Joseph Smith and the Technologies of Seership Don Bradley In 1933 LDS theologian and General Authority B. H.

Roberts wrote in a letter that he had once examined the seer stone Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon and “while handling it had the impression that doubtless it was radium or it had been made radio active by contact with radium and hence its power to become luminous when placed in the dark.”1 This was not an isolated speculation. Roberts’ attempt to explain Smith’s seer stone scientifically is part of a larger Mormon tradition of giving scientific explanations for the “supernatural.” Indeed, as we will see there is even a Mormon tradition of offering scientific explanations for the extraordinary properties of sacred stones. Roberts himself had previously opined that other luminous stones mentioned in the Book of Mormon had been illuminated in the same way he posited for Smith’s seer stone. While the Book of Mormon narrates that the stones forged by the Brother of Jared were rendered luminous by God’s touch (Ether 3:1-6; 6:3), Roberts ventured that they shined because they were comprised of or had been in contact with radium or polonium.2 And Roberts was not alone in such thinking. LDS apostle and prophet-to-be Spencer W. Kimball later offered to an LDS General Conference audience that perhaps the stones glowed because they were radium or some other substance not yet rediscovered by our scientists.”3 Over the years LDS scholars have variously identified these glowing stones as radioactive or irradiated elements, as phosphorescent minerals, as radioluminescent lights, and as light-amplifying crystals like those used in lasers.4 Exemplifying the attitude that the distinctive properties of these
B. H. Roberts, Letter to C. M. Dewsnup, March 30, 1933, photocopy of original typescript, Scott G. Kenney Research Collection, MSS 2022, Box 4, fd. 19, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. The author wishes to thank Lincoln Cannon, Marie Thatcher, Neal Rappleye, Christopher C. Smith, Pedro Olavarria, Jeffrey Mahas, Maxine Hanks, Richard Bushman, and Michaelann Gardner for their useful input on this paper. 2 B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909) 3:547–49. 3 Official Report of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 6 April 1963, pp. 63-64. 4 For the comparison of the Jaredite stones with radioluminescent lights, see Nicholas Read, Jae R. Ballif, John W. Welch, Bill Evenson, Kathleen Reynolds, and Matt Roper, “New Light on the Shining Stones of the Jaredites,” Insights 12/4 (July 1992);
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stones could be explained scientifically, Book of Mormon commentator Janne M. Sjodahl concluded in 1927 that if present human technology could create radiant stones, then it is not "unreasonable to suppose that God could make the stones in the [Jaredite] barges luminous.” The brother of Jared, he declared, "was in possession . . . of a knowledge that scientists of today are just beginning to dip into.”5 When confronted with reports of supernatural phenomena, Roberts and Kimball, like present-day Mormon transhumanists, sought to explain them by natural means. The supernatural was not, for them, a separate category from the natural. It was an application of science that they did not yet understand—an advanced technology. The orthodoxy of such technological explanations of the supernatural is evident from the facts that they were made by twentieth-century church leaders and even presented in General Conference and published in the Conference Report. If, as Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,”6 then for many Mormon leaders, scholars, and every day believers, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from the supernatural.” That is, for Mormons the “supernatural” just is an advanced level of the scientific and technological. How did Mormonism become so hospitable to technological interpretations of the supernatural? We can begin to answer this question by answering another: How did Joseph Smith understand his seer stones? Were they, as has recently been proposed, ordinary rocks he used to focus his concentration?7 Were they mundane objects merely present, but unnecessary, when God chose to do something miraculous and beyond

http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1214&index=1. For an enumeration of several LDS attempts to explain the luminescence of these stones see John A. Tvedtnes, “More on Glowing Stones,” Insights 19/7 (1999); http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1257&index=3. 5 Janne M. Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1927), 249, as cited in Tvedtnes, “More on Glowing Stones.” Emphasis added. 6 Science, 19 January 1968: Vol. 159 no. 3812, p. 255. 7 Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). For more detailed theorizing about the role Smith’s stone-gazing in a hat played in the production of the Book of Mormon text, see Clay L. Chandler, "Scrying for the Lord: Magic, Mysticism, and the Origins of the Book of Mormon," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36:4 (2003): 43–78.

