I recently did an informal survey through reddit. It started when I read this observation by Sandra Tanner, quoted by user Mithryn in the exmormon subreddit:
“Curiously, in illustrating various instruction manuals, the LDS Church does not depict Smith using either the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone. He is almost always shown sitting at a desk and simply looking at the plates, as though he were doing a regular translation.” – Sandra Tanner
What’s a Seer Stone? What’s a Urim and Thummim?
Let me back up for those who aren’t aware of the context here: in October 2015 the LDS Church published an article in their magazine titled Joseph the Seer that turned upside down one of the most fundamental stories that every Mormon knows: the story of how Joseph Smith translated a set of ancient golden plates into the Book of Mormon.
The canonized version of events is found in Joseph Smith – History in the Pearl of Great Price. This version was written by Joseph Smith and published in the Church newspaper in 1842 about twelve years after the Book of Mormon was published. It described an ancient, biblical instrument buried with the plates known as the “Urim and Thummim.”
Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times… immediately after my arrival [in Pennsylvania] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them.
Joseph also states here that he wasn’t allowed to show any of these sacred relics to anyone else. Church artwork and videos depicted the translation process accordingly, as in these examples:
The curtain comes from a description by Martin Harris, and it’s shown separating Joseph from his scribe Oliver Cowdery during the translation process, so that Cowdery could not see the forbidden plates
So what was in that magazine article that turned everything upside down? The article was released at the same time as an essay on the church website about the translation of the Book of Mormon (several such essays were released to address difficult topics). It turns out most eyewitness accounts to the translation didn’t describe this breastplate and spectacle combo, instead they described Joseph using a seer stone; that is, a regular-looking stone that he had used previously to scry for buried treasure and lost items. David Whitmer, in whose house much of the Book of Mormon was produced, described the process this way:
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.
-David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ
Joseph’s wife, Emma, also described the seer stone:
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
Her father also described it this way:
The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods!
-Isaac Hale, in an affidavit published in Mormonism Unvailed
Which brings us to another point about the translation of the plates: they weren’t even in the same room! Other witness testimonies describe that Joseph had hidden the plates outside in a tree stump somewhere and relied on his seer stone to produce the translation without the plates present at all.
It’s probably difficult for someone on the outside looking in to understand why this was such a big shock to so many people. After all, they both sound like basically magic, right? Why is one any weirder than the other? The key to understanding why so many Mormons reacted so strongly to the news is understanding the shock of having a foundational myth turned upside down. Furthermore, many people felt deceived, as the seer stone had previously only been described by historians and skeptics who were treated dismissively by the LDS Church, and sometimes formally disciplined. Many people recalled hearing it was an anti-Mormon lie. In 2003, twelve years before the church published this article, South Park aired an episode that satirized the history and beliefs of the Mormon church and depicted the translation process more accurately than the church ever had:
I admit that when I saw this episode as a believing Mormon, I thought the creators just got this part hilariously wrong. So it was quite a shock when the church not only published that the seer stone method of translation was historically accurate, they actually published a picture of it.
It turns out that not only did Joseph’s seer stone really exist, it had been sitting in the Church’s archives for over a century. What you’re looking at right now is the stone that Joseph looked at while he orally transcribed the Book of Mormon.
Before this picture was release, the presence of the stone in the LDS Church archives had been rumored for a while. Some years before the article was published, Grant Palmer described seeing this stone and two others while he worked for the church. Grant Palmer was one of those people disciplined by the church for writing a book on the history of the church that challenged the orthodox version of history. The article seemed to vindicate the critics.
Back to the Sandra Tanner Quote
Now that I’ve provided the context, let’s get back to my original question. Sandra Tanner (a well-known critic of the Mormon church) noticed that a lot of church art de-emphasized the Urim and Thummim and the privacy curtain. Instead, the church commissioned art showing Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, working side by side with the plates in plain view, while Joseph simply read from them without the aid of any instruments at all:
Remarkably, the church even depicted the translation this way in their 2005 feature film, Joseph Smith : The Prophet of the Restoration at around the 18:44 mark.
