A week ago, the Church released a suddenly iconic photograph of Joseph Smith’s favorite seer stone, and also posted at LDS.org an article by three LDS historians, “Joseph the Seer,” to be published in the October 2015 Ensign. It seems clear that the image plus the content of the article are going to rewrite the standard (“official”) LDS narrative concerning Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon text. I’m concerned it may also bring folk magic back into that narrative and even back into mainstream LDS culture. That seems like a step in the wrong direction.
Here’s the key passage from the article by Turley, Jensen, and Ashurst-McGee.
[S]ome people in the early 19th century believed it was possible for gifted individuals to “see,” or receive spiritual manifestations, through material objects such as seer stones. The young Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects.
The essay goes on to note that “historical evidence shows that in addition to the two seer stones known as ‘interpreters,’ Joseph Smith used at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light.” Acknowledging that Joseph used the same seer stone for producing the Book of Mormon text that he used to find (or at least look for) lost objects creates an uncomfortable overlap between folk magic and religious practice. After two centuries of trying to keep these two categories separate and minimizing or simply denying Joseph’s participation in folk magic, the LDS standard narrative (in the Ensign!) is suddenly marrying the two. I guess life is full of surprises.
The new narrative raises this tricky question: Does this seer stone and others like it actually have supernatural power, whether occult or divine? This wasn’t a stone or interpreter delivered by an angel, it was just a stone Joseph found while digging Willard Chase’s well (see Rough Stone Rolling, p. 48-49). The article reminds us that some folks in the 19th century believed certain individuals (Joseph among them) could use the stones to find things and see things. The article states that Joseph believed this, too. Publishing the article in the Ensign suggests at least some LDS leaders in our day believe this as well. The mainstream LDS response to these disclosures seems to be, “A photo of Joseph’s seer stone, isn’t that wonderful?” Wait a year and see how wonderful it is. If we welcome seer stones into the official narrative, what else might follow?
What About the Bible?
Before your Christian neighbors in glass houses start throwing rocks at your Mormon folk magic, let’s remember the Bible has its share of folk magic associated with biblical religion. A Christian Bible reader can either dismiss those episodes or rationalize them or embrace them. Any choice is problematic. Mormon readers and Mormon leaders, it seems, are likely to embrace them. Just yesterday I was skimming the new LDS Old Testament Seminary Student Study Guide (this year’s course of study) and came across this quotation from Joseph Fielding Smith, giving his explanation of one biblical episode. Recall that in Exodus 7, Moses and Aaron turn a rod into a snake, whereupon Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the feat.
All down through the ages and in almost all countries, men have exercised great occult and mystical powers, even to the healing of the sick and the performing of miracles. Soothsayers, magicians, and astrologers were found in the courts of ancient kings. They had certain powers by which they divined and solved the monarch’s problems, dreams, etc. … The Savior declared that Satan had the power to bind bodies of men and women and sorely afflict them [see Matthew 7:22–23; Luke 13:16]. … It should be remembered that Satan has great knowledge and thereby can exercise authority and to some extent control the elements, when some greater power does not intervene. (p. 96, ellipses in original; quoting Answers to Gospel Questions 1:176, 178)
So Joseph Fielding Smith seems to be saying that there are “certain powers” which some humans can wield, that alternatively Satan may (apparently through humans) “control the elements,” and of course there are divine powers as well that some humans can wield.
A later episode is also instructive. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul employs one “witch of Endor” to summon the spirit of dead Samuel to provide Saul with badly needed advice. Here again is Joseph Fielding Smith’s commentary (this appears only in the printed volume, not in the online version).
It has been suggested that in this instance the Lord sent Samuel in the spirit to communicate with Saul, that he might know of his impending doom; but this view does not seem to harmonize with the statements of the case, made in the scripture which gives the particulars. If the Lord desired to impart this information to Saul, why did he not respond when Saul enquired of him through the legitimate channels of divine communication? Saul had tried them all and failed to obtain an answer. … Why should he employ one who had a familiar spirit for this purpose, a medium which he had positively condemned by his own law? (p. 195; quoting Answers to Gospel Questions 4:108-9)
The manual makes the point clearer by quoting the LDS Bible Dictionary, item “Samuel”: “It is certain that a witch or other medium cannot by any means available to her bring up a prophet from the world of spirits. We may confidently be assured that if Samuel was present on that occasion, it was not due to conjuring of the witch. Either Samuel came in spite of and not because of the witch, or some other spirit came impersonating him.” I’m tempted to think that the difference here is that, in the LDS view, only men are allowed to exercise “certain powers” but not women — sort of an extension of the LDS male-only priesthood policy to the exercise of occult powers. If that strikes you as unfair, consider organizing. “Ordain Witches” would make a catchy title for your group.
The Good News
Yes, there is good news. Mainstream Mormons don’t seem particularly troubled by the photo and the article. Let’s hope that continues to be the case when the print version of “Joseph the Seer” is distributed more widely in a couple of weeks. But expect to encounter years of articles, essays, and blog posts as the LDS community digests this new incursion of folk magic into the LDS narrative.