Home » Eastern Orthodoxy » Can a Mormon criticize the use of holy icons?

Can a Mormon criticize the use of holy icons?

pantocratorI have been speaking with an Orthodox priest over the last few days about improving my prayer life.  When I first started reading about Orthodoxy, I was very much like a lot of Westerners from the Protestant tradition (okay, Mormonism isn’t exactly Protestantism, but for my purposes here let’s just say it is and move on) in that I worried that the use of icons is idolatry.

In my defense, icons look idolatrous from the outside.  Visitors to an Orthodox church will notice people bowing to, kissing, and touching their heads to pictures of Christ and the saints.  That sort of thing raises serious warning flags to Westerners who grew up being taught that any sort of image in church borders on idolatry.  Mormon chapels don’t have pictures of anything, and Mormons don’t even wear crosses due to the fear of idolatry.

In order to improve my prayer life, I have decided to “plant a seed” and experiment upon the Orthodox model of prayer.  Sometimes I think it is the complete opposite of Mormon prayer.  Mormon prayer is unstructured, extemporaneous, conversational, and involves mostly “thanks for opportunities” and asking for things.  Orthodox prayer is long, structured, sometimes read, sometimes involves petitioning saints for prayers, and often simply involves praising God for His holiness, mercy, and wisdom.  Mormon prayer rarely involves praising God directly – you won’t ever hear “we praise you” in a Mormon prayer.  I asked this Orthodox priest for help in trying Orthodox prayer and even asked about proper use of icons.

In the context of prayer, Orthodox icons are used as a means of focusing the mind on God, Christ, and sometimes a saint or the Theotokos.  They serve a didactic function as well as a meditative function – and open the mind to Heaven and spiritual truths.  But I have had to really work hard to get into a mindset that might allow me to light a candle in front of an icon and stare into it prayerfully.  It’s so different from my lived experience up until this point.

Now there are plenty of Protestant arguments against the use of icons, and I won’t get into those.  I think what might be more useful is to ask whether a Mormon has grounds for criticizing the use of icons?

josephsmithhatPerhaps the main argument a Mormon might use is that using a physical object to open the mind to revelation borders on the dangerous.  But those of you very familiar to Mormonism might point out the problem here – that’s exactly what a seer stone is!

Obviously this might cause discomfort in the Mormon, since modern Latter-day Saints do not use seer stones to obtain revelation.  In fact, I would bet that many if not a majority of Latter-day Saints don’t even know that seer stones were even used in the early church – many think that the translation of the Book of Mormon was done exclusively through the Urim and Thummim.  But many of the founding members of the church certainly used seer stones and other objects for revelation, and the Book of Mormon and many early revelations were revealed to Joseph Smith through seer stones or “interpreters.”  Now this practice seems to have died off by the Utah era of Mormonism (not by decree, mandate, or compulsion, but rather because the church seemed to have just evolved past it), but the fact remains that many early members of the church used seer stones as part of their spiritual practice.  It is true that Hiram Page was criticized in the Doctrine and Covenants for being deceived by Satan through a stone, and I am guessing that Mormon seer stone usage dropped sharply after that, but Page’s problem was not in using the stone per se (according to the D&C), but rather that he did not have the keys to receive revelation for the entire church.  So there is nothing on the books, as far as I know, that specifically keeps Mormons from using seer stones even now, for personal revelation.

Now the biggest thing I want to emphasize at this point is that no Orthodox I know of would equate early Mormon seer stones with the use of holy icons.  In fact, I would imagine that some would find seer stones to be wildly heretical and even possibly demonic (and might even find the comparison offensive).  However, I am making the argument that, from the Mormon point of view, the Orthodox use of icons is no different from the early Mormon use of seer stones – using a physical object to open the mind to revelation.  So I do not believe the Mormon has solid grounds for criticizing the use of holy icons for personal guidance, opening the mind to spiritual truth, or communication with God, because such criticism could equally be applied to early Mormon foundational claims regarding seer stones.

