There are 35 thoughts on “Seers and Stones: The Translation of the Book of Mormon as Divine Visions of an Old-Time Seer”.

  1. Pingback: The Mystical Core of Mormonism: A Very Brief Introduction – Thy Mind, O Human

  2. Thanks Stan for an engaging and thoughtful article. I like the notion that prophets can be presented with the text of revelations, whether in the mind or visually or aurally, aided by forms. As you suggest, forms may transmit symbolic and metaphoric meaning that aid faith.
    I tend to agree with Theodore above that the psychological arguments for ‘altered states’ and the ‘creative unconscious’ in respect of the work of prophets and seers lack a divine dimension in which gifts are seen to be bestowed for specific purposes beyond mere individual ‘profit’. That they have the power to enlighten and edify more broadly is a function of the divine which other ‘secular’ visionary events, listed above, appear not to possess.
    PS Notwithstanding your last statement ‘God works miracles for us according to our faith’ there are however, qualifying conditions that may not be well understood, as with Naaman, for example, whose healing appears to be more a result of his servant’s faith. I like your observations of assisted faith, and the NT reference to constructing contexts for faith, insightful. Appreciate your work.

    • Well-said. I see the “altered states” as perhaps serving to quiet and prepare the mind to be able to receive revelation, from whatever source. Spirit manifests itself through our mind. That is true whether it be the Spirit of God (inspiration) or of the devil (tempation, deception, etc.), our our own volition and creativity.

      The case of Alma’s vision as he was going about with the sons of Mosiah to destroy the church is a good example in which the faith of someone else effected the miracle.

      “And again, the angel said: Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14).

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  3. Stan,
    Thank you for you article. I FINALLY found somebody who basically agrees with me. I just can’t get past the magic that most ascribe to seer stones, and other physical objects. I believe, as apparently you do, that physical things, such as garments, temples, altars, kneeling, works of sacred art and text, etc. are all meant to focus and augment faith, and do not in themselves have magical properties. I believe that translation is the exactly the same as revelation, and it seems that revelation doesn’t come without a problem to be solved, which also focuses faith (the pondering component). I do not like the idea, however, that actual words came in his visions, as that would mean that God wrote in Joseph’s language. I think that visions, and all revelation, are just conveyed through pre-thought images (some more vivid than others) which are subsequently processed into words. I would like to remove all of the magical thinking from my religion. I have a long way to go. You have helped. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reading the paper, Kevin, and for your insightful comment. According to scripture, God works miracles for us according to our faith (i.e., expectation or belief), so there’s really no need for objects that are anything like “magical,” as you rightly point out. And I think you are right that “translation” as Joseph Smith used the term was essentially the same process as his other revelations (the early ones, at least). You may also be right about all revelation coming as pre-thought images. But I’m not sure we are at a point that we can eliminate all other options, particularly in regard to the translation of the Book of Mormon. There is so much information that has not been thoroughly analyzed, if at all, relative to the translation process. This especially applies to data regarding the language of the Book of Mormon—stylometrics, anachronisms, chiasms, potential Hebraisms and plays on words, inclusion of nearly word-perfect KJV chapters, the vocabulary and grammar, the careful interweaving of KJV biblical phrases (not just Bible-style language) throughout the text (perhaps what 2 Nephi 3:12 means when it says the Nephite and Jewish record would “grow together”), etc.
      Is the Book of Mormon really written in Joseph Smith’s language? If it is, the idea of revelation by pre-thought images makes sense. I’ve seen and read sentences in my dreams, and I’m sure they must have come from pre-thought *something* in my own mind. I’m not so sure they started as pre-thought images, though. Maybe more as pre-thought words that my subconscious assembled together into meaningful sentences. If God can put pre-thought images into our minds, maybe he can also put pre-thought words or sentences into our minds. And if so, maybe he can put someone else’s pre-thought sentences into our minds.
      The idea that the book is in Joseph Smith’s language is attractive because it addresses the problems of anachronisms and “bad grammar.” We don’t need Joseph Smith in order to address these problems, however. Another modern or early modern translator could account for these aspects of the text also, whether mortal or immortal. If the book is not in Joseph Smith’s language, it is possible that someone else translated it—perhaps someone whose language it is written in, not necessarily God. I think we are still in the early stages of gathering and analyzing the data. Royal Skousen’s reconstruction of the “earliest text” of the Book of Mormon is a start. When I read it, I don’t get the sense that I’m reading the same language as in Joseph Smith’s earliest journal and letter. To say that the text is in Joseph’s language at this point is to dismiss the best stylometric studies (which need to be redone using Skousen’s text), and Stan Carmack’s work, and Skousen’s conclusions, and to leave other data unexamined. We need more study and more rigorous analyses. I would like to see more of a scientific approach toward the text, using statistics and other analytical tools. And all of this may eventually support the unifying theory of revelation that you suggest, along with JS as the source of the language. That would be OK with me. But I don’t think we’re there quite yet. Interpreter is a good forum for presenting and discussing these studies. Such studies, if approached carefully, objectively, and tied into scripture, can fulfill Interpreter’s mission and serve to put our faith on more solid ground by pushing us to make whatever corrections need to be made in our assumptions about revelation and scripture. I have no doubt that the Book of Mormon is a divine book translated by the gift of God, but I’m not quite so interested in defending it (at least, our current assumptions about it) as I am in understanding it correctly. I appreciate Daniel Peterson and others for creating Interpreter as a place where relevant research can be published. I appreciate you and others for contributing to the discussion. Thank you.