human comprehension? Or were they composed of extraordinary materials whose properties enabled Smith to access hidden channels of information? The question I will pursue here is not how Smith’s stone functioned as a tool of divine revelation. That is largely a matter of theology, a subject I will touch on only lightly. Rather, as a historian, I want to explore how Smith understood his stone to function, and how this illuminates Mormonism’s uniquely naturalistic approach to “the supernatural.” Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones as Technologies The available accounts have Joseph Smith seeking to discern things not visible to the unaided eye and receive revelation via four scrying stones. The first, his original scrying instrument, was a semi-transparent white stone. The second was the “chocolate-colored” stone that reportedly shined in the dark while he translated the Book of Mormon.8 And the third and fourth were the two transparent crystals that comprised the lenses of the “interpreters” or “the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount” in the Book of Mormon narrative (D&C 17:1; Ether 3:23-24). What did Joseph Smith believe about these stones and how they functioned in his revelatory process? Smith’s actions indicate that he, like Roberts, thought the stones had special properties, properties that enabled them to function as information media. The best illustration of Joseph Smith’s belief that his stones had special properties is that he went to great effort to acquire them. To acquire his first seer stone, the teenaged Smith made a 300-mile roundtrip journey, on foot, between his home in Manchester, New York and Lake Erie.9 And he

The discussion here of Book of Mormon translation overlaps significantly with that in my forthcoming book “The Lost 116 Pages: Rediscovering the Book of Lehi.” 9 Young Joseph Smith’s acquisition of his first seer stone is described in the William D. Purple account of Smith’s 1826 arraignment for “glass looking.” Purple, who had taken court notes at the hearing, reported Smith’s testimony to having obtained the stone by making a 300-mile roundtrip between Manchester, New York and the Pennsylvania state line to the west. W[illiam] D. Purple, “Joseph Smith, the Originator of Mormonism: Historical Reminscences of the Town of Afton,” Chenango Union (Norwich, New York) 30 (3 May 1877), in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002), 4:127137. For more on this hearing, see Gordon A. Madsen, "Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting," BYU Studies 30:2 (Spring 1990), 91-108.
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reportedly dug a well for a neighbor in order to acquire the second10. Had he understood one stone to be as good for scrying as another, it is difficult to imagine he would have invested so heavily in acquiring that particular stone. Smith, then, viewed his seer stones as physical tools enabling him to achieve things he otherwise could not—that is, as technologies.11 The idea of optical technologies that could render the invisible visible was long familiar by Smith’s time. It had been a century and a half since Van Leeuwenhoek used the microscope to bring to light hidden organisms and since Newton used the refractive prism to release the rainbow concealed within “white” light. It had been over two centuries since Galileo used the telescope to disclose the secrets of distant worlds. And it had been over half a millennium since people began using spectacles. By Smith’s day spectacles were commonplace, and many around him, including his own father, technologically enhanced their vision in this way.12 It is thus perhaps not surprising that Smith’s use of scrying instruments mirrored the contemporaneous use of spectacles and other optical technologies. Smith understood the interpreters to function as

“See Mark R. Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet.” MA thesis, Utah State University, 2000. 11 In “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and JudeoChristian Prophet.” Mark Ashurst-McGee explores the physical properties that were believed in the European scrying tradition to make for a superior seer stone. 12 Joseph Smith’s younger brother William reported, “…we always had family prayer since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocked [pocket], (feeling in his lower right hand pocket to show us how and where) and when us boys saw him feel for his specks, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer….'” "W[illia]m. B. Smith's last Statement," [John W. Peterson to Editor], Zion's Ensign (Independence, Missouri) 5 (13 January 1894), in Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents 1:512-513.
