The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation

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Abstract: This essay seeks to examine the Book of Mormon translation method from the perspective of a regular, nonscholarly, believing member in the twenty-first century, by taking into account both what is learned in Church and what can be learned from historical records that are now easily available. What do we know? What should we know? How can a believing Latter-day Saint reconcile apparently conflicting accounts of the translation process? An examination of the historical sources is used to provide us with a fuller and more complete understanding of the complexity that exists in the early events of the Restoration. These accounts come from both believing and nonbelieving sources, and some skepticism ought to be employed in choosing to accept some of the interpretations offered by some of these sources as fact. However, an examination of these sources provides a larger picture, and the answers to these questions provide an enlightening look into Church history and the evolution of the translation story. This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel.

In his 1916 book, The Birth of Mormonism, John Quincy Adams provided this rather colorful description of the Book of Mormon translation method.

The process of translating the “reformed Egyptian” plates was simple though peculiar. It was all done with [Page 122]the Urim and Thummim spectacles, but it was instant death for any one but Joe to use them. Even when he put them on, the light became so dazzling that he was obliged to look through his hat. Moreover, when so engaged, no profane eyes were allowed to see him or the hat. Alone, behind a blanket stretched across the room, Joe looked into his hat and read the mystic words.1

Any Latter-day Saint will immediately be able to sort the familiar from the unfamiliar elements of this story. We see the Urim and Thummim and the blanket shielding the translator from others in the room, but what is all of this talk about a hat?

As an active Latter-day Saint, I cannot remember a time when I was not familiar with the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. The story with which we are quite familiar from Sunday School and Seminary describes Joseph using the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) to look at the gold plates while screened from his scribe by a curtain. Joseph dictated the entire text of the Book of Mormon to his scribe, picking up the next day right where he had left off the day before, and the text was written without any punctuation. Joseph never required that any of the previous text be re-read when the translation started again the next day. The bulk of the translation was accomplished within a roughly three-month period, and the resulting text is remarkably consistent not only with itself, but with the Bible. The circumstances surrounding the translation and production of the Book of Mormon can only be considered miraculous when considered by a believing member of the Church.

There is, however, another story with which many have become familiar in recent years. Modern portrayals of the translation process such as that shown in the popular animated [Page 123]television show South Park2 depict Joseph looking at a stone in the bottom of his hat and dictating to his scribe, without the use of a curtain. The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia displays a “twenty-first century artistic representation of Joseph Smith translating the golden plates by examining a seer stone in his hat.”3 A Google search of “Book of Mormon translation” or “seer stone Joseph Smith” produces a large number of such images, many of them hosted by websites that are critical of the Church’s truth claims. This is a method which I did not learn about in Seminary, and there are anecdotal stories of Latter-day Saints who, upon being presented with this portrayal, simply deny that this method may have ever been employed, attributing such depictions to “anti-Mormon” sources.

Depictions of the translation process by artists have also contributed to the confusion. Latter-day Saints are quite familiar with a variety of artistic portrayals of Joseph and Oliver as they participated in the translation process. Some depict Joseph and his scribe sitting at a table with a curtain across the middle. Others show Joseph and Oliver sitting together at a table, with no curtain in view and the plates clearly visible, yet we know that Oliver was not allowed to view the plates prior to acting as one of the Three Witnesses. One thing that these scenes have in common is that they do not depict the Urim and Thummim, despite the fact that we know that a translation instrument was used during the process. We see no crystal stones mounted in a set of “spectacles,” nor do we see the breastplate.4 [Page 124]We certainly never see Joseph gazing into the bottom of his hat while dictating.

The twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades. Now one must ask the question: Which of these portrayals is correct? In searching for an answer, we start with a modern Church manual in order to provide us with our first clue. The following description of the translation process appears in the 2003 Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual (hereafter referred to as the Student Manual).

Little is known about the actual process of translating the record, primarily because those who knew the most about the translation, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, said the least about it. Moreover, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith, who assisted Joseph, left no contemporary descriptions. The sketchy accounts they recorded much later in life were often contradictory.5

It makes perfect sense that those who were directly involved in or observed the translation would have the most accurate information. What, then, did these witnesses say that appears to have been contradictory? Were there other witnesses that can shed light on these events? What did outside sources have to say about the translation process? As Latter-day Saint [Page 125]researcher Brant Gardner summarizes it, “What stories shall we believe? What stories of the translation could we or should we tell? Which stories are true? For this last question, I would suggest that they are all true. That is, they are true for the people who are telling them.”6

What did Joseph and Oliver say?

The logical place to begin is with the translator himself. What did Joseph Smith say about the Book of Mormon translation process? As it turns out, he said very little about the actual translation method used to produce the Book of Mormon, except to note that it was performed “by the gift and power of God.” The Student Manual notes that Joseph deliberately did not give many details of the process.