  4. One problem with most interpretations of how the seer stones work is that the explanation hinges on the sacred use to which Joseph’s was put. There are lots of suggestions of divine mechanisms that made the seer stone (or the interpreters) something very different and very divine.

    What those explanations miss is that lots of other people had, and used, seer stones–both before and after Joseph. All of them believed that they “worked.” Joseph used his before it was put to any sacred experience, and both he and his close acquaintances believed that it “worked.” Claiming special divine mechanisms ignores every other instance of seer stone use. It is quite certain that there was something very different and very sacred happening to allow the translation of the Book of Mormon, but the seer stone Joseph used was one he had had before, and which had been just like all other seer stones.

    The occasion and presence of some divine aid made that experience different, but nothing in Joseph’s explanations suggest that the seer stone worked differently while translating than what he had experience when he used it to find lost items. Others who used seer stones also “saw” things in them–the very reason that they were called SEER stones.

    • I don’t doubt that if one tries hard enough for a vision that they might receive one. The question is where will it come from?

      • I’m sorry, but that isn’t the point. Of course many have had visions. Some non-Latter-day Saints have had true visions. Some have had false visions. Human history tells us that lots of people used seer stones and other scrying devices (and still do). For many, these things “work” in a completely non-religious setting. That is the issue I was talking about. Using our religious context to define how Joseph’s seer stones work creates explanations that satisfy our need for the divine in the process–but they are explanations after-the-fact. We impose our desire to find something really different onto Joseph that was fundamentally different from how the stones worked for other people. I have a hard time explaining how Joseph got involved with seer stones if they had only worked for others when inspired by your suggestion of where their information came from. Were that the case, Joseph shouldn’t have every had one, nor should he have been able to use it. Alternately, if he could, then so could others.

        It is somewhat similar to the desire to make sure that we see Jesus as the source of all of his teachings–that he (being clearly special and having a divine nature) must have always been the originator. And then we read Hillel (who taught a version of the Golden Rule, as well as other things similar to what Jesus preached).

        • I think that it is the point. Where does the vision come from? As a vision is a transmission of intelligence it must come from intelligence. What Bryce is suggesting is not by asking of God, so we may assume that it does not come from Him nor from the Holy Ghost. So, where do you expect it comes from?

          • I believe Bryce and I are both suggesting that God was involved, but that so was a human. When Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon, God was involved, but so was a very human function. Being able to describe speech doesn’t suggest the absence of God.

            Are you really suggesting that everyone else in human history who had used a seer stone was necessarily inspired by Satan and not God? I do not accept that, nor any definition of the process that would lead to that conclusion. Through Internet connections, I know of at least two faithful members, from faithful families, who have a seer stone that was used by an ancestor. In one case, only a couple of generations back. In Joseph’s time, there were perhaps even more. I have never seen any statement from Joseph suggesting that Sally Chase was Satan-influenced. Your suggestion does not square with history. It does, however, demonstrate the point I was making, which is that we tend to create current definitions within our current experience, and use them to define Joseph’s experience in ways that preserve the uniqueness of his experience–while ignoring all other times that people did what Joseph did (up until Joseph was called to do something much different with those talents).

          • My previous question as to where the vision comes from was sincere. We know that revelation through a seer stone can come from God. We also know that revelation from a seer stone can come from Satan.
            Is there an additional possible source?
            If so what is it?
            How would one discern what the source was?

            • Again, your question is a function of the binary definition you have presented. What if the answer is that there is an entirely different process at work that can be used by divine revelation–or from Satan (though I suspect there are still problems with that kind of binary division). In the case of seer stones, the typical functions of the seers for generations was to find things that were lost or hidden. They did those things without reference to God or even religion. Perhaps it was all superstition that worked randomly and by pure chance (we tend to get the history of the successes, not the failures). In many cases, the results were described as seeing, which involves visions, and hence might be called visions. However, calling it a vision places a semantic weight on the process that wasn’t there except in very unusual cases–Joseph being the one we are most interested in.

              So the answer to your question is that there are more than two choices. In fact, the largest category is the one between the two poles you suggest. We don’t have a nice label for it, and since we don’t have good scientific explanations for the phenomenon, it will likely remain unnamed and poorly understood. If you understand that the vast majority of the way such instruments were used did not involve religious overtones, and therefore don’t apply the semantically weighted word “visions” to them, it will be easier to talk about what the human processes are that are involved. I can describe speech without suggesting that what is said is given of God or the devil.

          • Generally, what we speak comes from our own mind. We are listening to ourselves. Perhaps we could relate these seer stone visions to our own dreams, but being awake at the time?

            Some dreams come from God and some dreams I know can come from Satan. I dream almost every night and the ones I can remember I can usually relate them to some recent event or thought, or some insecurity or fear of my own. This then provides three possible sources for dreams. Perhaps most visions of the day through seer stones are just vivid daydreams coming from our own minds?

      • Where do the visions come from? If I may add an additional possible source for consideration. (I’ll speak more on this in my MTA talk next month.)

        I think most of us vastly underestimate the power of our unconscious mind, if we are aware of it at all. One might say, “If it is unconscious, doesn’t that by definition mean that we can’t be aware of it or its power?” Most of the time that is the case. But I think we can indirectly deduce its power running behind the scenes by looking closely what we are able to do “unconsciously,” and we are able to occasionally directly glimpse its power as it becomes conscious. I think there are ways of making the power of the unconscious mind more readily conscious, such as using seer stones or through meditation (two forms of contemplative practice, I’m actually even more familiar with meditation which also produces visions), and this I think can be quite transforming, revealing profound capacities, creative potential, and deep understanding in the human mind that are normally hidden from conscious view.

