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 new photos peel back another layer of secrecy for a relatively young world religion that has come under scrutiny as its numbers swelled in the Internet age.
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 has increased while church membership has tripled over the last three decades, Mormon scholars said.
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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 the collection through the use of the Internet.”
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 its 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 have been 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 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. It 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 members of the religion moved 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 Latter-day Saints recently completed a temple in Kansas City at 7001 Searcy Creek Parkway. The Community of Christ’s world headquarters is in Independence and is known for its spiral-topped temple.
The publication of the pictures of the stone are important because some speculated the stones were buried in the archives, 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.