Mor­mons pub­lish photos of ‘seer stone’ claimed to have been used by founder

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY BRADY MCCOMBS

The Mor­mon church’s push to­ward trans­parency about its roots and be­liefs took another step for­ward Tues­day with the first pub­lished pic­tures of a small sa­cred stone it be­lieves founder Joseph Smith used to help trans­late a story that be­came the ba­sis of the re­li­gion.

The new photos peel back another layer of se­crecy for a rel­a­tively young world re­li­gion that has come un­der scru­tiny as its num­bers swelled in the In­ter­net age.

The pic­tures of the smooth, brown, egg-sized rock are part of a new book that also con­tains photos of the first printer’s man­u­script of the Book of Mor­mon. Of­fi­cials with The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints un­veiled the photos at a news con­fer­ence in Salt Lake City.

The re­li­gion’s drive in re­cent years to open its vaults and clar­ify sen­si­tive be­liefs is aimed at fill­ing a void on the In­ter­net for ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion as cu­rios­ity in­creased while church mem­ber­ship tripled over the last three decades, Mor­mon scholars said.

Church his­to­rian Steven E. Snow ac­knowl­edged that dy­namic, say­ing: “The In­ter­net brings both chal­lenge and op­por­tu­ni­ties. We’re grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to share much of col­lec­tion through the use of the In­ter­net.”

The church’s cam­paign seems aimed at pre­vent­ing cur­rent mem­bers from leav­ing and show­ing non-Mor­mons that they aren’t hid­ing any­thing, said Ter­ryl Givens, pro­fes­sor of literature and re­li­gion and the James Bost­wick chair of English at the Univer­sity of Rich­mond.

As an Amer­i­can-born re­li­gion much younger than most world re­li­gions, the ori­gins of Mor­monism have come un­der greater scru­tiny and put pres­sure on the church to prove their sto­ries, Givens said.

‘First re­li­gion in which ori­gins were ex­posed to public’

“The other churches’ ori­gins are con­cealed by the mist of history,” Givens said. “Mor­monism is the first world re­li­gion in which the ori­gins were ex­posed to public view, to doc­u­men­ta­tion, to jour­nal­ists and news­pa­per re­port­ing.”

The pic­tures in the new book show dif­fer­ent an­gles of a stone that is dark brown with lighter brown swirls. The photos also show a weath­ered leather pouch where the stone was stored that is be­lieved to be made by one of Joseph Smith’s wives, Emma Smith.

The church has al­ways pos­sessed the stone, which was trans­ported across the coun­try dur­ing Mor­mon pioneers’ trek from Illi­nois to Utah in the mid-1800s, but it de­cided to pub­lish the photos now to al­low peo­ple who pre­fer vi­su­als to words to bet­ter un­der­stand the re­li­gion’s roots, said Richard Turley, as­sis­tant church his­to­rian. The stone will re­main in the vault.

“The pic­ture brings a kind of tan­gi­bil­ity to some­thing that has been pre­vi­ously been talked about just in words,” Turley said. “That helps peo­ple con­nect with the past. We’ve dis­cov­ered that ar­ti­facts and his­tor­i­cal sites are a way to give a sense of re­al­ity to things that are oth­er­wise some­what ethe­real.”

Mor­mons be­lieve that 185 years ago, Smith found gold plates en­graved with writ­ing in an­cient Egyp­tian in up­state New York. They say that God helped him trans­late the text us­ing the stone and other tools, which be­came known as the Book of Mor­mon.

The man­u­script in the new book ac­tu­ally be­longs to the Com­mu­nity of Christ, a faith that was cre­ated by early Mor­mons who stayed be­hind when most mem­bers of the re­li­gion moved out West to Utah. A Com­mu­nity of Christ leader joined LDS of­fi­cials at the press event Tues­day in what both said dem- on­strated the two faiths have moved on from past squab­bles.

The pub­li­ca­tion of the pic­tures of the stone are im­por­tant be­cause some spec­u­lated the stones were buried in the ar­chives and never to be seen, said Richard Bush­man, a Mor­mon his­to­rian and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity. They prob­a­bly won’t per­suade non-be­liev­ers who don’t buy the story, but they of­fer another in­di­ca­tion the church is mov­ing to­ward open­ing up, he said.

The church has been re­leas­ing books con­tain­ing his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments that shed light on how Smith formed the church. The re­li­gion also has is­sued a se­ries of in-depth ar­ti­cles that ex­plain or clar­ify some of the more sen­si­tive parts of its history that it once sidestepped, such as the faith’s past ban on black men in the lay clergy and its early history of polygamy.

The church paid a price for its past de­ci­sions to stay silent on top­ics or keep key ar­ti­facts in the vault, Bush­man said.

“Their faith­ful mem­bers would stum­ble on in­for­ma­tion on the In­ter­net. Not hav­ing heard about them, they were shocked and dis­il­lu­sioned,” Bush­man said. “They felt they had been lied to and got pretty an­gry.”

To­day the church is tak­ing a new ap­proach, by say­ing, “We can face up to the facts. We don’t have to make the pic­ture pret­tier than it is,” Bush­man said.

AP

Pic­tures of smooth, brown, egg-sized rocks are shown in the printer’s man­u­script of the Book of Mor­mon fol­low­ing a news con­fer­ence at the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints Church History Li­brary in Salt Lake City, Utah, Tues­day, Aug. 4.

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