        Most people don’t seem to know they have an unconscious mind at all. They believe their conscious mind is all there is up there, and so they feel they are somewhat dumb and impotent beings, e.g. only able to hold one or a few simple ideas in consciousness at a time. But the reality is the brain is churning in massive amounts of information, sensory input, memories, and calculations at rates that are many orders of magnitude greater than the conscious mind can normally grasp. Our capacities are much greater than we normally suppose. Our conscious mind is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg of mind activity, and even *that* I believe vastly underestimates the reality of the situation. Great people have occasionally shown what is possible when the fullness of the mind becomes more exposed.

        I think that several of these sources may be at work concurrently in visionary experiences. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive. Unconscious mind material is becoming conscious, our conscious mind being able to perceive it and react to it, and give feedback and direction, which in turn filters back down into the unconscious, in a kind of feedback loop. I think Brant Gardner comments about this in his book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon, God may be at work in the unconscious parts of our mind, the pre-linguistic, pre-conceptual areas, inspiring ideas and concepts that then come into the conscious mind and are formulated into interpretations and descriptions using our culture and language.

        Unfortunately in our modern world today such visions are often labeled “hallucinations,” and by so labeling them are downgraded to fables, deceptions, and “mere” imagination. Hallucinations are defined as perceptual experiences of things that do not exist, without external stimuli, or are not present, and are therefore considered not “real.” While technically correct, I think this demotes such experiences to nothingness, being considered worthless and valueless. While such visionary experiences may not correlate with material things in consensual reality, that does not mean they are not real or of great worth. They are real experiences, from real minds, that can reveal real insights into our real lives and the real world.

        • Bryce, I think that it is important to note that there are two answers to the “where do visions come from” question. One is what you are suggesting, which is that they are manifest through our human capacities. We “see” visions–rather by definition. However, the content of those visions might be influenced by purely mundane reordering of memories or from divine input. The mechanism doesn’t define the nature of the source, only the nature of the way we experience it.

          • Brant, I think you are right. We need to be specific about what we mean by “where do the visions come from.” Are we talking about the mechanism, or the source? It’s not easy to untangle these from each other. I think it’s also not easy to determine a clear source. There may be a combination or mix or merging of sources; not either/or, but *and*. God may give divine input by the very method of reordering memories in unique and creative ways in our unconsciousness, which then becomes conscious during the contemplative practice. Our unconscious mind may do the same. Both may happen in the very same vision, two seconds apart, and we may not be able to tell the difference. That’s where it becomes exceedingly difficult. How do we tell the source? How do we assess the value? Perhaps Joseph was familiar with these problems, and the pitfalls, which is why it seems he was interested in giving us various keys, tools, and methods for discerning spirits and revelations.

            It does appear to me, however, that the source content is always delivered through the means of our unconscious mind, and from there becomes conscious. It seems to me that is how we become conscious of most, if not all things. I don’t think anything simply appears in our conscious mind directly without passing first through our unconscious mind. All of our sensory experiences seem to function in this way (according to current neuroscience), and it seems that our mentally exclusive experiences function likewise. It seems I recall that you wrote about these processes in your book.

            I would also echo what you have said that there does not seem to be simply two extremes here, where content *either* comes from God or Satan. There is a wide spectrum, in my opinion and experience, and I think there are many great things that can come from our own unconscious processing, as well as very bad things, and neutral things, and everything in-between. We may even be convinced that our really great inspirations and revelations come from God. But have they? *Always*? What about the really negative things? Are they *always* from Satan? Or could they be coming from deep in our unconsciousness, from repressed memories, childhood difficulties, struggles with life decisions, traumas we’ve experienced, abuse, existential distress, things that our mind has tried to mentally bury and suppress, PTSD, etc. (we need to be extra careful here to guard against false or implanted memories, which many of us may have witnessed first-hand, but that doesn’t negate the reality of *real* such experiences and their associated difficulties that we must not reject, ignore or neglect out of hand). Might we have areas of our unconscious mind that are much greater, both in the highs and the lows, than we have supposed to date? The difficulty is that we don’t often have direct access to our unconscious mind to check, we can’t peek under the hood and look, at least not very easily. Even if we could, what would we see? How would we know? It appears to me at this time that this takes a lot of practice, patience, discipline, effort (faith, as Stan put it), and humility. As I’ve learned elsewhere, enlightening experiences do not always lead to enlightened lives. There are no quick and easy answers here, and we can easily be mistaken (or what Joseph may have called “deceived”), and be so easily misled as to the true or more accurate nature of these things. I yearn and hunger and even ache deeply that we will keep open minds and be exceptionally compassionate with one another as we explore and study these questions. For I think they are very important. I think there are many great things in store if we can successfully navigate this mine field (mind field?). There is so much emotion and so much belief and so much conditioning surrounding these things, mountains upon mountains, Everests upon Everests, that I believe this will be an exceptionally difficult and even painful journey in trying to better understand these things and what they mean. But I think we can also be genuinely rewarded with blessings beyond our ability to *consciously* imagine, at least not without the help of our unconscious, and God.

            “The things of God are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal expanse; he must commune with God.” (“Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge,” 20 March 1839, The Joseph Smith Papers Project)

  5. Excellent work, Stan. I think your thoughts here are fantastic in more accurately describing the nature of Joseph’s use of seer stones. Here are some of my additional ideas on the subject.

