I have to know the purpose behind things. I have to understand the "why" in order for my soul to be at peace: I need to know why it's good to pay tithing; I need to know why I'm asked to avoid coffee and tea; I need to know why (and how) there was death 'before' the Fall of Adam and Eve (btw, feel free to ask me about that one; I have an answer worth considering, and it has nothing to do with aliens). Luckily, I live in a dispensation of abundant revelation, and I have faith that God answers honest questions. With that faith, I've been able to find answers to the questions that are important to me. At the same time, I am human, so I'm also open to correction if my interpreted answers someday prove to be incorrect.
I'm excited about the Church becoming more transparent about its history. This transparency enables us to ask more specific questions and seek revelation. But I'm also wary about the folly of presentism and am hopeful that people won't cave due to biased assumptions. Since I believe the Book of Mormon to be a work of revealed scripture, and since it has made such a positive impact in my life, I'm naturally interested in how it came to be and why. I accept that I'll never get to witness this part of history in person, and therefore will never have the type of answer that appeals best to my skeptical brain, but that's just how history works so let's deal with what we have.
Anyway, here's my take on the seer stone. I've said it once already: I think it's a rock. However, due to Joseph's use of it and the Lord's acceptance of his primitive faith, it should rightfully be considered a ‘seer stone’. It played a sacred role in the process that brought us the Book of Mormon.
During the 19th century, the Church was run by converts – people with a colorful variety of backgrounds and beliefs. Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young – they each came with a mixed bag of faith and traditions. Yet they each moved forward to gain greater light, contributing what they could to the development of Christ’s kingdom on earth. I remember my mission president once counselled the missionaries not to get on people's cases about their idols and old traditions when they converted from Catholicism to Mormonism. Candles, saints, memorized prayers - those things represented the initial faith of those converts and would still hold spiritual significance for them even after baptism. But as they would immerse themselves further into Christ's restored gospel they'd learn to discern the differences between pure doctrine, false doctrine, and mere tradition, and would govern themselves according to their evolving understanding. I have a very similar view in regards to Joseph Smith's use of seer stones. He came to the Lord with what faith and knowledge he had, and the Lord accepted him and led him to greater things. When Joseph Smith stopped using the Urim and Thummim later on in life, he told Elder Orson Pratt that "the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit, and did not need the assistance of that instrument."
Let's go to the scriptures now: Ether 2:22-25 and Ether 3:1-6. The Lord instructed the brother of Jared to lead his people across the ocean in a bunch of vessels. Fair enough, but soon the brother of Jared ran into a couple of setbacks: the vessels were built in a manner that would quickly asphyxiate humans, and there was no obvious way to produce light inside of them. But instead of despairing, the brother of Jared decided to take these issues to the Lord in prayer. The Lord promptly answered his question about not being able to breathe, revealing a logical solution involving holes. However, the Lord didn't immediately resolve the light dilemma, testing the asker's faith. So the brother of Jared prayed again, saying "O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?" The Lord then responded with another question: "What will ye that I shall do that ye may have light in your vessels?" The Lord put it back into the asker's hands, letting the brother of Jared try to work out his own solution. After visiting the mount Shelem, the brother of Jared returned to the Lord with sixteen small stones, saying "I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea. Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men." And the Lord "stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger", causing them to illuminate. The brother of Jared probably could have brought the Lord anything, but the best he could come up with were a bunch of rocks. And the Lord accepted this.
When Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon he still believed in using seer stones. Naturally, he decided to use his own seer stone as an aid in the translation process. The Lord didn’t reject him – He was willing to work with what Joseph had at the time. I think this reflects how God works with us – He’s willing to take imperfect, limited people and work with whatever talent or knowledge they have. He understands how difficult it is to "walk by faith" (2Cor. 5:7). He won’t reject us for our imperfections. Rather, He'll help us develop our weaknesses into strengths (Ether 12:27).
When the Church released images of Joseph Smith's seer stone, I responded by going home and finding an old river rock I'd kept in my closet since I was a kid. I took that rock and put it in my backpack to carry around as a reminder that the Lord can use me as an instrument for good despite my limitations. After all, Jesus Christ used a 'rock', even Peter, to help establish the primitive Church.
"By small and simple things are great things brought to pass" (Alma 37:6).
I’m open to more miraculous revelations about the seer stone, but for now I’ve got what’s been written in church history and a couple pictures of a rock. So I think it’s a rock. A rock that helped prompt Joseph Smith to seek the Lord’s guidance to translate the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
Joseph the Seer - this is a great article if you're interested in learning more about Joseph Smith's role as a Seer.