Therefore, I feel safe in saying that the use of holy icons would not be specifically forbidden in Mormonism, and any attempt to restrict their usage would be somewhat hypocritical without explaining whether seer stone usage is forbidden in Mormonism too.  Due to historical contingencies and embarrassment, I am guessing any official statements on the matter are not forthcoming.

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17 thoughts on “Can a Mormon criticize the use of holy icons?

  1. Are you aware of the theological justifications for Orthodox use of icons outside of the practical prayer uses? I was curious if this would become more of an issue coming from a Mormon perspective.

  2. I’ve read extensively about the use of icons, though I’m not exactly certain which aspects you’re thinking of, the purpose here is specifically to compare the prayer usage part. I’m interested in your arguments for the theological purposes, though I suspect most Mormons would be less concerned with those aspects (given the beautiful representations and artwork in Mormon temples). I could be wrong though.

  3. The theological teachings I was referring to are specifically the use of icons as a testament to the humanity of Christ. We (Orthodox) are not allowed to depict the Father in icons. We can only depict the Son because of His incarnation. While icons definitely aid in prayer, more importantly they remind us of Christ’s dual nature- fully human, fully God. I was curious if this teaching conflicts in any way with Mormon doctrine or if it would be a reason for a Mormon to criticize their use.

  4. Gotcha. I don’t think a Mormon would have a problem with the use of icons in that way, to testify of the humanity/duality of Christ. It would be harder to translate, I think. Mormons have a different Christology and are not Trinitarian, so if there is any tension it would be in the underlying doctrine, and not in the use of icons. Mormons would agree that Christ is “fully human, fully God,” though they rarely use that terminology, but “God” in this sense is a category rather than a single being.

  5. Just a few notes.

    The Urim and Thummim are the seer stones or interpreters. They are one and the same; the first being the name, the second being a description of their function. To say that most people in the church don’t know of the use of seer stones is inaccurate, as they know that the Urim and Thummim are seer stones.

    As to their use, the only one that is actually documented as using these stones, as far as I know, is Joseph Smith. He used them frequently. However, he did not use them as a religious icon, at least not in the way you describe.

    As to the use of religious icons, I don’t think most people in the church would have any real problem with them, as long as they are used properly. There are members who prefer to pray facing a picture of the temple, or a picture of Christ, or other representations that help them focus their mind. There is nothing wrong in this.
    The real criticism is when one uses icons that are not directly related to God, or that focus attention on others, like the saints. When a person focuses attention through a figure of the virgin Mary and then prays to Mary we see this as idolatry. However, when when focuses attention through a figure of Christ and prays to the Father there is nothing wrong.

    It really is more the rote and repetitive prayers and the offering of prayers to anyone but the Father that we would consider in error and a form of idolatry.

  6. I’m not sure what sources you’ve read, but Joseph’s seer stones were distinct from the Nephite interpreters/breastplate found in the box with the plates (often referred to as the Urim and Thummim). The Nephite interpreters were described as a breastplate with some kind of spectacles attached – so if the Urim and Thummim is the Nephite breastplate, then it is not clear at all that Urim and Thummim = seer stone. Details are fuzzy because Joseph used the words seer stones, interpreters, and Urim and Thummim somewhat interchangeably, but Joseph was in possession of, and used, seer stones long before he was allowed to open the box containing the plates and Nephite interpreters/breastplates (in fact, some sources say he used the seer stone to locate the stone box). Joseph began the translation of the Book of Mormon using the Nephite interpreters, but eventually switched to using his seer stone which he would have in a hat while translating. This process, and lots more information about Joseph’s seer stone use, is mentioned at FAIR here.