    You note that the stones may have “helped [Joseph] attain a state of mind conducive to seeing visions.” I think another way of putting this is that using the seer stones helped Joseph induce what is called an “altered state of consciousness.” These are states of consciousness in the brain described in neuroscience and psychology as functioning quite differently than normal waking consciousness, and have some very peculiar and unique effects. Trance states, hypnosis, and meditation are altered states that many of us can experience readily, as well as the more typical sleeping, dreaming, and lucid dreaming, which all of us have likely experienced (if you haven’t yet experienced sleeping or dreaming in your life, please call 911 immediately). These states put the mind into different ways of functioning whereby perceptual reality is changed significantly, hallucinations can occur in all sensory modalities, and tremendous insights can be gleaned. These may be related to unconscious unknown information or processing in the brain that becomes conscious or known, disparate regions of the brain become more highly interconnected, or regions of the brain become deactivated and other regions become more dominant, thereby altering one’s perception of reality in significant ways. These are likely also the physiological and neurological basis of all kinds of mystical experiences.

    You seem to discount the description of the seer stones as a “technology,” because they did not act in a similar way to what we typically know as modern technology where there is something inherent or built into the object itself that gives it unique abilities. But I think this might be a very narrow definition of the term “technology.” Webster defines technology as “the practical application of knowledge,” “a capability given by the practical application of knowledge,” or “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.” Joseph knowing to use the seer stones as the means of inducing an altered state of consciousness in himself fits these definitions. It was the practical application of an object as a technical means to an end. The stones had the capability to induce in Joseph an altered state. They were a manner to accomplish the task of altering his consciousness and producing visions. In this sense they definitely were technological tools, albeit not in and of themselves, and not in the way we ordinarily think of technology, but yet still uniquely important to accomplish the task, at least in the beginning, until Joseph became much more adept at inducing such states and could discard the training wheels, so to speak. See Don Bradley’s presentation at the 2013 MTA conference on “Joseph Smith and the Technologies of Seership,” where he discusses this at length. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQ4Nm9F-u64

    There seem to be a number of ways of triggering altered states of consciousness that produce mystical experiences that have quite unfamiliar but transcendent qualities. I think Joseph’s use of the stones may have used a number of these methods concurrently, some of which you mention, such as focusing the mind, directed attention, intense concentration, sensory deprivation, blocking out distractions, a dark environment, meditation, meditation objects, quiet secluded spaces, fasting, prayer, contemplation, etc. It may have also included changes in breathing, breath control, oxygen deprivation, or carbon dioxide concentration changes in the blood, due to having his face inserted into the hat with the brim closed around it, so that he could not breathe normally. Staring intently onto a single point in one’s visual focus may have also been at work. An article in the Palmyra Reflector in 1831 notes that seers’ stones “were placed in a hat or other situation excluded from light, when… applied their eyes, and nearly starting [staring?] their [eye] balls from their sockets, declared they saw all the wonders of nature…”

    Another account of Joseph using the seer stones is interesting in that it sheds more light into the altered state of consciousness and mystical nature of the experience. During the 1826 Looking Glass trial, Joseph is reported to have described how one of his seer stones worked upon first discovering it: “With some labor and exertion he found the stone, carried it to the creek, washed and wiped it dry, sat down on the bank, placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing-Eye.”

    Some of the qualities of mystical experiences are often reported as a sense of timelessness and spacelessness, an alteration or complete loss of the perception of time and space, and a sense of merging with an ultimate divine knowing of all things, or omniscience. These could be associated with changes in the neurological functioning within the brain, wherein certain regions of the brain that normally track and generate one’s perceptions of time, space, and an egoic sense of self are deactivated, go offline, cease, or change normal neuronal firing. In those situations, one could experience no time or endless eternal time, no space or endless eternal space, and no sense of a bounded and embodied self, but an all-encompassing experience of one’s identification with everything in the universe, even God.

    I think we need to get much more comfortable with the idea that there is something common going on in the accounts of scrying, scryers, crystallomancy, crystal-gazing, crystal balls, spheromancy, gastromancy, psychomanteum, and the like so-called “occult” phenomena. Reading of their occurrence in the ancient and modern world seems almost like reading a textbook on Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, and I think this could give us much more insight into his use of these, and what he may have meant by translating by “the gift and power of God.” These are not old-fashioned, outdated, and obsolete tools relegated and isolated to the ash heaps of antiquity, or even inherently evil, wicked, or devil-inspired practices, but genuine methods which granted humans views of alternate realities and imaginative visions in their mind’s eye. Granted, they have been used for “dark” and “shady” business, which is why they have been lumped into the taboo of the “occult,” and so there is definite need to tread carefully and thoughtfully, but I think we need to recognize a common phenomena happening here that may go far beyond mere deception and pseudoscience. I believe these are all methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, which can provoke visions in mind’s eye of many people who attempt it, even today. I have tried it myself, as well as traditional meditation techniques, and I can tell you definitively that it works. This is not the “work of the devil,” it is simply various ways of altering consciousness to provoke something similar to daydreams and vivid, imaginative thoughts and perceptions, the same as a hypnotist might use a swinging pocket watch to induce a mental state of hypnosis in a client, and I think this rational and sensible approach to the study of these rarefied phenomena could lead us to profound insights and greater understanding of the nature of these exceptional experiences. You, and other scholars such as Brant Gardner, have helped to open these doors for our exploration and discovery.