The Prophet was reluctant to give the details about the translation. In a Church conference held 25–26 October 1831 in Orange, Ohio, Hyrum requested that a firsthand account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon be given. But the Prophet said, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.” Joseph explained in an open letter to a newspaper editor in 1833 the heart of the matter, but he gave few particulars, stating that the Book of Mormon was “found through the ministration of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God.” His explanation is consistent with the Doctrine and Covenants, which says that he was granted “power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon” (D&C 1:29) and that the Lord “gave him power from on high, by the means [Page 126]which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 20:8).7

Joseph very consistently told people who asked that he had translated by the gift and power of God. He did not wish to focus on the method, but rather the result. Since Joseph chose not to provide details, we must examine what the other witnesses to the translation said in order to get a more accurate picture of the methods employed.

Oliver Cowdery was the next witness closest to the translation, since he acted as scribe for the majority of it. Some of Oliver’s descriptions of the translation are very much consistent with the story that we are already familiar with. However, Oliver’s comments deserve a more detailed review. We will revisit Oliver’s comments in more detail later.

What did Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith say?

The Student Manual refers to “sketchy accounts” given “much later in life” by Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith. What is contained in these late accounts? How do they contradict what we know about the translation process?

There are two things that these three descriptions have in common: (1) they were all given near the end of the person’s life, and (2) they all describe the use of a translation instrument placed in a hat. These stories may initially appear to be inconsistent with the story that we are familiar with today, but there is a good reason for this.

Near the end of her life in 1879, some 49 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Emma Smith Bidamon was interviewed by her son Joseph Smith III. Emma described her memories of the translation process. “In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table [Page 127]close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”8

This description raises some immediate questions. Where is the Urim and Thummim? Where is the curtain? Why is Joseph using a hat? Where are the plates? It is very easy to see that Emma’s description appears to contradict the account that we learn of in Sunday School.

David Whitmer’s descriptions of the translation process also were given near the end of his life, with two notable descriptions given in 1885 and 1887, over 55 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. Whitmer claimed that Joseph described the method to him, and he provides some detail that Emma did not.

[H]e used a stone called a “Seers stone,” the “Interpreters” having been taken away from him because of transgression. The “Interpreters” were [Page 128]taken from Joseph after he allowed Martin Harris to carry away the 116 pages of Ms [manuscript] of the Book of Mormon as a punishment, but he was allowed to go on and translate by use of a “Seers stone” which he had, and which he placed in a hat into which he buried his face, stating to me and others that the original character appeared upon parchment and under it the translation in English.9

Note that Whitmer mentions the Interpreters—which we know as the Urim and Thummim—as being distinct from the “seers stone.” Whitmer is indicating that the interpreters were taken from Joseph after the loss of the 116 pages and not given back to him. He mentions the use of a stone and a hat, just as Emma did. Again, there is no curtain mentioned.

One might wonder at this point if this account is inconsistent with what the Church has taught. However, Elder Russell M. Nelson quoted David Whitmer’s 1887 account to a group of new mission presidents in 1992. This description is found in the July 1993 Ensign and is on the Church’s official website, lds.org. Elder Nelson states,

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)10

It is clear that Elder Nelson is quite aware of the stone and the hat. As it turns out, this is not a unique mention of these items within Church publications. A search on lds.org for the [Page 129]term “seer stone translation” produces the following description from the September 1974 issue of the Church’s official children’s magazine, the Friend: “To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates ‘a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.’ Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone.”11

It is apparent that not only are the descriptions of Emma Smith and David Whitmer different than the process that we are familiar with, but that the Church has periodically made mention of some of this information.

Next, we examine what Martin Harris had to say. Martin was quite closely involved with the early translation process, since he acted as Joseph’s scribe for the first 116 pages of manuscript. As indicated by the Student Manual, near the end of his life, Martin Harris also provided a description of the translation process. Martin granted an interview to Joel Tiffany in 1859, in which he described the translation instrument that we commonly know as the Urim and Thummim.

The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we [Page 130]wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish.”12

This description is quite interesting, because Harris describes placing the Nephite interpreters in the hat, rather than a stone. Indeed, Martin’s account of placing the Nephite interpreters in the hat even appears to contradict David’s and Emma’s account of Joseph using his own seer stone. Furthermore, all three accounts do not appear to be consistent with the story that we are familiar with of Joseph using the Urim and Thummim, sitting behind a curtain and looking at the plates while dictating to Oliver Cowdery.

The Spectacles and the Hat

To gain a better understanding of how the translation process was viewed at the time that it occurred, we can examine how contemporary newspapers described it. In 1829, the New York newspaper Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph reported on the translation of the Book of Mormon. The report, understandably, takes a skeptical tone.

[A]nd after penetrating “mother earth” a short distance, the [Golden] Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles! He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, “under no less penalty” than instant death! They were therefore nicely wrapped up and excluded from the “vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals!” It was said that the leaves of the bible were plates of gold, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were [Page 131]engraved characters or hyeroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.13

This account seems consistent with Martin Harris’s story that the Nephite interpreters were placed in a hat. Note, also, that the spectacles are not referred to as the Urim and Thummim. Did Joseph actually use a hat with the Nephite interpreters? We also see Martin’s 1859 recollection that he “never dared to look into them” because “no man could see God and live,” being amplified by the 1829 news account into a “penalty” of “instant death.” This account, or one like it, is likely the genesis of the story related by John Quincy Adams in 1916 of the threat of “instant death” waiting to befall anyone but Joseph if they attempted to use the interpreters.