    Secondly, it is not true that Joseph was the only one documented as using seer stones. Joseph did not think up the use of seer stones himself – it was a common folk magic practice of that time. Hiram Page was mentioned as using a seer stone in the section of the Doctrine and Covenants I mentioned above – a significant event in Mormon history which allowed Joseph to clarify the “economy of God” regarding priesthood and stewardship. Many more early Mormon leaders owned and used seer stones, or divining rods. It was part of the culture at the time. Joseph Strang said he had a seer stone of some kind which he used to translate the Voree Plates.

    My wife, a lifelong Mormon, did not even know what a seer stone was until she married me, and her step-father (a Bishop) was completely unaware after being a Bishop for 8 years that the Book of Mormon was translated using a seer stone. I am guessing that most Mormons are indeed aware of the Urim and Thummim (in an abstract sense) and would say that it was used to translate the Book of Mormon – however, I believe only a minority would know that the primary method was a seer stone in a hat. Of course all I know is my own personal anecdotes – but I spent a year at BYU-Idaho, served a full-time mission, and have taught for CES in various capacities for about a decade now, so I don’t think my opinion is entirely uninformed.

  7. In the testimony of Joseph Smith at the beginning of the Book of Mormon he writes
    “Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”
    Two stones whose use is what constitutes a seer. There is no fuzziness here. These stones are what a seer uses, thus they are seer stones.

    In Mosiah 28: 13, 16 we read “And now he translated them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.
    And whosoever has these things is called seer, after the manner of old times.”

    Now, to clarify my previous comments; only Joseph Smith is recorded as actually using these stones with authority. I am well aware of the practice of the time, but no one else received revelation from God through the use of seer stones. The practice of the day was a corruption of the Urim and Thummim, or what constitutes a seer. These are the true seer stones, prepared by God, and given to man to assist in the reception of revelation.

    As to all the evidence of Joseph Smith using any other stones, it is all hearsay, and generally from those antagonistic against the church. There is no reliable witness to such being the case before he was given the Urim and Thummim, and no reliable witness that he used any other stones in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

  8. For you to throw out literally dozens of witnesses from FAIR – the number one pro-Mormon apologetic website on the planet – requires a cafeteria approach that I find incredibly untenable. And to say that they are all “hearsay” from antagonistic witnesses is likewise incredibly untenable. For instance, Joseph Fielding Smith stated that Joseph Smith’s seer stone was in his possession (in his office of all places) and Elder Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, verified this. Are these unreliable or antagonistic witnesses? As far as Joseph using the seer stone and not the Nephite Urim and Thummim to translate the majority of the Book of Mormon, the quote is taken directly from the Church’s Historical Record. That Joseph used the “stone in hat” method and not the breastplate and spectacles was verified by Russell M. Nelson in the Ensign. I’ll let my readers (both LDS and non-LDS) decide which of us has a more reasonable approach to the historical record. I find your approach incredibly eccentric (for instance the two stones = seer thing and the idea that Joseph never used any other stones besides the Nephite Urim and Thummim) and I’ve never heard those views expressed in any CES curriculum, by any Mormon apologists, or any Mormon historians.

  9. For instance, from the LDS Historical Record [The Historical Record. Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters (LDS Church Archives), 632.]

    As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated.

    What Mormon would call the LDS Historical Record unreliable and/or antagonistic? It is clear that Joseph used other seer stones besides the ones in the stone box. And if they were in possession of the Prophet of the church during Joseph Fielding Smith’s time, they are likely still there.

  10. The fact that he received the Urim and Thummim again is testified to by him, as quoted by FAIR here http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation/Method/1841-1845
    Joseph Smith (translator) Times and Seasons 16 May 1842
    “I continued there for a short season and then returned to my place in Pennsylvania. Immediately after my return home I was walking out a little distance when behold the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again, (for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings which he lost by transgression,) and I enquired of the Lord through them and obtained the following revelation….”