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spectacles. He described them as shaped like spectacles,13 wore them like spectacles, and called them “spectacles.”14 And the way he experienced images through the interpreters closely paralleled the functioning of contemporaneous optical technologies used to project images. Early confidant and translation witness David Whitmer reported that when Smith used the interpreters to translate the Book of Mormon’s golden plates, the image of a character and its English rendering “would appear on the lenses.”15 Presbyterian minister Truman Coe provided further details after hearing the prophet describe the process in 1836: “By putting his finger on one of the characters and…looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him.”16 Reasonably assuming the accuracy of both Whitmer and Coe, the translation images would have appeared in small form on the lenses and then been projected onto the cloth Smith hung before him. The reported mechanical details have the interpreters functioning much like the twentieth-century slide projector or, to use the example familiar in Joseph Smith’s day, the slide lantern, known to his contemporaries as the “magic lantern.” In use from the 1600s, the slide lantern, which provided a precursor to modern cinema, was a light-excluding box lit from the interior, usually by a lamp flame. The slide lantern focused this light on a
Smith’s mother Lucy Mack Smith similarly described their lenses as being connected like those of “old fashioned spectacles,” likely referring to “scissor spectacles” or “rivet spectacles,” both of which could be folded or unfolded on a hinge. Lucy Mack Smith, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:329. The interpreters might also be compared to the lorgnette, a type of spectacles that were held in front of the eyes by a long handle. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorgnette The interpreters attached to a rod, and this rod also attached to the intepreters’ accompanying breastplate. "W[illia]m. B. Smith's last Statement," in Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents 1:512-513. When the rod was attached to both, it could be used to hold the interpreters in front of the wearer’s eyes. On the same principle, the interpreters’ user could hold them to the eyes using the rod as a handle. 14 Smith called the interpreters “spectacles” in his 1832 history: “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters.” For further documentation that Smith regarded the interpreters as spectacles and used them like spectacles, see Don Bradley, “Written by the Finger of God? Claims and Controversies of Book of Mormon Translation,” Sunstone December 2010, pp. 20-29. 15 An interview with David Whitmer included in his obituary reported that when Joseph Smith “would put on the spectacles…a few words of the text of the Book of Mormon would appear on the lenses.” “The Last Witness Dead!” Richmond Democrat (Richmond, MO), January 26, 1888, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents), 5:213-14. 16 Truman Coe to Mr. Editor, Hudson Ohio Observer, 11 August 1836, in Welch, 124. Note that Smith’s use of the uncovered plates during translation via the interpreters contrasts with his use of wrapped plates when translating via the seer stone.
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painted image on a translucent slide and then magnified it with lenses, projecting a larger version of the image onto the “screen,” often a white sheet hung in front of the projector.17 Another contemporaneous technology, the solar microscope, similarly paralleled the interpreters in operation and paralleled them more closely in purpose. The solar microscope was essentially a large slide lantern illuminated by sunlight which was reflected into the box with an adjustable mirror. 18 But whereas the slide lantern was used largely for entertainment purposes, the solar microscope was used to disclose microscopic natural phenomena by projecting macroscopic images of them. The solar microscope, like the interpreters, was used to reveal the unseen, to render the invisible visible. Through Smith’s interpreters, as through a slide lantern or solar microscope, a small image appearing on the lens was projected in magnified form onto a screen.19 This fulfilled with striking literalism Jesus’s prophecy
