Mormon church releases photos of ‘seer stone’ used by founder Joseph Smith
Byline: Peggy Fletcher Stack
The LDS Church provided a new glimpse of its origins Tuesday by publishing the handwritten “printer’s manuscript” of the Book of Mormon and photos of the “seer stone,” a dark, egg-size polished rock founder Joseph Smith claimed to have used to produce the faith’s sacred scripture.
Both items are included in the just-released “Revelations and Translations: Volume 3,” the 11th publication in the groundbreaking Joseph Smith Papers Project, as part of an effort to be “more transparent” about Mormonism’s past, LDS Church Historian Steven E. Snow said at a news conference.
Smith said he was led to a set of buried gold plates, which recorded the history of ancient American civilizations and a visit to this continent by Jesus Christ. The Mormon prophet said he was able to “translate” the “reformed Egyptian” language, using spiritual tools, including his “seer stone.
He dictated the narrative to various scribes, including schoolteacher Oliver Cowdery, who took down the LDS leader’s words in longhand. Cowdery then painstakingly copied the original manuscript for the printer to set in type. More than 70 percent of that original document suffered water damage. The LDS Church History Library in Salt Lake City has most of what’s left.
The “printer’s copy,” however, remained with Smith’s followers who stayed in the Midwest rather than trekking to Utah, and, in 1903, it was purchased by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now the Community of Christ.
Through the years, tensions simmered between those two wings of Mormonism. But, during the past couple of decades, historians have built scholarly bridges between the Community of Christ and the much-larger, Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Community of Christ officials have been “careful stewards of the manuscript,” Snow said Tuesday. “Both faiths are trying to move forward in sharing their collections.”
Community of Christ minister and Seventy Robin Linkhart, who was at the news conference, praised her Utah colleagues for their part in the joint project.
The two-volume work, Linkhart said, “truly is an exceptional contribution to the study of LDS history and culture, representing decades of research.”
Begun by Mormon scholar Royal Skousen in 1988, she said, “it’s been a long, long journey to the finish line.”
The Community of Christ long ago accepted the notion that “revelation includes a human component,” said Lachlan Mackay, coordinator of the denomination’s historic sites.
The Independence, Mo.-based faith published articles about the seer stone as early as the 1960s, he said, but “it might still be news to some people.”
“I’m incredibly excited,” Mackay said Tuesday. “These efforts have served to unite us.”
Both he and Richard E. Turley Jr., assistant LDS historian, said physical objects “help us connect to the past, make it more realistic, more tangible.”
In a recent essay, the LDS Church explained how Smith, according to some accounts, used the seer stone. He peered into a hat, to block out exterior light, and “read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”
“As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure,” the essay said. “As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.”
Smith also used two bound stones — known as the Urim and Thummim — as “interpreters.”
“Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates,” the essay added. “Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone).”
More on Urim and Thummin
In the Hebrew Bible, the Urim and Thummim are associated with the hoshen (High Priest’s breastplate), divination in general, and cleromancy in particular. Most scholars suspect that the phrase refers to specific objects involved in the divination.
Although at face value the words are plural, the context suggests they are pluralis intensivus—singular words which are pluralised to enhance their apparent majesty. The singular forms—ur and tumm—have been connected by some early scholars with the Babylonian terms urtu and tamitu, meaning oracle and command, respectively
Thummim (תוּמִים) is widely considered to be derived from the consonantal root ת.ם.ם (t-m-m), meaning innocent, Many scholars now believe that Urim (אוּרִים) simply derives from the Hebrew term אּרּרִים (Arrim), meaning curses, and thus that Urim and Thummim essentially means cursed or faultless, in reference to the deity’s judgment of an accused person— in other words, Urim and Thummim were used to answer the question innocent or guilty.
Urim (אוּרִים) traditionally has been taken to derive from a root meaning lights; these derivations are reflected in the Neqqudot of the Masoretic Text In consequence, Urim and Thummim has traditionally been translated as lights and perfections (by Theodotion, for example), or, by taking the phrase allegorically, as meaning revelation and truth, or doctrine and truth (it appears in this form in the Vulgate, in the writing of St. Jerome, and in the Hexapla).
Form and function
1 Samuel 14:41 is regarded by biblical scholars as key to understanding the Urim and Thummim; the passage describes an attempt to identify a sinner via divination, by repeatedly splitting the people into two groups and identifying which group contains the sinner. In the version of this passage in the Masoretic Text, it describes Saul and Jonathan being separated from the rest of the people, and lots being cast between them; the Septuagint version, however, states that Urim would indicate Saul and Jonathan, while Thummim would indicate the people. In the Septuagint, a previous verse uses a phrase which is usually translated as inquired of God, which is significant as the grammatical form of the Hebrew implies that the inquiry was performed by objects being manipulated; scholars view it as evident from these verses and versions that cleromancy was involved, and that Urim and Thummim were the names of the objects being cast.
The description of the clothing of the Hebrew high priest in the Book of Exodus portrays the Urim and Thummim as being put into the sacred breastplate, worn by the high priest over the Ephod. Where the biblical text elsewhere describes an Ephod being used for divination, scholars presume that it is referring to use of the Urim and Thummim in conjunction with the Ephod, as this seems to be intimately connected with it; similarly where non-prophets are portrayed as asking HaShem for guidance, and the advice isn’t described as given by visions, scholars think that Urim and Thummim were the medium implied. In all but two cases (1 Samuel 10:22 and 2 Samuel 5:23), the question is one which is effectively answered by a simple yes or no; a number of scholars believe that the two exceptions to this pattern, which give more complex answers, were originally also just sequences of yes/no questions, but became corrupted by later editing.
