REVIEW: MacKay and Frederick, JOSEPH SMITH’S SEER STONES

While an undergrad at BYU I had the privilege to work as an intern for the LDS Church’s Historic Sites Committee. For two summers I assisted them in their preparation to restore Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony, PA. (The home was completed last year.) My primary job was to investigate the translation of the Book of Mormon, which gave me the chance to dig into all the sources related to Joseph Smith’s seer stones. (I was thrilled to see that the restored Harmony home features a seer stone and hat to represent this more historically-accurate understanding of this important event.) It was not a shock for me, then, when the LDS Church released high-resolution photos of one of those stones, accompanying a new volume in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. I was even invited on RadioWest to discuss these stones and their importance. It was exciting to see us reckon with this history.

But this was likely new information for a majority of Mormons. Shocking, even. The Book of Mormon’s translation process had long been depicted as something that happened without such “folkloric” elements, and seer stones were of the realm of Mark Hoffman and South Park. But there it was: the seer stone, in all its glory. A carefully-written Ensign essay accompanied the images, but a lot of explanation was still required.

That’s where Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones comes in. The authors, Michael MacKay and Nicholas Frederick, both teach religious education at BYU. They are used to explaining difficult topics to church members. And their primary goal, as I see it, is to “domesticate” controversial matters. Mark Ashust-McGee used this word in his preface, where he calls the book a “friendly introduction” for Latter-day Saints (xiii). The fact that copies of this book, whose cover displays a bright image of the seer stone, will be front and center in Deseret Book, is a work of domestication indeed. (And something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago!) And the numerous images commissioned for the volume don an excellent job depicting what a faith-promoting vision can look like, which should hopefully replace the embarrassingly outdated illustrations that still appear in official sources.


But the book does more than just domesticate the stone itself. It also works to domesticate controversial sources. This includes contemporary accounts from Joseph Smith’s day that discuss his treasure-digging, as well as scholarly work written in recent decades by historians like Michael Quinn and Dan Vogel. These works used to be dismissed as mere anti-Mormonism. There is something striking about finding a chart that traces Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging expeditions, based on the work of Dan Vogel, in a book published by Deseret Book.

The book is at its best when it is translating historical lessons to Mormon readers. The rhetoric invoked by the authors is one of a friendly tutor, introducing Mormons to what “scholars” have said on this or that. Readers become well familiar with Nathan Hatch, Jon Butler, and Alan Taylor. Chapter 3, which spends a lot of time on the sources documenting how Smith found his various seer stones, is an excellent walk-through of the historical method. Rather than trying to give definitive answers to various perplexing questions, the authors are satisfied with presenting the evidence and competing interpretations and then allowing the readers to decide. This, I think, is the right approach. We, as an LDS community, need to learn to embrace the messiness of history.


There are certain points in the book where the goal is not just to translate scholarly literature to faithful saints, but also to explore “what the future of scholarly literature may look like” concerning the stones and their meanings (45). It is here that I thought the authors came up short. Attempting to speak to two audiences is a daunting and nearly impossible task. One example of these irreconcilable approaches is seen in the rigorous investigation into who possessed which seer stone on the one hand, followed by the highly speculative section that attempt to determine which seer stone in the Book of Mormon was the one Joseph Smith inherited on the other. Scholars will appreciate the former, but likely raise an eyebrow to the latter. Which is fine—I’m of the opinion that books work best when they have a well defined audience. The problem arises when you claim to have two.

That isn’t to say scholars won’t find good use in this volume. The tedious overview of primary sources is a wonderful introduction to the topic. And the annotated bibliography at the end of the book, one of many helpful and overly-nerdy appendixes over which source geeks can unite, is worth the price of the volume. At the least, this book is an immensely helpful reference book for historians. It’s just that historians aren’t the primary audience.

Which is, I think, how it should be. The LDS community needs this book. It is a model of how responsible and faithful scholarship should be written. Let’s hope it gets the audience it deserves.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jordan Edwards says:

    Great review Ben. I look forward to reading this book. I like that the approach of the authors is to write more for a general audience and it doesn’t hurt to have it available at Deseret Book. More church topics (and members) would benefit from this kind of scholarship. Hopefully more can follow in their footsteps. This reminded me of some pictures that one of my seminary teachers in high school came out with a few years ago. http://blog.fairmormon.org/2015/04/30/artwork-of-joseph-smith-translating-the-book-of-mormon/

    Like

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