The hanging of a white sheet to serve as a canvas or screen for projected images is frequently mentioned in early nineteenth-century sources discussing the magic lantern, as in the following examples. Wilhelm Von Turk, The Phenomena of Nature Familiarly Explained: A Book for Parents and Instructors (London: Effingham Wilson, 1832), 142; Henry Coddington, An Elementary Treatise on Optics, 2nd edition (Cambridge, 1825), 118–119; Charles Fleming and J. Tibbins, The French Tyro’s Stepping-Stone to English (Paris: Chez Les Auteurs, 1837), 156. 18 Like the slide lantern/solar microscope, Smith’s seer stones could reportedly be illuminated internally or externally. A witness at Smith’s 1826 arraignment for “glass looking” reported both methods. Smith would most often illuminate his white stone with external light, such as candlelight or sunlight (possibly because this stone, being translucent, would admit external light). His brown stone, however, he is consistently said to have shielded from external light in the bottom of his hat, where the stone would reportedly illuminate from within. "A Document Discovered," Utah Christian Advocate (Salt Lake City) 3 (January 1886): 1, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:253. 19 That the “screen” referenced should be understood as an external object rather than a visual space in Smith’s mind is evident from both the contemporaneous definition of “screen” and the accounts of the translation process. The defining function of a “screen” at this time was to block something out. A “screen,” as defined in the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, was “any thing that separates or cuts off inconvenience, injury or danger; and hence, that which shelters or protects from danger, or prevents inconvenience. Thus a screen is used to intercept the sight, to intercept the heat of fire on the light of a candle.” In this it was equivalent to a veil, whose function was also to separate: “A cover; a curtain; something to intercept the view and hide an object.” Both could be employed to “intercept the sight” or “view.” And accounts of the translation through the interpreters refer to the blanket or veil hung in front of Smith during the process as a “screen.” Pomeroy Tucker, for instance, described Smith translating “behind a blanket-screen drawn across a dark corner of a room,” in order to exclude physical light. Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the
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upon giving the interpreters to the Brother of Jared: “I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (Ether 3:24).20 In form and function, the interpreters thus evoked the familiar technologies of spectacles and slide lanterns, and hybridized them.21 But the operation of Smith’s other seer stones evoked one of the day’s emerging technologies—negative photography. We can see this when we examine Smith’s experience of light and darkness in translating with the seer stone. Translation via the seer stone required a different physical set up. In this case, unlike with the interpreters, Smith did not directly consult the plates. Instead, he kept them wrapped up, or stored away in a safe location, and focused his attention entirely on the stone itself and the images he saw on it. Smith gazed at his opaque dark-colored seer stone only after shielding it from external light, such as by placing it in the bottom of his hat.22 With the stone in his hat Smith would see a Book of Mormon character and its English translation written on the stone’s surface, not in ink, but in letters composed
English Language (Foundation for American Christian Education, 1828), s.v. “screen” and “veil.” Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 11-83, 117-19, 129-130, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 3:105. 20 Significantly, the lenses of the interpreters may have been convex on both sides, like those of a magnifying glass. In 1850, prophetic claimant Gladden Bishop, who then had Martin Harris as a follower, had described the interpreters as “convex on either side.” In 1859, Martin Harris described them as thicker in the center but “not so thick at the edges.” While Harris’s description of the Book of Mormon relics evidently influenced Bishop’s, it is possible there was also some reciprocal influence. Francis Gladden Bishop, An Address to the Sons and Daughters of Zion, Scattered Abroad, Through all the Earth (Kirtland, Ohio: F.G. Bishop, 1851), 48. Martin Harris interview in “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, June 1859, 165-66, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:305. Lavina Fielding Anderson, editor, Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 379. 21 The reported functioning of the interpreters may also be compared to that of the camera obscura, an early camera on whose principles the slide lantern and solar microscope were constructed. For a contemporaneous description of slide lanterns, solar microscopes, and the camera obscura, published just three years before Joseph Smith began translating, see Coddington, An Elementary Treatise on Optics, 118–119, 126. 22 Smith reportedly used his semi-transparent white stone in one of two ways, either by excluding it from light inside his hat or by holding it up to a source of external light, such as the sun or a candle. See the testimony 1826 court testimony in “A Document Discovered,” Utah Christian Advocate (Salt Lake City) 3 (January 1886): 1, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:253; and in W. D. Purple, , “Joseph Smith, the Originator of Mormonism, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:134.