This is the film shown in LDS Visitors Centers around the world; it is the LDS Church’s version of its own history intended for non-Mormon audiences, and it begins with the following introduction:
So I started to wonder: did other people grow up with a different story than me? Did they not grow up with the curtain and the Urim and Thummim? Was there a generation of Mormons raised on the belief that Joseph just plopped the plates on the table in front of Oliver Cowdery?
So I created a survey to see if I could find any trends. I published the link to a few Mormon themed subreddits, though I didn’t get as much participation from the believing side of the spectrum. You can get the raw data in csv format here. If you want a visual summary of the survey answers, you can see it here. Of course, the survey isn’t scientific by any means, and I don’t know enough about statistics to run regressions on the correlating factors, but that won’t stop me from making irresponsible conclusions from the data. All in all, we had over 600 responses.
So let’s look at the central question: what version of events did people grow up with?
The responses clearly showed a strong recall for the breastplate and spectacles that I grew up with. A full 83.4% of respondents identified this method of translation. That being said, a significant number of people did apparently grow up with the idea that the plates were out in the open, nearly 30% in fact. Of the 187 people who answered that way, 64 people reported not hearing any other method of translation. That’s still nearly twice as many people as those that remembered being taught about the seer stone, which only accounts for 5.5% of respondents.
But I wanted to go a little further. Could I draw any inferences? Were people of a certain age or geographic persuasion more likely to answer one way or another? First I looked at geographic location, using only the 64 people who marked “no revelatory instruments” as their answer.
The only obvious correlation is that Utah Mormons seem much less likely to have grown up with this narrative, with most of the difference made up by East Coast Mormons. I’m not sure what to make of that. What about age?
Despite my initial assumption that a later generation might have grown up with new artwork depicting an instrumentless translation, this idea actually trends older than the general population of respondents. So it looks like my plan to blame it on the young whippersnappers won’t work out. What about women? Can I blame it on them? Nope, 23/64 were women, about the same ratio as all respondents (168/632). Let’s move on to the next question and see if we can draw any more inferences.
Well the good news is I’m not alone. A large majority of people grew up with the same story I did regarding the curtain. However, the next two most popular choices were that Joseph had the plates hidden in a sheet or box (like in the movie) or simply out in the open. Very few people were taught that the plates weren’t even in the room. Lets see if we can find any similar correlations for the people who believed that the plates were simply out in the open. There were 85 people who chose that option and no other, so let’s focus on them:
Once again, the trend runs older. Surprisingly, it seems to be the older generation that is more likely to have grown up with this narrative.
There are some other results that surprised me. For example nearly 25% of respondents first learned about the seer stone from that episode of South Park I referenced earlier. Another 21% learned from a source “known to be antagonistic towards Mormonism” and another 28% from a non-LDS historical or academic source. Only 17.5% first heard about it from a faithful LDS source.
Of course, it’s one thing if people first heard about it from an outside source, but it’s another thing to accept that the seer stone was actually a thing.
If you compare these answers with the question before it (you can find the full survey results in the link I provided earlier), you’ll see a trend that people heard about the seer stone for the first time fairly recently, but not quite as recently as they came to accept it as historically accurate. The data suggests a delayed acceptance to the news, perhaps because they didn’t believe it until LDS sources confirmed it. Some people may be curious about the 10% who still don’t believe that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in order to translate the Book of Mormon. Are these believing Mormons in denial? Actually, 61/64 of them are nonbelievers. Only 3 of them come from the group of 83 respondents who are either believers or are unsure. So why did all these non-believers answer that it wasn’t historically accurate? Well, the clue might come from one respondent who responded to my post on reddit: “On one of the questions I answered that I don’t believe the seer stone method of translation is historically accurate because I don’t believe the BOM was translated. I believe it was simply written and that the seer stone thing was probably a story originally told to people and was later replaced with the Urim and Thummim story.” So it seems the 10% may mostly be people who don’t believe the seer stone was used at all. This user suggests the rock in the hat was a story made up after the fact. I don’t buy that (I think the historical record is too consistent to claim that Joseph never actually used his seer stone during the translation), but it’s also easy to imagine someone taking exception with the way the question was phrased, and, believing the Book of Mormon to be a product of the imagination rather than a translation, deemed the premise ahistorical.