This newspaper description wasn’t an aberration. The same description was repeated almost one month later in a New York publication called The Gem: A Semi-Monthly Literary and Miscellaneous Journal, “By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language.”14

Four months later, in February 1830, Martin Harris is quoted in the New York Telescope,

[H]e proceeded to the spot, and found the bible, with a huge pair of spectacles. . . . He is said to have shown some of these characters to Professor Samuel L. Mitchell, of this city, who could not translate them. Martin Harris returned, and set Joseph Smith to the business of translating them: who, “by placing the [Page 132]spectacles in a hat and looking into them, Joseph Smith said he could interpret these characters.”15

In June 1830, The Cincinnati Advertiser mentioned a “white stone” and the hat.

A fellow by the name of Joseph Smith, who resides in the upper part of Susquehanna county, has been, for the last two years we are told, employed in dedicating as he says, by inspiration, a new bible. He pretended that he had been entrusted by God with a golden bible which had been always hidden from the world. Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed.16

The reference to a “white stone” is consistent with Harris’s description of the Nephite interpreters. All of these newspaper accounts are entirely consistent with Martin Harris’s 1859 description, given 30 years later. Therefore, it appears that Martin Harris told a consistent story.

We have evidence that Martin Harris, both at the time that the translation occurred, and at the end of his life, perceived that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters, or “spectacles,” together with a hat in order to interpret the characters on the gold plates. The use of the hat as part of the translation process was clearly noted. Martin’s description would coincide with the period of time that he acted as scribe, which corresponded with the translation of the 116 lost pages of manuscript. The idea that the Urim and Thummim was placed in a hat sounds quite [Page 133]different from the mental picture that we might have of Joseph using the spectacles like a pair of glasses to view the plates. However, recall that Martin described the stones in the interpreters as “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” This does not necessarily imply that they were transparent.

The references in newspapers to placing the spectacles in a hat continued for several years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. The October 15, 1831, Daily Albany Argus mentions the need to shield the interpreters from ambient light. “The preacher said he found in the same place two stones, with which he was enabled, by placing them over his eyes and putting his head in a dark corner, to decypher the hieroglyphics on the plates!”17 The Morning Star, Limerick, Maine (March 7, 1833) states that “an angel gave him a pair of spectacles which he put in a hat and thus read and translated, while one of the witnesses wrote it down from his mouth.”18 Note that these newspaper accounts as late as 1833 still make no reference to the term “Urim and Thummim,” instead referring to the Nephite translators as “stones” or “spectacles.”

The Protestant Sentinel in 1834 was either unaware of, or unwilling to use, the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the spectacles. They were, however, quite aware of the placement of the spectacles in the hat. The story has evolved somewhat to the point that the plates are in the hat as well.

In the year 1828, one Joseph Smith, an illiterate young man, unable to read his own name, of Palmyra, Wayne County, New York, was reported to have found several golden plates, together with a pair of spectacles, relics of high antiquity. The spectacles were designed to aid mental vision, under rather peculiar circumstances. [Page 134]They were to be adjusted, and the visage thrust into a close hat. This done Smith could interpret the sacred mysteries of the plates, in which lay, by the hypothesis, in the top of the hat!19

The phrase “aid mental vision” is worthy of note. Although we do not know where the writer got this idea, the statement implies that the spectacles did not necessarily function like a pair of glasses, but more like a seer stone.

The New York Weekly Messenger in 1835, five years after the Book of Mormon was published, claimed that both the “plate” and the “two smooth flat stones” were placed in a hat.

Smith pretended that he had found some golden or brass plates, like the leaves of a book, hid in a box in the earth, to which he was directed by an Angel, in 1827,—that the writing on them was in the “Reformed Egyptian language,”—that he was inspired to interpret the writing, or engraving, by putting a plate in his hat, putting two smooth flat stones, which he found in the box, in the hat, and putting his face therein—that he could not write, but as he translated, one Oliver Cowdery wrote it down.20

Although there are some amusing variations being introduced to the story relative to what we currently know, one thing that is consistent with all of the newspaper accounts mentioned so far is that they all mention the use of the Nephite interpreters (the spectacles) and the hat.

Even the Prophet’s brother William, 53 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, talked of Joseph placing the Urim and Thummim in a hat.

[Page 135]He translated them by means of the Urim and Thummim, (which he obtained with the plates), and the power of God. The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.21

Joseph Knight was a good friend of the Prophet Joseph. His account identifies the Urim and Thummim as the glasses. Significantly, Knight also mentions the hat.

Now the way he translated was he put the Urim and Thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes, then he would take a sentence and it would appear in bright Roman letters, then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away, the next sentence would come, and so on. But if it was not spelled right it would not go away till it was right, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the whole translated.22

[Page 136]These accounts present a case for considering the idea that Joseph placed the spectacles, which we know as the Urim and Thummim, into a hat during the translation process. We usually assume that Joseph had the plates on the table and looked at them through the spectacles.