of “spiritual light.”23 Joseph Smith’s practice of staring into a hat may strike us as undignified, rather like Maxwell Smart talking into his shoe. Smith, however, did not understand himself to be “looking into a hat” but to be using a hat to exclude ordinary light so as to better perceive the “spiritual light” from the stone.24 The effect wrought by this “spiritual light” within the darkness was transformative. The hieroglyphs engraved on the Book of Mormon plates were reportedly set out in black against a bright background of gold.25 Conversely, the translated words Smith saw in the seer stone occluded in his hat were light against darkness. Thus by the instrumentality of the stone, the record’s original, untranslated state was inverted: its meaning, previously hidden in the gold plates’ black characters now stood written in strokes of
David Whitmer reported, “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine.” David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Missouri: David Whitmer, 1887), 11, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5:196. Another account by Whitmer speaks of the translation appearing in “bright luminous letters.” [David Whitmer], James H. Hart to the Editor, March 18, 1884, Bear Lake Democrat (Paris, Idaho), March 28, 1884, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5:108. In one of the earliest detailed accounts of how Joseph Smith translated, Joseph Knight, Sr., who helped support the Smith family financially during the translation, wrote, “Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentence and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it.” Joseph Knight, Sr., “Manuscript of the History of Joseph Smith,” c. 1835-1847, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:17-18. 24 Accounts of the light shining in the darkness are given in the previous note. A number of other accounts also mention Joseph using his hat to “exclude the light.” See, for example, William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883), 10, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:497. 25 Orson Pratt reported that the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who attested to handling the golden plates, “describe these plates as being about the thickness of common tin, about eight inches in length, and from six to seven in breadth” and having “[u]pon each side of the leaves of these plates … fine engravings, which were stained with a black, hard stain, so as to make the letters more legible and easier to be read.” Orson Pratt, January 2, 1859, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: F. D. and S. W. Richards, 1854-1886, 26 vols.), 7:31. This detail was independently reported by Francis Gladden Bishop: “The characters are rubbed over with a black substance so as to fill them up, in order that the dazzling of the gold between the characters would not prevent their being readily seen.” Bishop claimed to have learned the characters were black by seeing the plates in vision. But the similarity of his description of the plates to that of the formal Book of Mormon witnesses suggests he acquired the black-characters detail from Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, to whom he served as a religious leader and a close confidant. Francis Gladden Bishop, An Address to the Sons and Daughters of Zion, Scattered Abroad, Through all the Earth (Kirtland, Ohio: F.G. Bishop, 1851), 48.
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light, words ablaze against a black “page” of ambient darkness.26 Like the development of a negative into a photograph, transposing dark with bright, Joseph Smith’s process of translation rendered, in place of opaque hieroglyphs, lucid English. In the literal, etymological sense this was photography—writing with light. It would be natural to assume that at this point, during his 1828–1829 translation experiences, Smith was already familiar with the technology of negative photography. But he was not. At the time Smith used his stone to translate the Book of Mormon, this technology was yet on the horizon. William Henry Fox Talbot invented the process in England in 1834 and 1835, and held back on announcing it until 1839, after the introduction of the daguerreotype.27 Smith’s “photographic” visions transposing darkness with light thus preceded negative photography by several years. It would be remarkable if the negative-positive transformation in Smith’s translation experience were unrelated to the near-contemporaneous, if slightly lagging, development of negative photography. But it is unclear just what should be made of the parallel. Possibly, although I have found no evidence to support it, negative photography had antecedents Smith would have known of, and his experience was tailored to imitate these. Or, to dabble a moment in freewheeling theological speculation, perhaps revelation was delivered to Smith in a way that anticipated photo-negative technology, either to strengthen the faith of the seer and his associates or to teach them that God uses technology that is like, but ahead of, what humankind develops. Spiritual Optics Whatever the answer to that riddle, Smith experienced his seeing instruments functioning in ways similar to both the familiar and the emerging
Compare this to Alma 37:23—“I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren….” 27 Michael Gray, “Secret Writing,” in Henry Fox Talbot: Selected Texts and Bibliography, ed. Mike Weaver (Oxford: Clio Press, 1992), 71; Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 15; William Henry Fox Talbot, Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing (London: R. and J. E. Taylor, 1839) reprinted in Beaumont Newhall, ed., Photography: Essays & Images: Illustrated Readings in the History of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1980), 30; William Henry Fox Talbot, “An account of some recent improvements in Photography,” in The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 3 (August 1841), 166.