What about the “anti-Mormon lie?” Just how common was it to hear that seer stones were nothing more than slander invented by bitter anti-Mormons? Well, if you look at the graph you’ll notice that the great majority of respondents never heard that it was an anti-Mormon lie – because they never heard about it all. In fact, 64.4% of respondents said the seer stone was never discussed. Still, 21.8% did report hearing that seer stones were an anti-Mormon lie, which is a big enough chunk that you can’t scoff at the allegation. A small minority reported learning about the seer stone from trusted LDS sources.
Another question I posed in the survey was regarding the term “Urim and Thummim.”So far in this blog post I’ve used that term synonymously with the breastplate and spectacles, and I did so because that’s what I was taught growing up. However, in the LDS Church’s online essay I mentioned earlier, they make the assertion that:
Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters… Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.
Since that essay has come out, I’ve seen some apologetic arguments that, since the Urim and Thummim could describe the seer stone as well as the breasplate and spectacles (referred to as interpreters in the essay), the LDS Church has actually been completely transparent about the seer stone; all references in church literature to the Urim and Thummim implicitly include the seer stones. Of course, this excuse doesn’t hold much water if members are trained to associate “Urim and Thummim” with the breastplate and spectacles and not seer stones. So I posed the question, how did people interpret the phrase as a believing member? The results confirmed my suspicion:
Seems pretty overwhelming. Just under 12% reportedly knew that the phrase “Urim and Thummim” was a generic term, and a whopping 78% believed it referred specifically to the “interpreters.” I included the actual meaning of Urim and Thummim (they are biblical items after all) just for kicks. Apparently there were some young biblical scholars in the respondent group, as about 5% correctly identified the Urim and Thummim as “Two divination objects – possibly bones, tablets or jewels – placed into and pulled out of the High Priest’s sacred breastplate, in order to cast lots.” Looking through the responses in the “other” category, it appears that some people confused the Urim and Thummim with either the Liahona or the stones that the Jaredites used as light sources in their barges. The latter is interesting because it hints at a theory I had never considered: since Joseph Smith reportedly owned the “Urim and Thummim” that the Brother of Jared used, perhaps the stones set inside them were the same stones that God touched to give the Jaredites light. I’ve never heard that before, but it’s the kind of connection I can imagine someone making in a Sunday School or Institute class in hushed tones, as if revealing a great mystery.
Now we get to the final question. What effect did this have on belief? For nearly half of respondents, the seer stone was just one of many issues that led to disbelief. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of respondents in this survey no longer believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet. I’d be happy to open the survey back up if we could get more believers involved, as I think we could find some interesting correlations that way, but for the time being, the faithful LDS subreddit was not interested in publishing a link to the survey.
Of course, one thing I want to know immediately is: how did believers respond? How did doubters respond? Lets look at believers first, those who already answered that they considered Joseph Smith to have had authentic divine revelations. There were 44 such respondents:
As expected, the chart looks very different. Nearly half said the seer stone had no impact on their faith. If you include the two respondents who chose “other”, both of whom wrote in answers that seemed to imply the seer stone was not damaging to their faith, that puts the “no impact” category at just over half of believing respondents. About a quarter of them reported being bothered a little, but not enough to shake their faith. The remaining quarter of the graph implies that for these respondents, it did lead to doubts and disbelief – and yet they already self-reported as believers earlier. These may be more liberal Mormons or “New-Order Mormons” who could still answer my broadly-phrased question about Joseph Smith’s revelations affirmatively even if they have doubts or disbelief when it comes to some of the specifics. What about the people on the fence? There are 34 people who answered that they are unsure if Joseph Smith had authentic revelations or not. How did they fare when it comes to the seer stone?
The seer stone was clearly more of an issue for current doubters, but not as much as for disbelievers. Probably not a terribly surprising trend, but it is interesting that those “in between” so to speak were also in between believers and non-believers when it came to their reaction to the seer stone.
I’m sure there are some statisticians out there who can calculate correlations and perhaps find trends that I couldn’t. I only took one statistics class in college, and I kind of hated it, so this isn’t my forte. I also apologize for the rough way I’ve visualized the data, using an ugly non-standardized mix of Excel graphs and screenshots from the Google results. I’d love for more people to take this data and do something interesting with it. If you do, please comment below so we can see your work!