who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad golddigging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or "necromantic" powers. However, within four years he was back in the local newspapers (all of which one may still read) as the discoverer of the "Book of Mormon."
--Christopher Hitchens, god is Not Great
Yeah, me neither...
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I heard that the Mormon Church would be releasing a photo of the fabled "seer stone" which Joseph tried and failed to use to find buried treasure and claimed to use to "translate" the gold plates.
I first heard about this magic rock while on a two-year Mormon mission. I didn't believe it. I thought it was a hoax. The other missionary assured me that their seminary teacher knew for a fact that stone existed, but I could see no reason to believe it. It was one of my first moments of religious skepticism.
Traditionally Mormons have taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim (small clear stones attached to a breastplate, often described as primitive glasses, which is yet another example of technology of Joseph's day bleeding into his version of the ancient world) to translate his mystical plates.
For over a century the scene has always been described in church meetings and in published paintings and drawings as Joseph sitting at a table looking through the Urim and Thummim reading the gold plates word for word (the idea was that the reformed Egyptian on the plates would appear in English when looked upon through these magical spectacles). A cloth partition separated Joseph from his scribe (a position filled by various people who had a vested interest in the success of the Book of Mormon) so that they could not see the plates, which Joseph was quick to remind them was coupled with a curse: should they look on the plates without god's permission, they will surely die and go to hell. Considering the credulous culture in which Joseph's scribes lived, it is no wonder that none of them ever saw the plates with out a cloth cover (with the exception of 3 of Joseph's most superstitious patsies, none of which were qualified to verify the authenticity of the record). To a thinking person, this is a gigantic red flag.
One of the more concerning aspects of this admission is that the Church has had this stone for at least several decades, and yet, until now they have done nothing to correct the misconception--which they helped to create--that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates directly. Apparently, all the ancient artifacts which Moroni carefully preserved and then directed Joseph to, were not even necessary for Joseph to translate the plates!
On the other hand, now that the seer stone is public and the top 15 leaders of the Church claim to be seers, we now have an opportunity for them to put their claim to the test! You see, one of Joseph's more gullible scribes, Martin Harris, was tasked to a take a scrap of paper with some of the characters from the gold plates to a linguist, Dr. Charles Anthon, to verify that the language was authentic. The story goes that Dr. Anthon wrote a certificate of authenticity for the paper, but upon learning of the supernatural origins of the paper, he torn up the certificate and demanded to see the gold plates himself.
For over a century Mormons have claimed that this story proves that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient record, while critics have claimed the opposite. Well, here is the test. Give the seer stone--the same one Joseph used--to one of the Mormon leaders and have them translate the paper given to Dr. Anthon (which according to his account, is nothing short of gibberish). Once we have the characters decoded, which would have a chapter and verse citation for comparison, we can finally understand reformed Egyptian (the language which Joseph claimed to be on the gold plates, and which modern linguists claim is not a real language).
This kind of linguistic support would surely bolster the claim that the Book of Mormon is an authentic historical record. The fact that the Church has had the characters from the Book of Mormon, several men who claim to be "seers," and a seer stone for at least several decades and no one has done this test reveals quite a bit to me about the Church's confidence in their bald assertions.
This appears to be an attempt by the Church to distance themselves from the hokey folk magic Joseph practiced. Unable to bury the connection between the origins of their religion with superstition and crude magic which educated people generally dismiss as ignorant--in large part due to the advent of the internet--the Church is now being forced to face their history. Of course, now some Mormons are claiming to have been forthcoming on the subject of magic rocks all along.
Flackerman discusses the Church's history on the seer stone (among other things):
South Park explaining the translation process of the Book of Mormon: