.
David Whitmer describes how Joseph used the seer stone in his translation as well.
I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.
-David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers in Christ”
All of these accounts describe Joseph using his magical stone, the same one he used for treasure digging, to translate the gold plates into English. This contradicts many of the Church images that are produced for members and isn’t taught in Church programs as part of the religious curriculum.
If the accounts of Joseph’s closest confidants are to be believed in the Book of Mormon introduction then should not their accounts of the translation process be included as well? If the Church proclaims itself to be the one true church with a fulness of truth, why then leave out this and many other details of Joseph’s past? If this is how God designed for Joseph to translate a scriptural record on his behalf, Mormons should be unafraid to share this detail in their proselyting missions. The process is as unique as Mormons themselves. They should embrace this knowledge and seek further light by burying their heads in all kinds of objects. The one place Mormon’s certainly do bury their heads when it comes to the history of their church is the sand.