    Now, on FAIR there are several quotes given regarding the use of the seer stones, or interpreters. A good three quarters are from hostile sources. Of the remaining quarter, close to half are not from eyewitnesses, or are someone paraphrasing an eye-witness, both of which constitute hearsay.
    I never once claimed that all references are hostile or hearsay. I said that most were, and the list at FAIR confirms this statement; it doesn’t contradict it.
    In all these lists there is only one actual eye-witness account that actually states that Joseph Smith had any other stones. All the rest merely declare he had stones, most calling them either interpreters or the Urim and Thummim, and declaring that it was by use of these instruments that the Book of Mormon was translated.
    Now, I have never denied his use of the hat, and I have no problem with it. I do, however, disagree that the breastplate is necessary in the use of the Urim and Thummim. It seems more a means of holding the stones, and this function was filled nicely by the hat. In fact, the accounts of Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim on many occasions to receive revelation never mention the breastplate at all.

    I am not familiar with that last quote you give (though I will look it up), but the historical record does make it clear that the Urim and Thummim were the primary sources of revelation until the Book of Mormon was completed. The eyewitnesses almost invariably declare it was by means of them that the Book of Mormon was translated. Now, people can choose to believe this wasn’t the case, but the evidence is not really in support of it.

  11. Let me correct a previous statement. While I never said that all the sources were hostile, I did say they were all hearsay, and I was in error there. It should have said that the vast majority were hearsay, which is accurate, as FAIR shows.

    As to your last quote, I have found it in the record and read the entire context. It is a newspaper article, and thus constitutes hearsay. This is especially the case with the quote you give, since the article deals with David Whitmer who was not an eyewitness to the event surrounding the 116 pages.
    In all honesty I don’t know what stones Joseph Smith had. However, I do know that the Urim and Thummim were seer stones, and that according to almost all available records, it was by means of them that he translated the Book of Mormon.
    However, the larger point is that no one else in the church used any such stones to receive revelation with any authority. Only Joseph Smith used any such stones with the authority of God.

  12. But the whole point of the Hiram Page affair as recounted in the D&C is that the concept of “using a seer stone with authority” was not in existence until God made it clear through Joseph Smith at that time. The idea that some people had authority over others in the church and that only Joseph Smith had authority to receive revelation for the whole church didn’t exist until that time. Before then, plenty of members and non-members were using seer stones, and the reason that Hiram Page was able to influence so many people with his revelations is because there wasn’t a conception of authority yet. You’re projecting modern LDS conceptions of authority onto a church that didn’t have it yet. Even then, that section of the D&C only states that Joseph Smith was the one to use a seer stone to receive revelation for the whole church – it says absolutely nothing about using one for personal revelation, which is the whole point of this post. Oliver Cowdery and others continued using stones and rods even after Joseph’s revelation to Hiram Page.

    And also, if we really threw out every single statement that constitutes “hearsay” by your definition, the entire enterprise of history would completely collapse. Your standard for evidence is so restrictive that it is not feasible or necessary for real historical inquiry – and that’s why even believing Mormon historians like those at FAIR and Bushman regularly use “hearsay” to form opinions about historical events.

  13. First, you have given nothing to indicate that anyone was using seer stones with any authority in the church. All you have given is your own declaration that it did happen.
    You say Oliver Cowdery used one, so give us some quotes to prove it.

    As to the authority of Joseph Smith, I am not imposing anything that was not the case. This may be the first time that God directly states this, but that does not mean that this was not the case before this time. It was merely the first time that such a clarification was needed to be stated directly. God is the same throughout all ages, and if he operates in this way now he did so before.

    AS to hearsay, I use the legal standard of what hearsay is and that what is admissible in a court of law. I find this a very equitable standard to use. Now, I do not say that I reject all hearsay, but that I am cautious of accepting it. If God confirms it to me I will accept it, as I have the Bible, which is primarily hearsay. There are other reasons for accepting hearsay, but it should not be accepted on face value.

  14. Pingback: Can a Mormon criticize praying to saints? | Saints and Saints

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