The Spectacles as Urim and Thummim

As previously noted, none of the contemporary newspaper accounts printed in the 1830 to 1833 timeframe mentions the Urim and Thummim. Instead, they mention spectacles or a white stone. How, then, did the spectacles found by Joseph Smith come to be known as the Urim and Thummim? One of the earliest known references to the spectacles as the Urim and Thummim appeared in the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and Morning Star in January 1833, three years after the Book of Mormon was published. The wording is interesting, as it appears to be one of the earliest times that the term Urim and Thummim is applied to the instruments of translation.

The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.-It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles-(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).23

Note the use of the word “perhaps.” It does not appear that the term Urim and Thummim was generally associated with the interpreters at this point in time.

[Page 137]The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints even made a point of noting that the term Urim and Thummim only came into use after 1833.

The proofs are clear and positive that the story of the Urim and Thummim Translation does not date back, for its origin further than 1833, or between that date and 1835; for it is not found in any printed document of the Church of Christ up to the latter part of the year 1833, or the year 1834. The “Book of Commandments” to the Church of Christ, published in Independence, Mo., in 1833, does not contain any allusion to Urim and Thummim; though the term was inserted in some of the revelations in their reprint in the “Book of Doctrine and Covenants” in 1835.24

The association of the term Urim and Thummim with the spectacles thus appears to have come into use several years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. The term may not have actually been used during the period of translation itself. Historian D. Michael Quinn, however, feels that the term may have been applied as early as 1828. “This was the term in the ‘Manuscript History of the Church’ for the object through which early revelations were received to 1830, and this statement about the Urim and Thummim has appeared in the headings to these early revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants from 1921 to the present.”25

However, Quinn also notes that “there was no reference to the Urim and Thummim in the headings of the Book of Commandments (1833) or in the headings of the only editions [Page 138]of the Doctrine and Covenants prepared during Smith’s life (in 1835 and 1844).”26

In 1836, we finally find a reference to the Urim and Thummim in a non-LDS publication. The story was printed in the Ohio Observer. Truman Coe resided in Kirtland, Ohio, but was not a member of the Church. He appears to be repeating what either Joseph Smith, or other Church members in Kirtland, told him, and therefore employs the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the interpreters. Significantly, Coe does not mention the use of a hat. “The manner of translation was as wonderful as the discovery. By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him.”27

Brant Gardner observes that Coe “certainly did not accept the story at face value,” but that he “seems to have reported it without sarcasm or distortion.” Gardner also notes that Coe’s story “provides a picture of the translation that has endured from at least 1836 to modern times.”28 Indeed, Coe’s account appears to be very close to the story that we use in the Church today, even correlating with certain modern artwork showing Joseph sitting at a table with his finger on the plates.

In 1840, we find a hostile account that actually employs the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the interpreters. In this account, the spectacles are placed on the eyes and there is no mention of the use of a hat.

He declared that an angel was sent from God to make known to him the place in which the book was concealed,—that he searched and found the same,—that the words were engraved on plates of gold in a language [Page 139]which no man understood,—and that two large jewels resembling diamonds were given to him, which, being applied to the eyes, like spectacles, enabled him to get at the meaning and translate the Book of Mormon into English. These jewels were, he said, the Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament.29

An 1891 interview with the prophet’s brother William Smith provides a description of the Urim and Thummim and its relationship to the breastplate. At the time that William gave his description, the term Urim and Thummim had been used for many years to describe the Nephite interpreters. William said that “a silver bow ran over one stone, under the other around over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles.” William also said that the spectacles were “much too large for Joseph,” and that Joseph “could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other. By putting his head in a hat or some dark object it was not necessary to close one eye while looking through the stone with the other. In that way sometimes when his eyes grew [tired] he [relieved] them of the strain.”30

William said that Joseph “looked through” the stones “one at a time,” which naturally implies that he was looking through them at the plates, yet the placement of his “head in a hat or some dark object” seems to negate the idea that the plates were located on the other side of the stone. Because the Nephite interpreters took the form of “spectacles,” we naturally assume that Joseph was required to look through the interpreters directly at the characters on the plates.
[Page 140]

The Spectacles and the Stone

Having seen contemporary newspaper accounts that are entirely consistent with Martin Harris’s late life description that the spectacles were used with a hat early in the translation process, what are we to make of the descriptions of Emma Smith and David Whitmer? They describe the use of a “seer stone” and a hat. The stone is mentioned infrequently in Church publications, but there are several notable instances. As previously noted, The Friend mentions two translation instruments, stating that “Joseph found with the gold plates” a “Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate,” and that “Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone.”31

Here we have evidence that Joseph employed more than one instrument during the translation process. Further confirmation can be found in an account by Edward Stevenson printed in the Deseret News in 1881, in which he quoted Martin Harris as saying “that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”32

We now see that Martin was aware of the existence of and distinction between two different translation instruments. In fact, we learn from the January 1988 Ensign that Martin not only knew that Joseph used both the Nephite interpreters and a seer stone, but that Martin once actually swapped Joseph’s stone with a different one in order to test Joseph’s ability to translate.

