|Yep, this is the rock everyone is talking about|
For most Mormons, unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve been seeing a lot of one on your Facebook and Twitter feeds. Maybe you shrugged your shoulders and scrolled down. Or maybe you totally freaked out. Most, I suspect, are mildly surprised, somewhat curious, and perhaps a little unsettled, but nothing you can’t get over. While not really “hidden” (as some would have it), it is true that we have not really talked much about it as Latter-day Saints. It has not played any real role in our social memory—that is, in the stories about who we are as a community, which we share and perpetuate as a community—so it is understandably unfamiliar to us. Those who dig a little deeper might find that there was a lot of this kind of thing in the early years of the Church. From not simply a historical, but an anthropological perspective, there is really nothing surprising about that the fact that as a community, we have only remembered the things we deemed important and forgot the rest. Still, finding that Joseph Smith’s story of an angel and gold plates can be told—as it most certainly was in Joseph’s early years—in a way that makes it seem indistinguishable from the popular folklore of the day can be a little discomforting.
On the other hand, some wonder why the seer stone is not used anymore today. Frankly, I think the answer to both of these issues is that, as the Lord has explained, revelation comes according to the language and understanding of his servants (D&C 1:24; 2 Nephi 31:3). In a brilliant paper, Mark Alan Wright explains,
Language is not limited to the words we use; it also entails signs, symbols, and bodily gestures that are imbued with meaning by the cultures that produced them. As with spoken language, symbolic and gestural languages are culturally specific and can be fully understood only by those entrenched within that particular culture.
In short, all revelation is imbedded within a cultural context. Wright illustrates this point by documenting an interesting trend: in the Book of Mormon, revelations described in the earliest portion of the text fit well within an ancient Israelite context, while later revelations begin to take on characteristics more fitting within Mesoamerica.
Bringing this back into the present, consider the fact that the way the Church runs looks rather ordinary. Indeed, it is virtually indistinguishable from the way any sizable entity operates today. Some of our most important contemporary documents—such as The Family: A Proclamation to the World—are forged by the pressing issues of the time, and by processes that seem anything but miraculous. The Church fits within the culture of the day. It fits within the corporate culture, to be particular. And just as the folkloric origins of the Church were a point of criticism in the early years, the Church’s corporate culture is a frequent target for critics today.
But just because everything about the process appears ordinary, that does not mean revelation doesn’t inform the choices made by the various participants, most especially the 15 men at the top. Whenever I make a decision based on thoughtful prayer and revelation, it doesn’t really look any different than when I make a choice without it (though the outcome can be quite different!). Likewise, just because Joseph’s story can look like any other money digger’s yarn does not mean there was no real angel and real gold plates.
So how do we know that revelation is involved? Well, I can’t answer that one for you, although I do have my own answer. You need your own revelation for that, and I can’t get it for you.