The topic of seer stones is becoming increasingly more fascinating to me. Are they specific stones or just any stone? How does one know when they’ve found a seer stone? How did Joseph Smith recognize the difference between any old rock and a seer stone? While I have no answers to these questions specifically, I have been able to answer many other questions. What were seer stones used for? Was the use of seer stones an anomaly or a common practice in the 1800s? How many seer stones did Joseph Smith have and what did they look like?
I remember some years ago when the church first published pictures of Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone in the Ensign Magazine. I was rather shocked. I had always known that Joseph used a seer stone to aid in the translation of the Book of Mormon along with the Urim and Thummim, but beyond that I hadn’t given it much thought. Mostly, I think I was surprised that the Church was in possession of this stone at all. I’ve been a member of the Church my whole life, why had I not seen these pictures before? How come I didn’t know the Church had this? While I do think that the church hadn’t been as obvious with this possession, I think that the main reason I didn’t know about the stone was because I never took the time to seek that information out. I do love that the Church seems to be trying to be more open concerning this topic, in that they’re making it easier to find information.
On the Joseph Smith Papers, the Church pointed out that the use of seer stones was a common practice in Europe and North America. “It was a common part of Joseph Smith’s cultural environment in western New York in the 1820s.” According to Michael Hubbard MacKay, author of Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones, he noted that this information has been available in many books, one that even happened to be on his father’s own bookshelf since he was a kid. “The trick with books, though,” he said, “is that they need to be read to impart their wisdom.”
Here, on this website, I wanted to make it a little easier to find this information.
It seems we know for certain that Joseph Smith was in possession of at least two seer stones, besides the two that he discovered with the golden plates. However, according to Brigham Young, Joseph Smith could have had as many as five seer stones. I feel like most of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know little, if anything, concerning these stones. To me this is all fascinating, however, I do understand that this might be a matter of some concern to others. While it does sound like a strange idea to us, this was the common practice then. Joseph Smith would have been thirteen years old when he found his first seer stone. If I were that young and found out that a neighbor girl [or in some accounts a man] had the ability to find lost things by looking through a stone, I’d be curious too. It seems that one of Joseph’s gifts was finding and using seer stones.
Before I delve into the five seer stones, I wanted to touch more on the “interpreters” or what later came to be known as the Urim and Thummim. I think we all have a pretty basic idea of what these looked like, but I wanted to give a more detailed description.
“Stones ….about two inches in diameter, perfectly round” [Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859].
“Joined together by a round silver bar ...about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches” [Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 18590].
“The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks” [Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859].
“Two white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, then we usually find in spectacles” [David Whitmer, Whitmer Interviews, pp. 22-23; P. W. Poulson to Editors of the Deseret News, Deseret News, 16 Aug. 1878, 2.].
“The silver bow ...ran in the shape of a horizontal figure 8” -William Smith
“So large, that, if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face” [Martin Harris, Charles Anthon Letter to E.D. Howe, 17 Feb. 1834; Mormonism Unveiled, E.D. Howe, pgs. 270-72].
“Two crystals or glasses” - John Whitmer
“Two large bright diamonds” -Lucy Mack Smith
“Two smooth three cornered diamonds set in glass and the glass was set in silver bows conected with each other in the same way that old fashioned spectacles are made” [Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844-1845, bk. 5, (7)-(8)].
Reverend John A. Clark of Palmyra, recalled Harris describing the spectacles as “two transparent stones, through which, as a sort of spectacles, he could read the Bible (i.e., the plates)” [John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way. No. VI” Episcopal Recorder, 5 Sept. 1840, 94]
In late 1830, Oliver Cowdery explained the process of translation to a Shaker while in Ohio: “The engravings being unintelligible to learned & unlearned. There is said to have been in the box with the plates two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engravings… [Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar,” 143]
Orson Pratt quotes from Parley P. Pratt when he says that: “With the records was found ‘a curious instrument, called by the ancients the Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones, clear as crystal, set in two rims of a bow…’” [Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840, pg. 13; Parley P. Pratt, “Discovery of an Ancient Record in America,” LDS Millennial Star, June 1840, 1:30].