From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. [Page 141]On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.33

Martin wanted proof that Joseph was actually capable of using the stone to translate. Since he dared not look at the spectacles in accordance with the Lord’s commandment, he would only have ventured to switch Joseph’s own seer stone. Emma Smith also confirms that Joseph switched between the Urim and Thummim and seer stone. Emma stated, “Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”34

With this statement, Emma establishes a timeframe for the transition from the Nephite interpreters to the seer stone. She states that it occurred after the loss of the 116 pages and upon the resumption of translation.

[Page 142]David Whitmer, who only observed the translation after the loss of the 116 pages, also distinguished the Urim and Thummim (the spectacles) from the seer stone.

With the sanction of David Whitmer, and by his authority, I now state that he does not say that Joseph Smith ever translated in his presence by aid of Urim and Thummim; but by means of one dark colored, opaque stone, called a “Seer Stone,” which was placed in the crown of a hat, into which Joseph put his face, so as to exclude the external light. Then, a spiritual light would shine forth, and parchment would appear before Joseph, upon which was a line of characters from the plates, and under it, the translation in English; at least, so Joseph said.35

Another Whitmer interview notes that while Joseph was not allowed by the Lord to display the Urim and Thummim, he was able to show others his seer stone.

That Joseph had another stone called seers’ stone, and “peep stone,” is quite certain. This stone was frequently exhibited to different ones and helped to assuage their awful curiosity; but the Urim and Thummim never, unless possibly to Oliver Cowdery. . . . Elder David Whitmer’s idea was that the translation was made by the seers’ stone, as he calls it, not the Interpreters, and Emma Smith’s (Bidamon) statement accords with Whitmer as published in Herald some years since. The only discrepancy between the statements of the witnesses is that relating to the detail of the translation; and, as shown above, David and Emma, in the nature of things, did not know just how the Urim and Thummim [Page 143]were used, as they had never seen them. The reader will please bear in mind that no one was allowed to see either the plates or the Urim and Thummim, except as God commanded. The Eight Witnesses were allowed to see the plates and handle them as shown above; none else.36

In 1886, David Whitmer indicates that Joseph used his own seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text. In this interview, Whitmer states that the spectacles were never returned after the loss of the 116 pages and that a seer stone was presented to Joseph Smith for the purpose of continuing the translation.

By fervent prayer and by otherwise humbling himself, the prophet, however, again found favor, and was presented with a strange oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat, which, it was promised, should serve the same purpose as the missing urim and thummim (the latter was a pair of transparent stones set in a bow-shaped frame and very much resembled a pair of spectacles). With this stone all of the present Book of Mormon was translated.37

However, Whitmer’s assertion that Joseph was presented with a stone is most likely not correct, since Joseph already possessed at least one seer stone prior to receiving the Nephite interpreters. One could speculate that the angel took Joseph’s stone away at the same time that he took the plates and the Nephite interpreters, and then returned it to him after consecrating it [Page 144]for the purpose of translation. There is, however, no evidence to confirm that this is the case other than the fact that Joseph was allowed to use the stone for this purpose.

Not only did Joseph possess a seer stone prior to receiving the Nephite interpreters: He was already quite familiar with the manner of its use. Matthew B. Brown notes that, “Joseph Smith reportedly said in 1826, while under examination in a court of law, that when he first obtained his personal seerstone he placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye.”38

Brown goes on to note that Brigham Young confirmed this view, “When Joseph had a revelation he had, as it were, the eyes of the Lord. He saw as the Lord sees.”39

In fact, upon receiving the Nephite interpreters, Joseph viewed them as a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph appeared to be more excited about receiving the glasses than the gold plates themselves. After Joseph returned from retrieving the plates, Joseph Knight recalled,

After breakfast Joseph called me in to the other room and he set his foot on the bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, “Well, I am disappointed.” “Well,” say I, “I am sorry.” “Well,” says he, “I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected.” Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates for, says he, “I can [Page 145]see anything. They are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated.”40

The idea that the Nephite interpreters were a more powerful version of Joseph’s seer stone is interesting, since it implies that there was something special about the stones themselves. It is more likely, however, that it was Joseph’s own perception that the stones were superior because these stones had been consecrated by God for the purpose of seeing things.

However, the idea that the Nephite interpreters were superior to a common “seer stone” was accepted by twentieth-century apostle and Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith. In response to accounts that indicated that Joseph may have used his own seer stone during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Elder Smith flatly stated that he did not believe this to be true, since the stone was inferior to the Nephite interpreters. In Doctrines of Salvation, published in 1956, Smith states that he considers such accounts “hearsay.”

While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information [Page 146]is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes.41

We have now established that there are multiple accounts from witnesses and Church sources confirming that Joseph switched from the spectacles or Nephite interpreters to a seer stone during the Book of Mormon translation process. The next question is: Why did Joseph switch between translating instruments? Was it simply for “convenience,” as Martin Harris indicated?

One possible explanation is that the size of the interpreters may have been a hindrance to their use. William Smith described the Nephite interpreters as “much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other.”42 Charles Anthon, who had to have obtained his information from Martin Harris, provided additional detail when he wrote that “these spectacles were so [Page 147]large that if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face.”43

John Corrill, in 1839, confirmed that Joseph had returned the Urim and Thummim to the angel before the Book of Mormon was published, noting that “After finishing the translation, the plates and stones of Urim and Thummim were again taken and concealed by the angel for a wise purpose, and the translation published to the world in the winter of A. D. 1829 and ’30.”44

Another possible explanation is that the Nephite interpreters were never returned to Joseph, and that he was expected to continue the translation using his own seer stone. David Whitmer seems to indicate this as a possibility when he claims that the Urim and Thummim were taken from Joseph and that he was “presented” with a seer stone.

