August 7, 2009

Brant Gardner: Joseph the Seer, or Why Joseph Translated with a Rock in His Hat.

Update: August 21, 2009- Transcript is now available from FAIR here


The following are my personal notes of the presentations. They are incomplete and likely contain mistakes, omissions and especially spelling errors. FAIR is going to provide full transcripts and recordings, and I encourage checking them out. Especially with Brant's paper, you will want to see the quotes, scholars, and sources he made use of. 


Brant opened with Truman Coe's description of the translation:


Then Oliver Cowdery's wife, Elizabeth Ann's, description:

These paint a radically different picture of the same event. The rock in that hat feels foreign, but is the better attested description. Why do we have both these pictures if that latter fits descriptions better.

First, why would anyone think of translating with a rock in a hat.

Second, why are we so surprised at that?

The adventurers and farmers, cunning men and wise women embarked in the wilderness in pre-industrial villages. Folk magic has a history. Contemporary medicine drove men and women to village specialists with herbs, etc. who were considered to be taught by God or angels.

Exhibited their cunning in many ways. Joseph belonged to a class of people who did scrying. A long practiced method. [He described some interesting methods] Stones became the most used m ethod to see future, or to see the location of lost items. These traditions were found in Palmyra in 1820s still performing these functions. Young Joseph Smith was the member of a sub-community with ties to these old practices, increasingly marginalized. Others had same abilities. D. Michael Quinn noted that Sally Chase was Palmyra's most known seer, and there were others. Richard Bushman adds a few other names of people who had stones to find lost objects.

Some reminisciences tell us how such things occurred. [Gardner quoted people who recounted their experiences with Sally Chase.] Basically, when things were lost you went to the seer who would tell you where to find things. Finding lost wallet, lost cattle, etc.

Joseph Smith, long before the plates complicated his position, appears to have functioned similarly to JS. Some reports describe JS looking for and discovering a stolen mare.  Sally Chase's clients consulted her for things lost, JS had at least on client who did the same.

Henry Harris described JS pretending to tell fortunes with a stone in a hat. JS is described as turning someone else down in an instance.

Local seers became involved in the digging for lost treasure. This practice, like scrying, also traced back to England. The idea was when the wealthy buried their treasures. I nthe New World it was Spanish or Pirate treasures burying. A lot of stories of striking it rich circulated, though not likely many of them were true.

A conjurer was frequently used in the search. Mosaiacal rods were used, etc. Money digging didn't require a seer, it was just something some used. Ronald W. Walker described various digging attempts with seers. A context is provided for JS's assistance of Josiah Stoal and money digging. JS was hired to help. In 1826 Stoal's wife's nephew took JS to court for fraud. Peter Bainbridge believed the seer stone was defrauding. This would not be the last time he would be accused of fraud based on this. Dan Vogel picks up on that theme, a recent biographer. Vogel allows us to see better historical view of what that "confidence man" means. It was a transient who went about with a peep stone to lead credulous to remote spot where he previously hid coins, then would "discover them." He would then establish a company and collect money, and then bolt. Or he would offer magical explanations for why treasure was lost.

The implication is that because such scammers existed, JS must have been one. JS was acquited, though of those old charges. Should he be acquited of the continuing charges?

Of course there were people who were tricking others. But there seems to be real people who had confidence in the possibility. The fact that there are dishonest people in a given profession does not mean the entire profession is fraudulent.

2 critical differences between conmen and village seers:

Village seers were residential, remained in through successes and failures.
Village seers were consulted, the conmen sought it out and asked for money, then bolted.

The plates were accompanied by Nephite interpreters. He bagan translation with them, but record indicates he then used his own seer stone. Why put it in a hat? That is how the stone was used. It wasn;t unusual.

Why translate with a stone? So he could see "that which was hidden," so to speak, but this wasn;t a simple transition from seer to translator. His talent for the mundane, gift for the holy. Joseph understood the difference. It was different from village seers. Different from "learned men." He didn;t negin to understand how to be God's seer until Moroni came, and the Nephite interpreters assisted him. Having learn to see that which was holy he never returned to the mundane village seer acts.

Some might wonder if I think all seers saw things in the stones. I believe many of them believed they did.

Did it allow him to translate?

Only insofar as it helped him understand the role and have faith in the ability. He knew no other village seer could do it, he alone could not do it, it was beyond realm of village seer, and was in the realm of God's seer.

Find a context in which the stone hat method makes sense, why don;t we understand it? We must delve into historybetween history of religion and magic.

Judeo-Christian history intertwines with magic and religion. The dichotomy between the two was not evident back then. It was a gradual development of social complexity. Many Old Testament stories actually have magical practices in them, so to speak.

[Brant made use of some quotes from magic and religion scholars on the nature of the two]

In antiquity, magic, almost always refers to someone else's religious practice to distance them from the "norm" or one's own practice.

Simply put: what I do is religion, what you do is magic.

The OT is antagonistic to certain "magic" such as in Exodus 22, dont suffer which to live. Other scriptures against enchanter, consulter with familiar spirits, etc. abomination.