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technologies of his time. But if Joseph Smith understood the seeing instruments themselves as technologies, how did he believe these technologies worked? According to Smith’s former Harmony, Pennsylvania, neighbors, he believed his seer stones operated according to the principles of optics and invoked specific principles of optics to explain how they worked, or why they sometimes did not. Accounts of this were gathered in later years by journalist Frederick G. Mather from Sally McKune and Elizabeth Winters Squires, close neighbors who were well positioned to know what Smith said about the workings of his seer stones, and from Samuel Brush, a neighbor who heard reports about the stone from Smith’s brother-in-law Reuben Hale. Sally McKune, wife of Joseph McKune, Jr., had been the Smiths’ nextdoor neighbor, on an adjoining farm to the north. And, having lived “in sight of” a treasure dig Smith led via the seer stone, for Josiah Stowell in 1825, she was literally well positioned to learn what Smith did with and said about the stone.28 Elizabeth Squires, step-daughter to Joseph McKune, Sr., also lived on a farm adjoining the Smiths.29 Rhadamanthus Stocker’s Centennial History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (1887) places Squires “often at Smith's home and much in Mrs. Smith's company.” She and Emma Smith were, by her own account, “on very intimate terms.” 30 Consistent with this reported intimacy, Elizabeth appears to be one of the few to whom Emma recounted her September 1827 expedition with Joseph to retrieve the golden plates. Elizabeth gave Stocker an account of Emma’s little-known participation in this incident and accurately told him how the plates were later hidden in Palmyra, transported to Harmony in a barrel of beans, and then hidden in the woods on a hillside near the Smith home.31 Samuel Brush, as Mather reports and the federal census confirms, “lived in the Hale neighborhood in the time of Joe Smith's exploits there.” During the translation of the Book of Mormon, according to Brush, he “called

see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:345-346. For more information on Sally McKune and Elizabeth Squires, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:357. 30 Rhamanthus M. Stocker, Centennial History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: R. T. Peck and Co., 1887), 554-56, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:400402. 31 Ibid.
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often to see Reuben Hale, the scribe” and visited with him while Smith and Hale took breaks from the translation work.32 McKune, Squires, and Brush were not only in a good position to know what Smith said about the operation of his seer stones, they were also well disposed toward Joseph Smith. While none of them appears to have enduringly accepted his claims to seership, all were willing to affirm, decades later, that Smith was “a good, kind neighbor.”33 What did Mather learn about Smith’s understanding of the seer stones from these well-placed, well-disposed informants? According to McKune and Squires, “When ‘peeking’ he…buried his face in his white stovepipe hat, within which was the peek-stone. He declared it to be so much like looking into the water that the ‘deflection of light’ sometimes took him out of his course.”34 According to Brush, Reuben Hale echoed Smith’s invocation of science to account for the operations of the seer stone. Like Smith, Hale “also explained the phenomenon of the peek-stone’ on the theory of ‘deflected light.’”35 Specifically, “Reuben Hale explained to Mr. Brush why the Prophet could not tell the precise location of an object he could see through his ‘peek -stone’ on the supposition of deflected light.”36 In other words, Joseph Smith, and Reuben Hale while acting as his scribe, offered a scientific explanation for why Smith had sometimes failed to pinpoint a lost treasure with his seer stone: the image of the treasure was displaced, or “deflected,” as the light bearing it passed between mediums— namely the air and his seer stone. The correct scientific name for this
Frederick G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine (Philadelphia) 26 (August 1880): 199-203, 211, in Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents 4:361-366. The 1820 federal census shows the family of Ard Brush, Samuel’s father, living in the tiny town of Harmony, enumerated four lines after Reuben Hale’s brother Alva. The 1830 census shows Samuel Brush, who had inherited his father’s property, enumerated three lines after Alva. US Census, 1820 (Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton, 1821); US Census, 1830 (Washington, DC: Duff Green, 1832. For more on Brush and his Harmony-area activities, see Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:346. 33 Ibid. 34 Ibid. In another publication based on these interviews, Mather described Smith’s reported “seeing” experiences as follows: “It was just like looking into water, he said; he could not tell just how deep it was any more than a man can who looks down into a lake; and the deflection of light sometimes took him out of the right course a few inches.” [Frederick G. Mather], "The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna," Binghamton Republican, 29 July 1880, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:351 35 Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:361-366. 36 [Frederick G. Mather], "The Early Mormons,” in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:360.