There is no description of the form of the Urim and Thummim in the passage describing the high priest’s vestments, and a number of scholars[who?] believe that the author of the passage, which textual scholars attribute to the priestly source, wasn’t actually entirely aware of what they were either. Nevertheless, the passage does describe them as being put into the breastplate, which scholars think implies they were objects put into some sort of pouch within it, and then, while out of view, one (or one side, if the Urim and Thummim was a single object) was chosen by touch and withdrawn or thrown out; since the Urim and Thummim were put inside this pouch, they were presumably small and fairly flat, and were possibly tablets of wood or of bone. Considering the scholars’ conclusion that Urim essentially means guilty and Thummim essentially means innocent, this would imply that the purpose of the Urim and Thummim was an ordeal to confirm or deny suspected guilt; if the Urim was selected it meant guilt, while selection of the Thummim would mean innocence.
According to classical rabbinical literature, in order for the Urim and Thummim to give an answer, it was first necessary for the individual to stand facing the fully dressed high priest, and vocalise the question briefly and in a simple way, though it wasn’t necessary for it to be loud enough for anyone else to hear it. The Talmudic rabbis argued that Urim and Thummim were words written on the sacred breastplate. Most of the Talmudic rabbis, and Josephus, following the belief that Urim meant lights, argued that divination by Urim and Thummim involved questions being answered by great rays of light shining out of certain jewels on the breastplate; each jewel was taken to represent different letters, and the sequence of lighting thus would spell out an answer (though there were 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and only 12 jewels on the breastplate); two Talmudic rabbis, however, argued that the jewels themselves moved in a way that made them stand out from the rest, or even moved themselves into groups to form words.
According to Islamic sources, there was a similar form of divination among the Arabs before the beginning of Islam. There, two arrow shafts (without heads or feathers), on one of which was written command and the other prohibition or similar, were kept in a container, and stored in the Kaaba at Mecca; whenever someone wished to know whether to get married, go on a journey, or to make some other similar decision, one of the Kaaba’s guardians would randomly pull one of the arrow shafts out of the container, and the word written upon it was said to indicate the will of the god concerning the matter in question. Sometimes a third, blank, arrow shaft would be used, to represent the refusal of the deity to give an answer. This practice is called rhabdomancy, after the Greek roots rhabd- “rod” and -mancy (“divination”).
A passage of the Books of Samuel mentions three methods of divine communication – dreams, prophets, and the Urim and Thummim; the first two of these are also mentioned copiously in Assyrian and Babylonian literature, and such literature also mentions Tablets of Destiny, which are similar in some ways to the Urim and Thummim. The Tablets of Destiny had to rest on the breast of deities mediating between the other gods and mankind in order to function, while the Urim and Thummim had to rest within the breastplate of the priest mediating between God and mankind. Marduk was said to have put his seal on the Tablets of Destiny, while the Israelite breastplate had a jewelled stone upon it for each of the Israelite tribes, which may derive from the same principle. Like the Urim and Thummim, the Tablets of Destiny came into use when the fate of king and nation was concerned. According to some archaeologists, the Israelites emerged as a subculture from within Canaanite society, and not as an invading force from outside, and therefore it would be natural for them to have used similar religious practices to other Semitic nations, and these scholars suspect that the concept of Urim and Thummim was originally derived from the Tablets of Destiny.
The first reference to Urim and Thummim in the Bible is the description in the Book of Exodus concerning the high priest’s vestments; the chronologically earliest passage mentioning them, according to textual scholars, is in the Book of Hosea, where it is implied, by reference to the Ephod, that the Urim and Thummim were fundamental elements in the popular form of the Israelite religion, in the mid 8th century BC. Consulting the Urim and Thummim was said to be permitted for determining territorial boundaries, and was said to be required, in addition to permission from the king or a prophet, if there was an intention to expand Jerusalem or the Temple in Jerusalem; ] however, these rabbinical sources did question, or at least tried to justify, why Urim and Thummim would be required when a prophet was also present. The classical rabbinical writers argued that the Urim and Thummim were only permitted to be consulted by very prominent figures such as army generals, the most senior of court figures, and kings, and the only questions which could be raised were those which were asked for the benefit of the people as a whole. Abiathar joined David, who was then in the cave of Adullam (1 Sam. 22:20-23; 23:6). He remained with David, and became priest of the party of which he was the leader (1 Sam. 30:7). When David ascended the throne of Judah, Abiathar was appointed High Priest (1 Chr. 15:11; 1 Kings 2:26) and the “king’s counselor” (1 Chr. 27:33-34). Meanwhile, Zadok, of the house of Eleazar, had been made High Priest. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia Abiathar was deposed from office when he was deserted by the Holy Spirit without which the Urim and Thummin could not be consulted.
Although Josephus argues that the Urim and Thummim continued to be used until the era of the Maccabees, ] Talmudic sources are unanimous in agreeing that the Urim and Thummim were lost much earlier, when Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. In a passage from the part of the Book of Ezra which overlaps with the Book of Nehemiah, it is mentioned that individuals who were unable to prove, after the Babylonian captivity had ended, that they were descended from the priesthood before the captivity began, were required to wait until priests in possession of Urim and Thummim were discovered; this would appear to confirm the statements in the Talmud that the Urim and Thummim had by then been lost. Indeed, since the priestly source, which textual scholars date to a couple of centuries prior to the captivity, doesn’t appear to know what the Urim and Thummim looked like, and there is no mention of the Urim and Thummim in the deuteronomic history beyond the death of David, scholars suspect that use of them decayed some time before the Babylonian conquest, probably as a result of the growing influence of prophets at that time.