To most people, it just looks like a smooth, egg-sized rock, but it was part of the founding of the Mormon church and photos of it have now been published for the first time. The images of the "seer stone" that Mormons believe founder Joseph Smith used to translate buried gold plates he said he found in upstate New York 185 years ago were released as part of what the church says is an effort to be more transparent about its past, the AP reports. The photos have been published in a book that also includes pictures of the "printer's manuscript" of the Book of Mormon—a handwritten copy of the original manuscript that was produced by one of Smith's scribes. The book, which Smith said he translated from "reformed Egyptian" with the stone, recounts a visit from Jesus Christ to North America, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.
As for the translation, the church has this to say: "Joseph placed ... the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument." It says the translation occurred over three months in 1829 as part of a "a series of miraculous events." Indeed: In March, the Deseret News reported that the church says it takes roughly five years to translate and then produce the Book of Mormon in another language. The church says it is trying to make its history more "tangible" with the release, but Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, tells the AP that the church is also trying to show skeptics it has nothing to hide. "Other churches' origins are concealed by the mist of history. Mormonism is the first world religion in which the origins were exposed to public view, to documentation, to journalists, and newspaper reporting." (Last year, the church admitted that Smith had up to 40 wives.)