    There is another mention of similar scrying or divination experience in the story of Joseph of Egypt in the Old Testament that you didn’t mention, but I think is applicable. Many people are probably familiar with the story of the silver cup that Joseph places in the sack of grains of his brothers when they are leaving to go back to Canaan to trick them into believing they had stolen from him so he could test their humility. Most people probably don’t know that Joseph states that this cup he used for divination or oracular purposes (Genesis 44:5, 15). Most interpreters, including Daniel C. Peterson, see this as a case of divination by looking into a cup of reflective water and thereby seeing visions. This is also known as hydromancy, scyphomancy, lecanomancy, or catoptromancy. Ancient Joseph was already familiar with oneiromancy, or the divinatory interpretation of dreams, which was played a significant role in raising him to his respected station under Pharaoh. Most people are probably familiar with the similar practice of catoptromancy, which is divination using a mirror, which is where we get the “mirror, mirror, on the wall” divination used in popular culture such as Snow White and its Magic Mirror. Gazing into a dish of reflective water is also how Nostradamus is reported to have gleaned his visionary insights.

    I’m hesitant to call what Joseph was doing “faith,” because this is not the typical kind of faith that I think most of us is familiar with. As you note this was faith in one’s ability, expectation, confidence, or belief in his ability to do something. It does not seem to be faith in God, or a belief in the existence and power of Jesus Christ or Heavenly Father. I think this is an important distinction to make. Joseph believed that by using his seer stones he could see divine visions, and it is his concerted effort that allowed him to do so, and would aid any other likewise. That kind of faith “in doing” aided his ability to see the visions. I don’t perceive that it was an abiding belief in God, per se, that aided his ability to see the visions with the seer stones, especially since his earlier visions with the stones had nothing to do with God but in finding buried treasure, lost objects, etc., as you noted. What his faith in God likely did do was incite visions particularly of the nature of God, and of things especially divine. It seems that what is produced in the visions provoked by an alteration in consciousness has a lot to do with one’s “set and setting,” or what is presently going on in the mind of the person whose conscious functioning is shifted. What are their expectations, what are their particular beliefs and belief system, what do they want or think they will see or discover, and in what circumstances or environment is the person when they experience the visions? This likely is associated with the “faith of healing,” as you note, but this may also be related to the power of the placebo effect of one’s believing in the efficacy of the healing, medicine, etc. Research has found that merely believing enough in the efficacy of a medicine is enough to trigger healing in the physical body, even if there is absolutely no actual medicine consumed, which in scientific studies and research involving pharmaceuticals requires placebo controls in determining if any particular drug or medicine is actually more effective in curing or aiding an illness than simply the belief alone that one can be cured or aided by the medicine. Belief alone, in the absence of any drug, is often enough to produce statistically recognized and measurable benefits in curing or alleviating ailments or diseases. Again, exceptional care must be taken in considering these phenomena, as some can take the idea too far and teach that you can make anything happen in your life, or cure any disease or physiological problem, simply by thinking positive thoughts (e.g. The Secret, Think and Grow Rich, etc.). But again, there is some truth to be found in these things, and if we can separate the wheat from the chaff, I think we can be enlightened (pun very much intended).

    I believe that a shift in Joseph’s consciousness, and in those of the ancient prophets, and in Joseph’s contemporaries, even altered states of consciousness, underlies the experiences of most, if not all, of Joseph’s and his associates’ visions, even of the First Vision. Incidentally, I will be presenting a paper on this subject (an introduction to a book I’ve drafted) next month on April 8th at the Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference in Provo, that I’m sure will provoke more discussion (http://transfigurism.org/). Dr. Steven Peck, BYU Professor of Biology, known for his books and commentary on biological evolution and faith, will be keynoting the conference.

    Again, I commend you for your great work here, Stan.

    • Thanks Bryce. Good information. I’m glad you went into this, as I only touched very briefly on this aspect of “seeing.” Some related thoughts…

      Some people are able to attain a visionary state (altered state of consciousness) more easily than others. Historically, children were often given the role of seeing, which makes me believe it may in general be easier for young minds. Joseph Smith was especially adept at it, maybe because of practice as a youth.

      When I speak of faith, I pretty much equate it with simple belief or expectation that something will or can happen, and that seems to be the main idea in much of scripture dealing with miracles (Alma 37:40; Ether 3:26). If we think that the only thing we can have faith (belief) in is that God lives and saves us, we are severely limiting the meaning of faith/belief. Faith (meaning belief, or expectation) may be important in having visions for a couple of reasons. You mention the placebo effect in faith healing—the body’s inclination to heal due to the person’s expectation that healing will occur. It is as if the person’s expectation of healing gives the body’s own healing powers permission to kick in. But I think God also often has a more prominent role in healings, and the person’s faith—meaning his belief that God can or will heal him—gives God permission, in effect, to intercede more directly. Belief is a common aspect of all miracles (Mni 7:37, Ether 12:6-19). The person’s belief thus enables the healing, potentially, in two ways that work together along with whatever physical/medical measures the person is taking. Both aspects of faith (belief) may also be important in seeing divine visions. The seer’s expectation that he will “see” gives his mind permission to enter an altered state of consciousness (although he may need the assistance of other means, as you mention, just as healing is aided by physical/medical measures), and his belief that God will communicate with him gives God, in effect, reason to take advantage of that altered mental state and provide a visionary message. At least, that makes sense to me. The seer stone (even unseen in the dark interior of a hat) can act as a placebo to help elicit the visionary state and divine communication by enhancing expectation/belief. That’s what I mean when I discount seer stones as a technology; I mean that they are more like placebos than biologically active drugs. Maybe there’s a better word than “technology.” It’s worth noting that placebos (sugar pills) can assist healing even when the person knows exactly what they are taking. No self-deception is required. They apparently serve to focus belief/expectation; they are aids to faith. To find studies on this, google “open-label placebo.”

