Mormons publish photos of 'seer stone' used by founder

Mormon Church Releases Photos Of Important Artifact For First Time

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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 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 and scrutiny increased as 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."

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Mormons publish photos of 'seer stone' used by founder
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 6: This is the World Headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on November 6, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. On November 5 the Mormon Church changed its policy toward gay and lesbian married couples and their children. The new church policy would excommunicate gay or lesbians that choose to get married and disallow their children to be blessed or baptized into the Mormon Church. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), Mormon Prophet And Founder Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints. (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: This is a picture of the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2003: Portraits of Joseph Smith (Sharon, 1805 - Carthage, 1844) and his brother Hyrum Smith (Tunbridge, 1800 - Carthage, 1844), American religious leaders and founders of the Mormon religion. Engraving. Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library) (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: This is a picture of a statue of the Mormon prophet, Brigham Young with the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple in the background during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Brigham Young, American Mormon leader, 1877. The second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, Brigham Young (1801-1877) led his followers on an 1100 mile trek from Illinois to Utah in 1846-1847 after the church's founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob. On arriving at their destination, Young and the Mormons founded Salt Lake City. In keeping with the Mormons' practice of polygamy, Young took more than 20 wives and fathered 47 children. He died of cholera morbus in 1877. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: This is a picture of the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Portrait of Joseph Fielding Smith (1838 - 1918), sixth president of the Mormon Church and nephew of founder Joseph Smith, early 20th Century. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
circa 1840: A lithograph of Joseph Smith (1805-1844), Mormon prophet. Original Artist: By F D Richards. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Illustration of Joseph Smith (1805-1844), founder of Mormon Church, preaching to a group of Indians. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: Spires from the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple rise to the sky during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: Spires from the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple rise to the sky during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: A group of children pose for a picture in front of the historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple between sessions of the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world gather in Salt lake for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard and Portrait of Brigham Young. ca. 1916, BORN JUNE 1, 1801, WHITINGHAM, VT. DIED AUG. 29, 1877. SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH. BRIGHAM YOUNG. Brigham Young was born June 1, 1801 in Whitingham, Vt. He succeeded Joseph Smith as President of the Mormon Church when the latter was martyred in Carthage, Ill. in 1844. He led a small band of pioneers into the great unknown West in 1847 and established Salt Lake City where he proved himself to be the greatest colonizer of his time. He died in Salt Lake City, Aug. 29, 1877. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and congregation sing during the 184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world are gathered in Salt Lake City for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings during the 184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world are gathered in Salt Lake City for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings during the 184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world are gathered in Salt Lake City for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - OCTOBER 4: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and congregation sing during the 184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Faithful Mormons from around the world are gathered in Salt Lake City for the two day conference. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: Jason Packham looks at the first, 1832 journal from Mormon Church founder, Joseph Smith on display at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
Mormon Church Salt Lake Temple. Photo from Garden Cafe above. Forty years to build.Not open to public.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: The dedication prayer for the Mormon Church's first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, is displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: An 1833, first edition of the Mormon scripture, 'Book of Commandments,' which later became the 'Doctrine and Covenants', and were revelations from Mormon Church Founder Joseph Smith, is displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: Several rare documents are displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: A page from the1842 Book of Abraham, that the Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith claimed was a translation from Egyptian Papyri and a history of Abraham, is displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: A signature of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith on a letter he wrote when he was imprisoned in 'Liberty Jail,' which later became part of the Doctrine and Covenants, Mormon Scripture, is displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: An 1830, first edition of the Mormon scripture, 'Book of Mormon' and other rare Mormon scriptures are displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 8: An 1835, first edition of 'A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Latter Day Saints' is displayed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Church History Library, part of the 'Foundation of Faith' exhibit on September 8, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the documents are on pubic display together for the first time. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO / BEST BLOOMBERG PHOTOS FOR 2011: The spire of the Mormon Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is seen in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, told the Senate Finance Committee this week he opposes limiting tax deductions for charitable contributions to churches. 'Private educational institutions, hospitals, social welfare agencies and innumerable other organizations' would be impacted according to Oaks. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The spire of the Mormon Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is seen in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011. Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, told the Senate Finance Committee this week he opposes limiting tax deductions for charitable contributions to churches. 'Private educational institutions, hospitals, social welfare agencies and innumerable other organizations' would be impacted according to Oaks. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The Mormon Salt Lake Temple stands during the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A statue of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, stands by the Mormon Salt Lake Temple during the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Director Mack Wilberg conducts the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as they sing at the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Attendees participate in the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Attendees participate in the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Director Mack Wilberg conducts the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as they sing at the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Temple Square, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a central sight in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
People walk past the Mormon Salt Lake Temple during the first session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. Mormons from around the world have gathered to listen to church leaders during the two-day conference. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images
SALT LAKE CITY - APRIL 4: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints sings during the 179th annual general conference of the church April 4, 2009 in Salt Lake City, Utah. More then a 100,000 mormon faithful will attend the conference over the weekend. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
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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.

"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 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 demonstrated 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.

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