Based upon these accounts, it appears that Joseph began the translation process using the Nephite interpreters, and that at some point he may have used them with a hat. After the loss of the 116 pages, he may have either switched to his own seer stone or continued to use the Nephite “spectacles,” again with the hat. In fact, given the consistent reports of the use of the hat during translation, it is not possible to know with certainty whether Joseph was using the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone in the hat during this period of time. One thing seems certain based upon witness accounts—during the period of the translation process after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph sat in [Page 148]the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.

The Spectacles and the Stone as Urim and Thummim

At some point several years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, both the Nephite interpreters (the spectacles) and the seer stone became referred to as the Urim and Thummim. When the term Urim and Thummim was introduced in 1833, it did not refer uniquely to the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates, but also referred to Joseph’s own seer stone, which he possessed prior to the translation of the Book of Mormon. In 1907, Elder B.H. Roberts clearly associates the term with both the stone and the Nephite interpreters.

The seer stone referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it-as described above-as well as by means of the “Interpreters” found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.45

In common Church conversation, the designation Urim and Thummim is always assumed to be referring to the Nephite interpreters that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument. The term Urim and Thummim referred to any instrument used for the purpose of translation or the receipt of revelation.

The January 2013 Ensign clarifies that Joseph used multiple revelatory instruments, and that they all were classified under the name Urim and Thummim.

[Page 149]Those who believed that Joseph Smith’s revelations contained the voice of the Lord speaking to them also accepted the miraculous ways in which the revelations were received. Some of the Prophet Joseph’s earliest revelations came through the same means by which he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. In the stone box containing the gold plates, Joseph found what Book of Mormon prophets referred to as “interpreters,” or a “stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23–24). He described the instrument as “spectacles” and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim (see Exodus 28:30).

He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called “seer stones” because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.46

The idea that there could be more than one Urim and Thummim is not unusual, and we only need to look to the Bible. The Urim and Thummim referred to in the Bible is not the same instrument used by the Nephites or by Joseph Smith. However, the Biblical references to the Urim and Thummim do associate the instrument with a breastplate. Exodus 28:30 states, “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord. Leviticus 8:8, states, “And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim.” From the Church’s official website, lds.org, we learn that the Urim and Thummim was “an ancient [Page 150]instrument or tool prepared by God and used by Joseph Smith to aid in the translation of the Book of Mormon. God provided a Urim and Thummim to His prophets in ancient times (see Exodus 28:30; 1 Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63).

The Urim and Thummim is not a unique instrument: God did not provide the Urim and Thummim, but instead provided a Urim and Thummim. There can be more than one instrument called “Urim and Thummim.”

The Biblical Urim and Thummim was also used to receive revelation, and indicated in 1 Samuel 28:6, “And when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.”

Didn’t Joseph Smith Talk of the Urim and Thummim?

During the latter part of his life, Joseph Smith clearly referred to the instruments used for translation as the Urim and Thummim. Joseph Smith said in the Elders Journal in 1838, “I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates, and thus came the Book of Mormon.”47

A more well known example is the Wentworth Letter, printed in the 1 March 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons. Joseph writes, “With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called ‘Urim and Thummim,’ which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.”48

However, did Joseph use the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the translation instruments during the period that [Page 151]he was translating the Book of Mormon? Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith credits Joseph Smith as saying, “The angel was rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim.”49 It initially appears from this statement that Joseph used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite spectacles at the time he was translating. However, an examination of the endnote for this entry reveals that this text is from Lucy Mack Smith’s 1845 manuscript history of the Prophet’s life, which was written well after the term Urim and Thummim came into general use. Furthermore, upon examining the original text of Lucy’s 1845 manuscript, we note some interesting alterations. The text was originally written by Lucy partially in the third person.

I then continued, Joseph, “my supplications to God without cessation that his mercy might again be exercised towards me and on the 22 of September I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the record into my possession and I have commenced translating and Emma writes for me now but the angel said that if I get the plates again that the Lord would send someone to write for me and I trust that it will be so”—he also said that the angel seemed rejoiced when he gave him back the plates and said that he was pleased with his faithfulness and humility also that the Lord was pleased with him and loved him for his penitence and diligence in prayer in the which he had performed his duty so well as to receive the record and he [was] able to enter upon the work of translation again.50

[Page 152]After strikeouts and word replacements, the complete text reads as if it were written by Joseph himself, with all references to “the plates” and “the record” now replaced with “the Urim and Thummim.”