      I’m looking forward to your MTA talk. I trust that a transcript will eventually be available. My daughter loved Steven Peck as a professor and gave me his book, Evolving Faith, which is a great title for these times.

      • Thanks for your reply, Stan. I agree that children and youth seem to be able to enter altered states more easily than adults or older people, perhaps because their minds are more fresh, more susceptible to change (neuroplasticity), and have not been so conditioned in the ordinary waking state as of yet. Many ancient or old-time seers seem to have been children, or youth. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Christ taught that we must become more like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3). Our minds must transition to a more innocent, clear, unconditioned, undistracted state in order to perceive visions of the divine and heavenly realms.

        I too agree that faith should be considered in a broader context. I’m just concerned that some may misinterpret your use of the term to specifically mean “faith in God,” as it is typically understood. But you did note your intent several times. I would add that the placebo effect seems to work in healing even for those who don’t believe in God. However, it is true that faith in God may give one even more reason for the faithful to believe in their healing. It would be interesting to see if there have been any studies that have tried to observe the differences in theistic belief and non-belief and their effects on healing.

        I really like your analogy of the seer stones being more like placebos than biologically active drugs. They gave Joseph the confidence he needed to enter the altered state of mind, but they did not, in and of themselves, do anything in particular. We might explore the question if Joseph knew he was “taking a placebo” in using the seer stones. Did he know that the stone was not an active principle, and that it seems to have only helped him in achieving the altered state of consciousness he sought. It seems to me that it is unlikely that his was an “open-label placebo,” so to speak.

        Yes, I think a transcript of my talk will be made available, if not from the MTA, then from myself. It will also be filmed, and videos made available via YouTube.

        • You’re probably right about how Joseph viewed his seer stone. I just got back from giving a healing blessing with consecrated oil. To me, the oil is a substance made sacred by consecration to God’s purpose (in the same way that sacramental bread is sacred) and thereby helps me focus my faith in giving (or receiving) the ritual “prayer of faith” that James speaks of. In this view, the oil is analogous to an open-label placebo. Others may see consecrated oil as an active principle that is not just consecrated to the work of God, but actually imbued with his healing power. Either way, the oil effectively functions as an aid to faith and fulfills its purpose by strengthening a person’s belief that he can be healed through the grace of God. So, however Joseph saw his stone–as an active transmitter of revelation or a passive faith-focusing symbol–it fulfilled its purpose. God doesn’t require that we all understand things the same way, or even that we understand them. If he did, his blessings would only be available to “the learned.” What he requires is that we believe in the desired outcome. And that puts us all on an equal footing.

    • Bryce,

      Much focus on the workings of the brain but no mention of the workings of the spirit. I think something is missing from your theories.

      • Theodore, thank you for your comment. You bring up an important question. My thoughts are specifically exploring how the workings of the spirit might function. For it seems that we don’t believe in supernatural phenomena, or that which is contrary to natural law. Elder James E. Talmage wrote, “Miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized. In the contemplation of the miracles wrought by Christ, we must of necessity recognize the operation of a power transcending our present human understanding. In this field, science has not yet advanced far enough to analyze and explain.” (Jesus the Christ). Other prophets have said similar things.

        The miracle of the translation of the Book of Mormon by seer stones “by the gift and power of God” may likewise be investigated to discover the workings, operations, and laws by which it was wrought, and to bring it into the realm of human understanding. It seems to me that in our advanced scientific understandings we can seek to analyze and explain these workings of the spirit in terms of natural laws we can understand. We don’t need to remain in the dark. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure…” (D&C 131:7)

        • However, I think that “our advanced scientific understandings” are still too primitive to comprehend the workings of celestial physics.

    • Bryce,

      Also diminished in your theory is the special nature of the stones used in the translation. They were prepared by the power of God (priesthood) for this purpose by God.

      “And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23)

      “the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.” (JSH 1:35)

      With the power of the priesthood Joseph could have prepared (blessed or consecrated) other stones or items for this purpose.

      • Theodore, that’s a good question too. In what way did God prepare them?

        It may be that God prepared *Joseph* and inspired *him* to find the stones whereby he could shift his mental state to perceive the things of God. “Gazelem” in Alma has been variously interpreted as Joseph and/or the stone, or both, depending on the way punctuation is added to the earliest text. Joseph was called “Gazelam” in early editions of the D&C. Albeit a stretch, Joseph explicitly called himself a stone, even a “rough stone rolling,” he being a “shaft [or a kind of tool] in the quiver of the Almighty.” Joseph did describe Peter as “a seer, or a stone” in JST John 1:42, and so it seems reasonable to assume he may have thought of himself in the same way, as “a seer” and also as “a stone,” like Peter, using the terms interchangeably. It seems that he identified himself closely with his seer stones, perhaps because of his intimate mystical experiences with them, perhaps feeling as though he had united or merged with them during his visions, or that he himself was somehow a similar or analogous conduit or instrument for divine revelations as he believed the stones were. There are also many scriptures that indicate Joseph’s own preparation by God for the work. As Stan has pointed out here, as well as other scholars such as Brant Gardner, it seems unlikely that there was anything particularly special about the stones that Joseph used, inherently in and of themselves, *except* for the seemingly undeniable fact that they worked very well for Joseph. They seem to have been particularly well suited for him, to prepare his mind so that he could see divine visions.