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phenomenon, which we commonly encounter when an object at the bottom of the pool appears in a false location, or when a straight straw seems to bend in a glass of water—is not “deflection” but refraction. On Smith’s explanation, the treasure was not where it had appeared through his stone because of how the light refracted when it entered (or left) the stone.37 However interesting this may be as a study in rationalization, it is much more interesting as a study in Smith’s understanding of the “spiritual light” conveyed through his seer stone. To account for his scrying failures in this way, Joseph Smith must have understood the light focused by his seer stones as subject to the same laws of optics as ordinary visible light. To Smith, the “spiritual light” of his scrying was not an incomprehensible supernatural substance, but a form of natural light invisible to the unaided eye.38 How, then, on Smith’s understanding, did his scrying stones work? Their special physical properties enabled them to receive information conveyed via waves of invisible natural light and render that information visible. Here Smith’s technologies of seership, as understood by him, anticipated the far future technology of television—developed generations later by his follower, Idaho Latter-day Saint Philo T. Farnsworth—and that of wireless Internet, which like Smith’s stones not only carries images and text but can render one language into another. While Smith claimed distinctive experiences with technologies that conveyed images and translated text, he did not believe the prerogative of using such information technologies should be limited to himself. Indeed, in Smith’s vision of heaven, those who achieve the highest glory will each receive a “white stone,” like his own first seer stone, through which all knowledge will be made available.
I have largely assumed in this discussion that Smith was referring to his use of the brown stone, which he placed in his hat. It is also possible that he was referring to his use of the white stone, which he sometimes placed in the hat and sometimes held up to a source of external light. In either case, Smith described refraction occurring as light passed between the two media, the stone and the air. 38 Within three years of his Book of Mormon translation experiences Smith would issue a revelation describing “the light of Christ” as “the law by which all things are governed” and identifying the visible light of the sun, moon, and stars as part of this divine light (D&C 88:713). Smith would later teach that spirit itself was matter: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8, reporting teachings by Smith on May 16-17, 1843). By analogy, all light is natural light; spiritual light is just more fine or pure, and thus can only be perceived by “purer eyes.”
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Regardless of whether Joseph Smith literally saw divinely transmitted images in his seer stones, he appears to have seen into the human and possible “post-human,” or divine, future. Those who reject his claims to be a prophet of God might yet embrace him as a prophet of technology. Smith was a visionary whose religious claims anticipated by well over a century the transmission of visual information via invisible portions of the light spectrum and who foresaw a future in which everyone could receive an instrument to stream limitless information. Conclusion Joseph Smith’s naturalistic understanding of his seer stones and the “spiritual light” they conveyed demonstrates that the Mormon aspiration to interpret divine action in scientific and technological terms was not new with the church’s twentieth-century leaders, much less with twenty-first century Mormon transhumanists. This aspiration was already a century old when B. H. Roberts offered his “radioactive” interpretation of Smith's stone and almost two centuries old when the Mormon Transhumanist Association was founded. Like Roberts and his twenty-first century heirs, the Mormon transhumanists, Smith refused to take “miracle” for an answer.39 Scientific and technological interpretations of Mormonism are thus as old as Mormonism itself. The attempt to understand experiences of divine action in early Mormonism in terms of technology and scientific principles began contemporaneously with those experiences. Joseph Smith, while acting as a seer, speculated on the scientific and technological basis of the visions God sent him, setting a precedent for such interpretations of divine action in Mormonism today. Mormonism is distinctive, if not unique, among the theistic religions in its relationship to science and technology. Unlike other theistic faiths, Mormonism understands God, not as supernatural, but as an integral element of the natural order, implying that divine powers can eventually be explained in scientific and technological terms, and therefore acquired by others besides God. While other theistic faiths have modern thinkers who sometimes
For the idea that present-day Mormon transhumanists are heirs to B. H. Roberts’s quest to integrate science and religion, see Richard Bushman’s essay in this volume, “From Humanity to Fullness the Mormon Way: Is Science Eternal?”
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speculate on God’s use of natural law, Mormonism has a founder who believed God communicated with him via technology. Naturally, the horizons of Joseph Smith’s technological imagination were bounded by his time. But as one who speculated that God gave revelation via advanced technology, the founder of Mormonism himself would have made a fitting speaker at the Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference. Can we similarly imagine Muhammad addressing an Islamic Transhumanist Association Conference, or John Calvin key-noting the annual conference of the Double-Predestinationist Transhumanist Association? Perhaps the reason we are here today, the reason Mormonism is the first religion in which the transhumanists thrive, is that it is the first religion to have been founded by one.