“I continued,” said Joseph, “my supplications to God without cessation that his mercy might again be exercised towards me and on the 22 of September I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim into my possession and I have commenced translating and Emma writes for me now but the angel said that the Lord would send someone to write for me and I trust that it will be so – he also said that he was rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim and that God was pleased with my faithfulness and humility and loved me for my penitence and diligence in prayer in the which I had performed his duty so well as to receive the Urim and Thummim and was able to enter upon the work of translation again.”51

[Page 153]Since Lucy is the one who originally wrote the text of Joseph’s statement, we have established this reference to the Urim and Thummim as a late second-hand statement. The use of the term to refer to the translation instruments is unsurprising, but its use as a replacement for references to the plates is unusual. By the time Lucy’s history was published in 1853, there was no indication that these “Urim and Thummim” references originally referred to the plates, and it now appeared that Joseph Smith himself had spoken these words.

“After the angel left me,” said he, “I continued my supplications to God, without cessation, and on the twenty-second of September, I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim, with which I have again commenced translating, and Emma writes for me, but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified. The angel seemed pleased with me when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.”52

It was common practice in the nineteenth century to rewrite historical third-person accounts as first-person accounts. Such was also the case with History of the Church.

Oliver Cowdery and the Urim and Thummim

Oliver Cowdery, as Joseph’s scribe during the period of translation that produced the text of the Book of Mormon that we have today, is arguably the best witness of the method used. [Page 154]Some of Oliver’s accounts of the translation process refer to the Urim and Thummim and the Nephite interpreters. For example, in 1834, W.W. Phelps wrote a letter to Oliver Cowdery noting that the translation occurred “through the aid of the ‘Urim and Thummim,’ ‘Nephite Interpreters,’ or Divine Spectacles.”53 Oliver wrote an article in the Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate in which he described the translation process:

These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or record, called “The book of Mormon.”54

The Messenger and Advocate was a Church newspaper, and its audience was primarily members of the Church. It is clear that by 1834, Urim and Thummim was the accepted name within the Church for the instruments used during the translation. There is no distinction being made between Nephite interpreters and seer stone.

After Oliver left the Church, he continued to hold to his testimony of the Book of Mormon, although he no longer believed that Joseph Smith was inspired to lead the Church. There is a well-known quote attributed to Oliver Cowdery circulating on the Internet that is used as evidence that Oliver became skeptical of his role in the translation of the Book of Mormon, and that he specifically mentioned the use of the seer stone as the Urim and Thummim. Oliver is purported to have said the following in 1839:

[Page 155]I have sometimes had seasons of skepticism, in which I did seriously wonder whether the Prophet and I were men in our sober senses, when he would be translating from plates, through “the Urim and Thummim” and the plates not be in sight at all.

But I believed in both the Seer and the “Seer stone,” and what the First Elder announced as revelation from God, I accepted as such, and committed to paper with a glad mind and happy heart and swift pen; for I believed him to be the soul of honor and truth, a young man who would die before he would lie.55

The document containing these statements is known to be a historical forgery, although it was accepted as genuine for many years after it came to light in 1906. The document consists primarily of phrases authored by Oliver Cowdery, which were extracted from several 1834 and 1835 issues of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate and then placed into a different context. The document also utilizes a rephrasing of concepts discussed in David Whitmer’s 1887 An Address to All Believers in Christ.56 Richard Lloyd Anderson explains the origin of this forgery in the April 1987 Ensign.

In 1906 the “mountain evangelist” R. B. Neal, a leader in the American Anti-Mormon Association, published a document with much fanfare but without evidence of the document’s authenticity. Reverend Neal claimed that the publication was a reprint of an 1839 document [Page 156]explaining Oliver Cowdery’s apostasy: Defence in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints. “No more important document has been unearthed since I have been engaged in this warfare,” R. B. Neal asserted. With such convictions, one can be sure that Reverend Neal would have produced evidence to prove that the original actually existed. But all we have is his 1906 first printing, which is silent about why no one had ever heard of the document until a half century after Oliver Cowdery’s death.57

There is another matter involving Oliver Cowdery that we must take into account. We know that at some point during the translation process that Oliver Cowdery desired to translate. His attempt, and subsequent failure to do so, has provided one of the Church’s most well known object lessons. Most members of the Church are likely familiar with the lesson offered in Doctrine and Covenants 9:7–9:

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

The lesson taught is a very powerful one, and defines for Latter-day Saints the manner in which we can receive personal [Page 157]revelation. Elder Richard G. Scott discussed this in the April 2007 General Conference.

Some misunderstandings about prayer can be clarified by realizing that the scriptures define principles for effective prayer, but they do not assure when a response will be given. Actually, He will reply in one of three ways. First, you can feel the peace, comfort, and assurance that confirm that your decision is right. Or second, you can sense that unsettled feeling, the stupor of thought, indicating that your choice is wrong. Or third—and this is the difficult one—you can feel no response.58

Oliver’s failed attempt to translate provided this valuable lesson to generations to come. However, when we consider the translation process itself, do we ever wonder what method Oliver would have employed in his attempt to translate? We know that Oliver was not allowed to view the plates or the Nephite interpreters until he became one of the Three Witnesses. Yet, we typically assume that the process of translation required the use of the Nephite interpreters and a view of the plates. There is a contradiction here: The story of Oliver’s attempt at translation does not fit with the common image of Joseph and Oliver sitting at a table separated by a curtain.