I guess I’m pointing these out because I’m not certain as to what they looked like. Were they white or transparent? I pointed this out to my dad and he directed me to Ether 3:1 which reads: “the brother of Jared ...did molten out of rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass…” So, same issue. And I have no idea. Perhaps they were white, cloudy clear, much like a foggy window that is somewhat transparent. Another reason I wanted to point out these descriptions is to compare them to Joseph Smith’s white seer stone that he found three years before finding the interpreters. Because of their similarities, I wonder if they are made of the same material.
Emma Smith Bidamon described Joseph’s use of several stones during translation to Emma Pilgrim on 27 March 1870:
“Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color” [Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” Early Mormon Documents, 1:532].
Emma Smith was on of Joseph’s earliest scribes. I found this picture that I had never seen before of Emma scribing for Joseph. The picture is titled “Emma as Scribe” and it was painted by Robert T. Pack.
While the idea seems more common that the seer stone was placed in a hat, there have also been accounts of the interpreter spectacles being placed in a hat as well. A Palmyra newspaper published the earliest known account of the translation in August 1829: Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least), interpret these characters” [“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, (2)]. In the winter of 1831, a Shaker in Union Village, Ohio, spoke of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind” [Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 143].
In Jane Manning James' autobiography she tells a story of when she herself got to hold the Urim and Thummim while living at the Mansion House in Nauvoo, Illinois in the 1840s:
I had to pass through Mother Smith’s room to get to mine. She would often stop me and talk to me. She told me all Brother Joseph’s troubles and what he had suffered in publishing the Book of Mormon. One morning I met Brother Joseph coming out of his mother’s room. He said, “Good morning,” and shook hands with me. I went into his mother’s room; she said, “Good morning; bring me that bundle from my bureau and sit down here.” I did as she told me. She placed the bundle in my hands and said, “Handle this and then put in the top drawer of my bureau and lock it up.” After I had done it, she said, “Sit down. Do you remember that I told you about the Urim and Thummim when I told you about the Book of Mormon?” I answered, “Yes, ma’am.” She then told me I had just handled it. “You are not permitted to see it, but you have been permitted to handle it,” [she said]. “You will live long after I am dead and gone and you can tell the Latter-day Saints that you was permitted to handle the Urim and Thumim.”
On another occasion Jane said concerning the Urim and Thummim: "The instrument as near as I can describe it, which I handled, was made of some kind of metal, because it was so very heavy. It was firmly attached, one piece upon another. One piece seemed to be about the size of my wrist, (which was good size and not perfectly round). The other piece was not so large. These were set upright in a circular base." (Interview, page 8).
I'm not sure what Jane Manning is describing here, but it seems interesting that Lucy Mack Smith was seemingly in possession of the Urim and Thummim in the 1840s when I had understood that Joseph Smith had delivered up the Urim and Thummim to the Angel Moroni along with the golden plates back in 1829. As we learn from Joseph Fielding Smith in his Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, p. 225, where it says:
"We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church."
I understand that sometimes the members used the term "urim and thummim" interchageably with "seer stones," but whatever Jane Manning is describing, it's certainly none of Joseph Smith's seer stones.
Also known as the Chase Seer Stone, was found while digging a well for Willard Chase a half mile from the Smith farm in 1822. This stone was “chocolate colored” and “somewhat egg-shaped.” It measures, at its outermost points, 5.5 by 3.5 by about 4 cm.
Emma wrote a letter to Emma Pilgrim saying that after Joseph used the “Urim and Thummim” for the lost book of Lehi, “he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but rather a dark color” [Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, March 27, 1870, in John T. Clark, “Translation of Nephite Records,” The original letter is located in the Emma Smith Papers, Library-Archives, Community of Christ, Independence, MO.]
By its descriptions, it was this seer stone that aided in the translation of the Book of Mormon. According to David Whitmer: “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” [David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12].
Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us” [“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 280-90].
David Whitmer described the process as follows:
“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, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12].
After the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph gave this stone to Oliver Cowdery. Oliver kept the stone until his death in 1850 and his wife gave the stone to a man named Phineas Young who later gave it to his brother, Brigham Young. The stone is now in the possession of the First Presidency of the Church.
