Monday, June 15, 2009

Discerning Spirits: Joseph Smith and Glasslooking

There are some topics when I began I thought I would never have reason to address. This is an example of one of them. But the idea of discerning spirits and Joseph Smith's unfortunate boyhood hobby of "glasslooking" does relate to the recent Sunday School lesson on the Spiritual Gifts.

Some evangelicals antagonistic to the LDS religion make a big deal about Joseph Smith's occasional hobby of "glasslooking" while growing up in Upstate New York. Their assumption on the issue is that Joseph Smith was knowingly and deliberately lying about "possess [ing] certain means by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye" (Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, pp.91-92, as quoted in Early Mormon documents, Vol.1, p. 309). The reason many prefer this interpretation of Joseph Smith's motivation is that they seek to establish a pattern of behavior of lying; like a serial killer torturing small animals as a youth. However, many fail to consider an alternative motivation.

One important alternative, which is the LDS position, is that Joseph Smith was fooled by false spirits and actually believed on some level that he could "glasslook". Occult magic was very popular at the time. Many people in 1830 tried to use divining rods and glass shards to find or see hidden or lost things. People commonly participated in similar sorts of hobbies then in a similar way people go rock hounding or metal detecting today. Actually you can still hire people who claim they can use a divining rod to find the best place to dig a well.

The reason why I believe Joseph Smith was not intentionally lying, but was deceived comes from his own words about the "Gift of tongues." In our recent Elder's quorum manual about Joseph Smith, he warned the LDS Saints that there were many false spirits who were going about deceiving people to believe they could speak in tongues and God's language. People do it today. When I was a missionary, people offered on several occasions to demonstrate. Some of these people may have been lying. But I believe as Joseph Smith did that some have been simply fooled by false spirits. JS said the gift of tongues is to preach the gospel to those who speak another language like on the day of Pentecost. The "Gift of Tongues" is not at all about showing off, incomprehensible mumbling and jumping around uncontrollably. Therefore, it is most likely that Joseph Smith was fooled into believing he was able to glasslook.

This automatic assumption that Joseph Smith was intentionally lying demonstrates something else in the person making the assumption. And that something else is that this assumption fails to recognize the kind of power Satan and false spirits can have if allowed. Even if you think what you are doing is a game. I had a close friend who dressed up as a fortune teller at a school carnival to give fortunes using a crystal ball. It was supposed to be just for fun. She and the person receiving the fortune knew it wasn't supposed to be real. During the night she said she started giving people real predictions that actually came true. She said she committed to never mess around with any of that kind of thing again even though at the time it seemed harmless and innocent.

Also, another supporting argument in favor of being deceived over being the deceiver is Joseph's own words about spiritual gifts. Joseph Smith's was of the opinion that most people trying to speak in tongues who mumble incomprehensibly and jump around uncontrollably were fooled by false spirits and not deliberately lying. It is likely Joseph Smith based his opinion on his own experiences with LDS members experimenting with tongues like many other churches of the day, Hiram Page being fooled by finding what he considered was a "seer stone," and himself being fooled as a youth. Remember that Paul says "discerning spirits" is one of the spiritual gifts of God as is "tongues", "prophecy", and "healing". Therefore, it is no surprise that there would be many in the world unable to properly discern spirits as Joseph Smith eventually was taught and empowered by God to do.

D&C 28: 11 And again, thou shalt take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him;

1 Cor. 12: 10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

Let me also be clear on this point. The LDS church does not condone the use of occult practices under any circumstances. The LDS church does not condone Joseph Smith's "glasslooking". Joseph Smith was fooled by false spirits into thinking he could find hidden or lost items, and he later was set up by Satan and paid a big price for his sins and needed sore repentance. LDS recognize that Joseph Smith's or anyone's dabbling in the occult is sin.

That said, what about Joseph's reported use of a seer stone after being led to the Gold Plates by Moroni? There were two clear stones referred to as the Urim and Thummin with the Gold Plates. They were patterned after the stone Aaron used to Judge Israel. There are referred to in Revelation when John says those that overcome will be given a "white stone." Joseph Smith said these stones were designed by God for the interpretation of languages. Was this evolution from "glasslooking" to the "seerstone" just more of the same?

First, we need to remember one important principle. Satan doesn't create, Satan corrupts and counterfeits. Jesus on the other hand sanctifies. Some claim that Joseph may have used a "seer stone" different from the Urim and Thummin that were with the Gold Plates. Others think the "seer stone" was just one of the 2 interpreter stones. Whatever the case, if Joseph Smith had used the "peep stone" he used while prospecting for silver with Josiah Stowell, he would have dedicated the stone in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and covenanted to never seek to see anything forbidden.That is the pattern of things. Satan doesn't create, Satan corrupts and counterfeits, and Christ sanctifies. There are other examples of this sort of thing. (e.g. fig leaves, conference center and Zion being designed after the style of the hanging gardens of Babylon, etc.).

Whatever stone he used, the difficult issue with it was that his previous participation in "glass-looking" made it difficult for some to accept the Book of Mormon. This was especially the case with Emma's Father Isaac Hale. Only a year after Joseph Smith promised the Judge in his 1826 hearing that he would give up "glass-looking" after which he eloped with Emma. Not long afterwards, Joseph had a hard time convincing Isaac Hale that he had found and translated the Book of Mormon using "seer stones."

"The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret was the same manner as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, while the book of plates were at the same time hid in the woods."---Isaac Hale affidavit, May 1834.