        Indeed, it seems Joseph *could* have prepared other stones or items for this or similar purposes, and perhaps he did (these scriptures don’t seem to refer to *all* of the stones and instruments he had and used for revelatory purposes, but particular ones, even “a stone,” and the Urim and Thummim set in silver bows, and did not mention *both* of these objects used in the BOM translation in each scripture, but only one or the other). Additionally, he once noted to the Twelve: “He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.” Must each of these stones for every man on Earth also be specially prepared, blessed or consecrated, by God for their owners to use them for divination and revelation? It doesn’t seem so to me. It seems that the preparation was and is in the mind of the seer, and not in the stone itself.

        It is also possible that Joseph himself did not clearly recognize that the ability existed within himself, and not in the stone (which seems evident since he did not use the stones for his later revelations and visions, after the “training wheels” came off), and this understanding of his may have been reflected in a loose translation of the Book of Mormon, and in his 1838 history. Joseph himself may have thought that the stones were somehow inherently special or had special abilities, in and of themselves, perhaps a residue of his earlier culturally conditioned beliefs in folk magic and its objects infused with magical properties.

    • Bryce, you wrote:

      “I believe these are all methods of inducing altered states of consciousness, which can provoke visions in mind’s eye of many people who attempt it, even today. I have tried it myself, as well as traditional meditation techniques, and I can tell you definitively that it works.”

      It worked for Hyrum Page also. 🙂

      • Theodore, you wrote: “It worked for Hyrum Page also. :-)”

        Precisely. The reason that Hiram used a seer stone was because he already had one and had presumably used it successfully. The resulting revelation didn’t say that seer stones don’t work, but that revelations for the church came through the one called to lead it. Saints continued to use seer stones into the late 1800’s in Utah.

  6. I agree about footnote 154. That was the first thing I thought of as I read this fantastic article. The conclusion is that seer stones and the Urim and Thummin are basically just props,a convenient fiction, and anything handy would work as well, as long as it generated faith.

    This strikes me as somewhat dubious. That story from Martin Harris implies otherwise, and footnote 154’s suggestion that Joseph noticed a difference and was just stringing Martin Harris along seems wrong to me.

    If seer stones and the Urim and Thummin were just any old rock that had a unique characteristic, then why would the Lord command that they be preserved? Why wouldn’t Moroni just grab a rock and hand it to Joseph instead of it being passed down over thousands of years?

    From Joseph’s history, it appears that first, he used the Urim and Thummin, then his seer stones, and finally he didn’t need them at all. Revelations suggest that everyone will get a Urim and Thummin in the Celestial Kingdom. Why? Surely those there have sufficient faith, correct?

    This suggests that indeed there is a purpose to the stones, more than a convenient fiction to trick the mind into exerting more faith.

    I posit that they serve as faith catalysts. A catalyst increases or otherwise allows a reaction to occur that is otherwise impossible under a given set of conditions. It would likely take your faith input and multiply it to the point needed to achieve the vision. The Liahona would have worked the same way–even Laman and Lemuel could use it (they clearly could, considering they recognized when it stopped working while Nephi was tied up). And their faith level was no doubt very low.

    This means they are not just any random rock. However they work, they are actually working, and not just a convenient fiction to fool the person into actually using more faith. And without it, as Joseph found out, he couldn’t translate.

    At least, that’s my idea.

    • Vance,

      I would also consider seer stones catalysts of faith, but in a psychological rather than a physical sense. I certainly wouldn’t call them fiction any more than I would call the sacramental bread (well, anything available—crackers, potato peels) or the temple or the clay on Enoch’s eyes or the Christian cross or the brazen serpent or baptismal water, fiction. The interpreters, an ancient relic prepared by the Lord (through his servants), would work batter at inspiring faith than any old rock, just as the brazen serpent prepared by the Lord (through Moses) suited the purpose better than any old scrap of metal.

      Some things to think about…

      The Martin Harris story is secondhand, but believable. It gives us limited information, but Harris apparently came away believing the stone had special properties. I’m not sure it suggests Joseph was stringing Harris along. Good humor on Joseph’s part is another option. That wouldn’t have been out of character for Joseph. And there is the possibility that God just wasn’t amused.

      Joseph Smith was first seeing things with his brown stone, then his white stone, and then with the interpreters, then gave his brown stone away and continued to use his white stone (as I discuss in the paper) even after reportedly telling Cowdery that he didn’t need a urim and thummim anymore. He probably didn’t need it as much, but must have found it useful to boost his faith on occasion, which works for the idea presented in this paper as well as for yours.

      The passage in the D&C saying that everyone in heaven would get a Urim and Thummim doesn’t claim to be a revelation, so I’m not sure we should give it that burden. See the discussion of D&C 130 in the paper.

      I don’t consider an aid to faith as “tricking” the mind as much as focusing it, but Joseph may well have believed the stone had special properties. I don’t know. You will see in my discussion of D&C 130 (on p. 50) that he considered his white stone to be “a small representation of this globe” [referring to the abode of God]. This suggests to me that he might have seen the stone as a faith-aiding symbol, like the sacramental bread or brazen serpent or cross, etc. But if he didn’t, that’s ok, too.