This white stone was Joseph Smith’s first seer stone and Brigham Young declared in 1859 that Joseph Smith found his first stone by gazing into someone else’s seer stone (probably in the summer of 1819). The origins of this stone are unclear. Some accounts say that he looked into the seer stone belonging to “a man” while another says he used the seer stone “of a neighboring girl” and that it was found “under pretense of digging a well” verses being found “under the roots of a tree or shrub as large as his arm” [Fayette Lapham Account in 1870 and William D. Purple Account in 1877]. Wilford Woodruff recorded in one of his journals that, “Brigham Young also said that the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained he got in an iron kettle 15 feet under ground. He saw it while looking in another's seer stone which a person had. He went right to the spot and dug and found it” [Journal 5:382:3].
Palmyra resident Pomeroy Tucker, who worked on the publication of the Book of Mormon, remembered that Joseph Smith’s seer stone had a “whitish, glassy appearance, though opaque, resembling quartz” [Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, by Pomeroy Tucker, pub. 1867, p. 19}.
Unlike his brown stone, Joseph Smith did not give his white stone away. Joseph showed Wilford Woodruff his white stone in 1841, years before Woodruff ever saw the brown stone (which was presumably in Oliver Cowdery’s possession until 1850). Wilford Woodruff wrote that Joseph showed him his seer stone at a meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. From the fall of 1841 to the summer of 1842, Wilford Woodruff called Joseph Smith “Joseph the seer” in his journals numerous times. Joseph also showed the white stone to the Twelve Apostles when they met together. Brigham Young recorded, “I met the Twelve at brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim, which he found with the plates…” Young also declared that Joseph “showed us his stone.”
Also called the green stone. This stone was a greyish-ivory-colored stone of irregular oval shape, approximately 5 cm in length by 4 cm thick. It was marked with small irregular dark grey indentions and green deposits.
It is said to have originally been found at Salina, New York, taken to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and there purchased from the owner by Joseph Smith before he translated the Book of Mormon. The stone was later acquired by a man named Philo Dibble, who made the death masks for Joseph and Hyrum.
Little is known about this stone as it appears the only account of it comes secondhand from a woman named Emily C. Blackman who was a schoolteacher and historian from Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. In her book titled History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, published in 1873, we find an account of one Mr. James B. Buck who narrated the following:
“Joe Smith was here lumbering soon after my marriage, which was in 1818, some years before he took to ‘peeping’, and before diggings were commenced under his direction. These were ideas he gained later. The stone which he afterward used was in the possession of Jack Blecher, of Gibson, who obtained it while at Salina, N.Y., engaged in drawing salt. Belcher bought it because it was said to be ‘a seeing stone.’ I have often seen it. It was a green stone, with brown irregular spots on it. It was a little longer than a goose’s egg, and about the same thickness.” Buck goes on to tell stories of how the stone helped the Belcher’s find lost things such as a hatchet and even a child. He goes on to say that, “Joe Smith, conceiving the idea of making a fortune through a similar process of ‘seeing,’ bought the stone of Belcher and then began his operations in directing where hidden treasures could be found…” [Appendix, p. 577].
There are no records or accounts that say Joseph Smith ever used this stone.
The reason I drew the stone as I did is because this picture, another photo of this stone can be seen here. In MacKay’s book Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones, he has a few other pictures of the stone that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else.
One of these seer stones found in Nauvoo is the sandy-colored seer stone, also known as the Bidamon seer stone which was passed from Joseph’s widow, Emma, to relations of her second husband, Lewis Bidamon. It is the size of a US quarter and the stone matches the size of two seer stones Brigham Young said Joseph Smith obtained in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1840s. It currently resides in the Wilford C. Wood Museum. Little else is known about this stone. An image of the sandy-colored seer stone can be seen here.
Ashurst-McGee, an American Historian of the Latter-day Saint Movement, categorized the Wilford Wood stone within “a particular class of stone artifacts tooled by pre-Columbian Indians and deposited in burial mounds.” He stated, “Joseph owned a disk-shaped gorget [which was a rock worn around the neck as a decorative, but functional piece of armor] with a hole in the center, which he apparently found in Illinois and used as a seer stone” [Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 164-65].
The second of these stones is a mystery and as far as I know, no image has ever been published nor sources confirming this second Nauvoo stone exists except that which was said by Brigham Young.
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