In spite of these prohibitions, it isn;t the magic that is the problem. In the hands of priests and prophets it is considered legal. Also, the terms of magic are socially constructed and play a role in marginalizing some and not others, etc.

As West emerged from middle ages, the Catholic church had become the place for answers. It had also incorporated local concepts of sacred space and ritual even when once considered pagan. The protestant reformation made the change in what would be considered magic. Catholic had accepted many types but Protestant rejected much of it. The Enlightenment drained Christianity of its belief in the miraculous- except for bible miracles. Everything else was credulity.

In the 18th century the rise of science, evangelical christianity, protestants, rise in literacy, economic and political maturation, simply destroyed the previous magic beliefs. Yet significant evidence suggests that America had some magic in places, confined to poorer more marginal aspects of American society. This folklorization created the dichotomy between the magic and religion we see today.

[Brant discussed the smaller tradition that persists along the greater tradition, competing explanations of reality.The "little" and the "great" tradition.]

The great tradition makes the little tradition an embarrassment. [Brant described a few instances where the great tradition met the little tradition with some conflict.]

[Brant then discussed the status of Martin Harris in his community, how he was marginalized by a new self-conscious middle-class. Superior rationality, saw others as ignorant obstructors, etc. Cultural imperialism challenging folk beliefs. Material prosperity comparable, but limited education he shared more with hard-scabble families like the Smith's.]

Martin was something of a cautious believer. He believed it was a possibility, but knew there were deceivers, etc. to beware. He wanted to differentiate JS from deceivers. To find out if he should support Joseph he tested him. Had JS use seer stone to find a lost pin, bolstering his confidence. Nature of test was to find lost object. But to believe in him as true prophet and true prophet stradled the little and great tradition. The practices were not religious, (though not seen as non-Christian) so Martin was a little leery as well. Richard Bushman has explained how growing rationality affected reminiscient accounts where people would scorn money-diggers etc. The Hurlbut affidavits show this mentality. Some who made excuses for going along with money-diggers, etc.

There becomes a shift from little to great traditions. When little becomes a great it adjusts its views as well. This occured in earliest forms of Christianity which had similarities with "magic" like turning water to wine and healing. Some of the evidences of Jesus as a "magician" were minimized or downplayed. They minimize the things that ancient experience and outlook would have welcomed as evidence because they are no longer seen as credible. Similar to this transition, the Latter-day Saints have transitioned into formal tradition who sees themselves within the great traditions. Thus the stories they tell distance selves from the old lesser tradition history. This is what occured with the BoM translation.

The BoM does not mention the Urim and Thummim, it mentions the "interpreters." JS completed the translation with a seer stone. The UandT became part of the story when it was intoriduced as a generic label to refer to seer stone, etc. The UT were biblically acceptable divinatory rocks, thus their presence in the Bible made them more legitimate. The "interpreters" were then labeled with UandT because calling them "rocks" seems to demean them, whereas calling them UT makes them seem more sacred.

This recasting of history was something they told themselves. I doubt any conscious attempt at deception, it was a natural response to themselves as a religion rather than a folk belief, appropriate to a great tradition religion. Didn;t deny the past but recolored them with new vocab.

So we do not feel as comfy with the little tradition, and the stone in hat is a part of that.

The more accurate, uncomfortable image is a little tradition image, the less accurate one is a greater tradition view.

Either way, the basic fact of translation is unchanged. The only true answer is by the gift and powers of God.



Q: Relation between astrology and seer stones?

A: It was part of the same line of thought, their science of the time, what they had evidence for, so it was part of the overall way of seeing things.

Q: Any research on native american vision stones?

A: Not specifically, only to see that this context of seers seems to be more worldwide. Mesoamericans used obsidian mirrors and incense smoke to induce vision, etc.

Q: A seer stone in the 1st pres. vault? I think there used to be a seer stone in the history museum. Any documented account of its use in last 100 years?

A: No, I doubt it will be. How they work I'll discuss some other day, but we have other means now.

Q: Seer stone translation elsewhere, ever heard of such a thing?

A: No, this is a miracle, folks, we can't say to Lord that we would prefer our miracle to be more miraculous, etc. We have the miracle of the fact of the text. Anything we do to avoid dealing with the book is focusing on the wrong things. The tangible result of the method is the text, so test it.

Q:When Hyrum asked JS about rev. on polygamy, it implies he still used UT device to receive revelation.

A: there is a brand name Levi and then regular jeans are called Levis. We get labels that come from somewhere else. The UT is similar to this. At one point he realized he didn't need them. The stones didn't translate, JS did. They may hve helped him understand, they may have been his conduit, his place for faith, to help him finish the project. He believed because there was something he could hold onto. He later learned to do it without that.

Q: Why we never hear about treasure digging in general conference or church approved books.