      Lehi’s brass ball is an interesting case. Laman and Lemuel may have perceived it was not working (and therefore “knew not whither they should steer the ship”) simply because they, in Alma’s words, “did not progress in their journey” and “did not travel a direct course.” See note 145 regarding the words on the brass ball. As far as how the pointers functioned, the Book of Mormon doesn’t say much, but what is does say is consistent with the idea that they were simply spinners (“spindles” in 1 Nephi 16:10 and Alma 37:40) like we use for board games. Alma describes their use: “And it did work for them according to their faith in God. Therefore if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done… by small means.” These “small means” apparently weren’t very impressive, and the travelers “were slothful and forgat to exercise their faith” and the miracle ceased and “they did not progress in their journey.” This is consistent with the idea of Nephi spinning a pointer while he (or the group) exercised faith that it would come to a stop pointing in the direction they should go. The miracle was that it did (when they had faith) point in a direction that enabled them to “travel a direct course” and “progress in their journey.” This is analogous to the use of lots for divine guidance by the ancient Israelites as well as the Apostles. We need no more suppose that the “spindles” spun themselves than that the lots cast themselves. So, although we don’t know how the Liahona worked, the description of its use in the Book of Mormon does not necessarily show that God gives men objects that function on their own by some kind of mysterious physical technology.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s worth more research and discussion.

      • I should have said, “even after reportedly telling ORSON PRATT that he didn’t need a urim and thummim anymore.”

  7. Thanks for this thorough and educational article. It gives me a lot to think about.

    I think that footnote 154 should be addressed in text in a more in depth way.

    • Thanks for taking time to read the paper. For others who don’t have time to read all of it, here are some parts that might be of particular interest:
      • p. 28—Why “the Urim and Thummim” in Church history usually meant one of Joseph Smith’s own seer stones.
      • p. 29—The original meaning of “seer,” and how Joseph Smith and Ammon probably understood it.
      • p. 30 and endnote 16—Why the popular Mormon definition of “seer” as “a revelator and a prophet also” and “a seer can know of things which are past…” should probably be considered a situational observation, not a definition.
      • p. 30—Why Joseph Smith was not the only prophet to miraculously receive a book of scripture by “seeing.”
      • p. 31—A good little summary of the paper.
      • p. 32-43—The principle witness accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon are remarkably consistent with one another.
      • pp. 35 and 56 and endnote 123—Why the Interpreters (better known as the “Urim and Thummim”) were probably not transparent like clear glass or crystals as popularly portrayed; they would have made silly-looking “glasses.”
      • p. 36—Joseph Smith didn’t use the Interpreters by wearing them like glasses; he placed them in a hat.
      • p. 38—Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon was reminiscent of visions of scrolls and books in the Bible and Book of Mormon.
      • p. 39—Words did not appear ON the seer stone as is commonly assumed, but IN the stone, even though it wasn’t transparent in the usual sense.
      • p. 39-40—David Whitmer was a firm believer that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. He also believed in the sacred use of seer stones. His accounts of translation by seer stone were not attempts to damage Joseph Smith’s reputation.
      • pp. 40, 50-51, 66—What the “gift and power of God” by which Joseph translated likely means: the gift to see visions.
      • p. 41 and 45 — Why Joseph Smith could apparently translate with his eyes closed.
      • p. 44 and endnote 66—Joseph may have translated the Book of Abraham in the same way as the Book of Mormon.
      • p. 45—And the Book of Moses the same way.
      • p. 48—and received other revelations the same way.
      • p. 48—What Joseph may have meant by the word “translate.”
      • p. 50—Joseph Smith probably did not “study it out” in his mind as he translated.
      • pp. 51-55—Joseph Smith translated by the gift of “seeing”—the same gift others who experiment with a seer stones hopes for.
      • p. 53 and endnote 107—Joseph Smith was a sinner like the rest of us, but that ended up being a good thing.
      • p. 55 (and indicated endnotes)—Joseph Smith, and even Jesus, apparently experienced false revelations, but that’s OK.
      • p. 55 and endnotes 119 and 120—the apparently false revelation to go to Canada to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon; B. H. Roberts’ interesting response; and why we should expect prophecies to sometimes fail.
      • p. 55 and endnote 116—Joseph Smith was not the only modern “seer” to see religious books in vision.
      • p. 59—Joseph Smith may have translated the Book of Mormon the same way Isaiah saw scripture in vision.
      • pp. 60-64, 71—Why Joseph Smith was justified in calling his seer stones “urim and thummim.”
      • p. 66—According to the Book of Mormon itself, the Interpreters could be used to “look for” things, suggesting they were like Joseph’s own seer stones that he used to look for buried treasure and lost items.
      • endnote 158—Were seer stones used in Biblical times?
      • p. 67—The Book of Mormon’s description of its own translation has Joseph Smith READING words (not composing text in his mind).
      • p. 67—If Joseph Smith just read the English translation from a vision, who might have really translated (in the usual sense) the Book of Mormon?
      • p. 68—What does a seer stone do? Why did Joseph Smith need a hat to translate?
      • p. 69-71—Faith, as described in the Book of Mormon and Bible, is the belief or expectation that something will happen; and it’s the principle requirement for miracles, including visions and miraculous translation.
      • pp. 71-72—Why Joseph Smith needed experience as a “glass-looker.”
      Note that I discuss footnote 154 more in the comments below.

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