The price Joseph Smith paid was his being tried in court in March 1826 for 'glass-looking'. That hearing made it difficult for some to believe his story and followed him into future hearings and trials the rest of his life. Sin like clouds may have a silver lining but they are still mostly gray and stormy. However, in spite of these minor mistakes of youth, God has promised that the grace and Spirit of God is sufficient to overcome these weaknesses and know the truth that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and the Living Christ, and that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ.

6 comments:

Seth R. said...

I wonder how much of a sin Joseph's diversions really were though.

Richard Bushman has suggested that the mystical beliefs of Joseph's family may have acted as a sort of "schoolmaster" and prepared him for when he encountered the real thing. Much of it seems harmless enough to me, and it does demonstrate that Joseph was rather spiritually attuned.

Modern Americans are so uncomfortable with looking silly, that I think we hyper-rationalize the Gospel. I worry that much of the American LDS Church has grown incapable of belief in real miracles. Real miracles, real spirits, scare us. So we make them all safely metaphorical.

How many of us, for instance, have the sort of faith I read about in an Ensign story - where a blind Polynesian man almost demands that the American elders restore his sight?

How many of us would shy away from such a stark demand for supernatural manifestation? If it were me (of little faith), I think I would lamely add in several qualifiers - so as to give myself an out when it didn't happen.

Secretly, I would be without the faith to really petition God - nothing wavering.

Miracles scare us. The supernatural scares us. God scares us.

We'd all like our religion and our faith to be safely mundane and unverifiable.

But I don't think this was the faith of Joseph Smith. He was willing to really - and I mean REALLY - stick his neck out. He was willing to believe in a way that modern Americans simply usually are not.

If that came with a bit of mystical baggage - so be it. It's no worse than the modern baggage we carry.

BRoz said...

Sin is sin. But you and Bushman are correct. Everything Satan does ends up in the end to serve Gods higher purposes. And we like, Adam and Eve, and Joseph can learn from our experiences. Every cloud has a silver lining so to speak. But there is a better way then having to sin to learn because the scriptures remind us that the Holy Ghost knoweth all things.

Sean said...

" One important alternative, which is the LDS position, is that Joseph Smith was fooled by false spirits and actually believed on some level that he could "glasslook". "

From what I can remember one of those stones that Joseph used when he was "deceived by false spirits" was also used during translation of the Book of Mormon. For that reason I think the premise and conclusion of your thoughts are wrong. I am curious where you got the idea that the LDS position is that Joseph was deceived by false spirits. I have never heard that.

I also have a question in regards to the comment you made about Joseph paying a sore price for being deceived by Satan with the use of his own seer stone. What exactly did Joseph Smith do? I have no idea what your referring to and would love to learn more about that particular circumstance.

Besides my obvious disagreements with your article I still enjoyed the read and would appreciate any corrections and clarifications to my questions.

Sean said...

" One important alternative, which is the LDS position, is that Joseph Smith was fooled by false spirits and actually believed on some level that he could "glasslook". "

From what I can remember one of those stones that Joseph used when he was "deceived by false spirits" was also used during translation of the Book of Mormon. For that reason I think the premise and conclusion of your thoughts are wrong. I am curious where you got the idea that the LDS position is that Joseph was deceived by false spirits. I have never heard that.

I also have a question in regards to the comment you made about Joseph paying a sore price for being deceived by Satan with the use of his own seer stone. What exactly did Joseph Smith do? I have no idea what your referring to and would love to learn more about that particular circumstance.

Besides my obvious disagreements with your article I still enjoyed the read and would appreciate any corrections and clarifications to my questions.

BRoz said...

Yes, I have also heard that Joseph may have used a "seerstone" different from the Urim and Thummin to translate the Book of Mormon. I am not sure if this "seerstone" was just one of the stones found with the Book of Mormon or if Joseph used one the the same stones he had used when prospecting for silver with Josiah Stowell. If it was it would be an interesting example of first sanctifying and then dedicating something corrupted by Satan to the service of God.

Athough I am not so sure that Joseph used his old "peepstones." Whatever stone he used, the difficult issue with it is that his previous participation in "glass-looking" made it difficult for some to accept the Book of Mormon.

This especially the case with Emma's Father Isaac Hale. Only a year after Joseph Smith promised the Judge in his 1826 hearing that he would give up "glass-looking" and then eloped with Emma, he had a hard time convincing Isaac Hale that he had found and translated the Book of Mormon using "seer stones."

"The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret was the same manner as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, while the book of plates were at the same time hid in the woods."---Isaac Hale affidavit, May 1834.

The price Joseph Smith paid was his being tried and convicted in court in March 1826 for 'glass-looking'. That conviction made it difficult for some to believe his story and followed him into future hearings and trials the rest of his life.

Sin like clouds may have a silver lining but they are still mostly gray and stormy.

Seth R. said...

Whoa. Hold the phone there.

Joseph was dragged into court by his enemies. He was NEVER "convicted." He was arraigned. Not convicted.

In fact, a lot of the accusation that he falsely claimed to have supernatural gifts fell through because most of those testifying said he actually was the real deal.

Really, this ought to be no more upsetting, in the end, than finding out - for example - that Joseph was a bit of a gossip in his early twenties.

Yes, it's a character flaw. But not serious enough really matter to me. And I don't consider belief in the supernatural to be any worse than being a gossip. In some ways, I prefer it actually.