In his young life, Joseph Smith was known as “seer” in his community. A seer is someone who could “see” things by looking into crystal ball, a stone, a bowl of water, fire, or other objects. Joseph Smith had a few seer stones that he used to see things in the earth. His favorite seer stone was a brown stone that he found when he was a teenager while helping dig a well for a man named Willard Chase. To see things in this stone, he would place the stone in the bottom of a hat, put his face into the hat to block out the light, and then somehow he would be able to see things in the rock.
At least he said he could see things. What could he see? He saw different things. He said he could see where lost treasure was buried in the earth, lost money, and lost property. People paid him money to use his seer stone to find these things. But there’s no indication that he ever actually ever found anything.
In 1825, Josiah Stowell hired Joseph Smith to use his seer stone to help him find underground gold mines. The mines were never found and the result was that Joseph Smith to be brought to trial for the crime of “glass looking.” Essentially, this meant that Joseph Smith was accused of defrauding Josiah Stowell out of money by claiming he could see things by looking into his seer stone.
At the trial, Josiah Stowell testified that he believed in Joseph Smith’s abilities despite the fact that the mines were never found. Others testified against Joseph Smith.
In the end, Joseph Smith was found guilty of a misdemeanor and was required to pay a fine of $2.68.
The original transcripts from the trial have been lost, but a copy of them were published in the 19th Century.1 In addition to the transcripts, an original copy of the courts’ bill for Joseph Smith has been found which verifies the fee of $2.68.2
same [i.e. The People]
The Glass Looker
March 20, 1826
. To my fees in examination
================ of the above cause 2.68
It was one of these same seer stones that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon. To translate the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith used the same method that he used to “see” buried treasure in the earth. He put the stone in a hat, put his face into the hat to block out the light, and “saw” glowing words on the rock that became the text of the Book of Mormon.
If the text of the Book of Mormon came from Joseph Smith looking at a stone in a hat, why does church artwork depict images of Joseph Smith sitting at a table, looking at the Golden Plates, with a scribe sitting across the table?3
While the church does acknowledge that the text of the Book of Mormon was produced by Joseph Smith looking at a rock in a hat,4 I believe the church doesn’t show this in artwork and doesn’t talk about it very much for two main reasons:
First, the church does not want to connect the text of the Book of Mormon with the same process Joseph Smith used to “see” buried treasure in the earth.
It just sounds crazy, doesn’t it? If someone today told me they looked at a special rock in a hat that showed them where treasure was buried in the earth, I would not believe them. If they tried to prove it to me, unless there was extraordinary evidence to back up their claim, I would expect that anything they might do would be a trick.
If this same person, using the same rock in the same way, said they produced the text of an ancient book, I would not believe it either. If I wouldn’t believe it if someone told me this today, why should I believe it when Joseph Smith did the same thing?
Second, the church does not want to connect the text of the Book of Mormon with the same technique Joseph Smith used to defraud people out of money.
Anything that reflects poorly on Joseph Smith’s character does not promote faith in the church. A conviction for glass looking reflects poorly on Joseph Smith’s character. So the church doesn’t talk about it much. In artwork, in writing, and in song, the church paints a saintly image of Joseph Smith. He’s revered like no other human being that ever lived. He is considered to have done more than anyone who has ever existed, except Jesus, for the salvation of mankind. Given the image the church has built up around Joseph Smith, they don’t want much time spent on the fact that defrauded people out of money – especially when the fraud involved the same technique he used to create the Book of Mormon.
2 http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/byustudies/id/227/rec/4 (see pages 223-233)