A: It isnlt that we never hear about it, but it is that we talk about it differently according to our tradition now. Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces. He never said the model everyone had in the back of their mind was that Christ was an exemplar and these people were a patterned after him. So there was a folklorist who looked at a bio of Lincoln and found he was a better hero than Christ according to Campbell's analysis. Now how did Lincoln do that, how did things happen that could be narrated that way? Well, we expect our stories to be told a certain ways. The purpose of GC is not to teach us the history aside from sturcturing life according to the gospel. I'm not sure where and when it becomes appropriate. What helps us live a certain way? It is interesting and fascinating and keeps peoplel ike me talking though [laughter]

Q: Were the breastplate too cumbersome, etc.?

A: I don't know, it seems he just used the stone and hat because that is how he was used to doing things.




15 comments:

Ben said...

Blair, do you feel Brant Gardner presented anything new here? Looking through your notes, it seems he was just repeating what has been said by others. His comments on religion and magic are very similar to Steve Fleming's Bushman seminar presentation last year. His comments on finding a useful narrative is what many have been saying, including me (http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/well-did-joseph-use-a-hat-during-the-translation-of-the-book-of-mormon-or-didnt-he/).

What, if anything, was new in this presentation?

BHodges said...

Ben, from what I remember Brant didn;t vocally refer to Fleming's stuff or any blog posts. The only LDS sources I recall him referencing directly were Quinn and Bushman. I did not get the impression Brant felt he was presenting anything entirely new, only introducing the concepts and views of religion/magic scholarship to FAIR audience through the conference and paper. In order to know who else he was working from we'll have to wait to see the published paper. I don't know that he intended anything "new," I think his intent was to describe the context of magic and money digging, as well as seer stone interpreting. Further, he laid great emphasis on WHY church members today might be shocked by the rock-in-hat thing, and also how members of the church at the time were reconciling the situation. Has anyone discussed that perspective in detail?

J. Stapley said...

Huh. I would think that Ashurst-McGee's stuff would be critical. Though perhaps the use of "village seer" was a nod to him.

BHodges said...

Brant has referred to Ashurst-McGee before, I don't remember him vocally doing so in this paper, but wouldn't be surprised to see him in the footnotes once we get to see the paper. I've read parts of another project rough draft Brant is working on and he refers to AM several times.

Ben said...

Blair: Thanks for your response. I dealt in depth with how the early Church dealt with the context, and many people before me have made similar arguments in print. Concerning why members today would be shocked--does that really need to be addressed? Just pick up the "Setting the Record Straight: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon" book and see why people don't like that context. It also seems like he is just summarizing Mark AM's thesis.

I know this is to a FAIR audience, but I would still expect something new out of a presentation. But, I will just have to wait for website to put up a transcript.

BHodges said...

Ben,
Where can I read your in-depth look at Church member reactions?

Ben said...

Blair: the post i listed above talked about how early Mormon writers contextualized it.

BHodges said...

Gardner provided a lot more info than the blog post, stretching further back in time than your post does and following a larger interpretive framework. Check the published version when it comes out and see what you can see.

Ben said...

Blair: I just revisted the post I listed, and realized that it didn't deal what I thought it did (I have a bad memory, at times). I have a longer paper that deals with it--if you want to see it, just send smoke signals my way.

BHodges said...

Very cool, send it my way.

Joseph Antley said...

From the last Q&A, I'm gathering that Gardner doesn't believe that Joseph ever used the breastplate while translating?

BHodges said...

More info from Brant: his paper interacts with Mark's stuff, and there is a part where he takes issue with one of Mark's conclusions. We'll have to wait until the full thing is available to know the specifics but he was familiar with all the sources I've read. (Was Fleming's Bushman seminar piece published anywhere?)


Also, o n the breastplate, that was the impression I got too. I don't know of a single witness account that describes use of the breastplate. But a few of us are working on getting every early witness account or description of the translation in one place to evaluate them, so we should be finding even more out soon enough.

Anonymous said...

I find the use of Urim and Thummim very misleading. The Urim and Thummim were "lost" according to D&C 10, so every single word of Mormon doctrine was translated by using seer stones. Calling seer stones the Urim and Thummim would be the same as calling an apple an orange, as they are two very different things.

Joseph Smith found his white stone using the green stone of Sally Chase. Sally Chase was neither a Mormon nor a Christian, and Joseph Smith used her stone to find his before the Book of Mormon was written and was hired at $14 a month (to quote Joseph Smith), again before the Book of Mormon was written.

Question: Is the green seer stone owned by Sally Chase the mother of Mormon seer stones, since Joseph Smith "saw" his white seer stone through Sally's green stone?

BHodges said...

"Anonymous," as per the comment guidelines please select a suitable pseudonym that you can use regularly.

I don't think calling seer stones a urim and thummim is like calling an apple an orange, personally. It seems to me the label of something biblical was applied to the stones which were believed to function much the same in order to help the biblical legitimacy of the translation.

For more on the seer stones as per your questions you can see Mark Ashurst-McGee's thesis on seer stones. Let me know if you have real questions about these matters or if you are simply trying to heap some scorn on the idea of seer stones generally.

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