How, then, did Oliver attempt to translate the plates during the period of time prior to being a witness? What translation instrument did Oliver use? Although Oliver’s translation attempt does not fit the scenario in which the Nephite interpreters are employed, it does fit perfectly well with the use of the stone and the hat, with Oliver and Joseph sitting in plain view of one another and the plates covered.

[Page 158]Richard Lloyd Anderson, in an article in the September 1977 Ensign, noted this inconsistency regarding Oliver and the plates.

Oliver Cowdery says, “I . . . handled with my hands the gold plates.” Yet another Witness, David Whitmer, insisted that he had never handled the plates; he only watched as the angel in the vision displayed the plates and other sacred objects. Since Whitmer and Cowdery were together at this impressive vision, one must infer that Cowdery did not handle the plates at that time. Thus a distinction emerges between the key secretary and his witness brother-in-law: at some time during the translation process Oliver Cowdery evidently handled the plates.59

Anderson’s conclusion is that “Oliver Cowdery might well have handled the plates during his translation attempt.”60 This is based upon the common assumption that the use of the Nephite interpreters, as spectacles, required the translator to view the plates directly through them. Anderson assumes that the process involved “the physical art of placing the translating instruments directly over the plates.” Anderson also quotes a second-hand account that he states “explicitly says that the translator placed the Urim and Thummim over the characters on the plates, though it must be judged with great caution.” The account is given by Church member Samuel W. Richards. Richards visited Oliver Cowdery, and described the visit as follows:

“He [Oliver Cowdery] represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he sat beside [Page 159]him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the ‘translators’ over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages.”61

Anderson qualifies the account by noting that “it is doubtful whether Samuel Richards could quote Oliver accurately in 1907, fifty-nine years after their intimate visit. In fact, he continued the above statement by picturing Oliver Cowdery as successfully translating himself, thus learning how Joseph Smith performed that work. But the contemporary revelation to Oliver Cowdery says the opposite (D&C 9), which means that no one besides Joseph Smith knew personally the exact means of translation.”62

This account would also imply that Oliver actually viewed the Nephite translation instrument and the plates prior to acting as one of the Three Witnesses. It seems more reasonable, however, that Oliver may have attempted to translate without having to view the plates, though he could have “handled” the plates while covered.

Did Oliver attempt to translate using Joseph’s seer stone? This is one possibility. Another possibility is that Oliver possessed his own revelatory instrument and attempted to use it to translate. There is such an inference in the original text to Doctrine and Covenants Section 8, which discusses Oliver’s “gift.”63 This is clarified on the Church’s official Church History [Page 160]website, history.lds.org. In the article “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” by Jeffrey G. Cannon, we learn that Oliver possessed a divining rod, which he used to receive revelation.

Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Ex. 7:9–12; Num. 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Cowdery was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.64

Since Oliver had used his divining rod to receive revelation in the past, it is not unreasonable to assume that Oliver may have attempted to use his own revelatory instrument during his attempt to translate. This would satisfy the requirement that he not view the plates or the Nephite interpreters prior to becoming one of the Three Witnesses.
[Page 161]

References to the Urim and Thummim in the Doctrine and Covenants

There are a number of references to the Urim and Thummim in the Doctrine and Covenants. Could any of these be used to determine when the term came into use? The Doctrine and Covenants mentions a number of revelations that were received by Joseph Smith through the Urim and Thummim. D&C 130, which has numerous references, was received in 1843, well after the term was commonly used. Of greater interest are D&C Sections 10 and 17, which were received during the time that translation was in progress.

Doctrine and Covenants 10 was received in the summer of 1828. Upon reading verse 1, it initially appears that the term Urim and Thummim was used at the time that the revelation was received.

Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.

However, the term Urim and Thummim was added in 1835 when the revelation was included in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The same revelation in the 1833 Book of Commandments does not refer to the instrument used for translation. “Now, behold I say unto you, that because you have delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.”

More intriguing is D&C 17, which was received in June 1829 “through the Urim and Thummim.” Verse 1 informs the Three Witnesses that “you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the [Page 162]miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the red sea.”

Not only are the translation instruments a key subject of the revelation, but the term Urim and Thummim is directly associated with the Nephite interpreters, “which were given to the brother of Jared.” The original text of Section 17 was not part of the Book of Commandments, and was initially printed as Section 42 in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.65 The original text of this revelation can be found in “Revelation, June 1829–E [D&C 17],” Joseph Smith Papers.

Behold I say unto you that you must rely upon my word which if you do with full purpose of heart you shall have a view of the plate and also the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thumim which was given to the brother of Jared upon the mount when he talked with the Lord face to face and the marvelous directors which was given to Lehi while in the wilderness on the borders of the red sea.66

The Historical Introduction to this section in JSP states that “Revelation Book 2 contains the earliest extant copy of this revelation. Undated, it apparently was copied sometime after 25 November 1834 by scribe Frederick G. Williams. No earlier [Page 163]copy is extant. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and later accounts give the date as June 1829.” If the actual date upon which this revelation was committed to paper was in 1829, this would establish that the term Urim and Thummim was associated with the Nephite interpreters during the period that translation was in progress. Unfortunately, the written version of this revelation cannot be dated earlier than 1834.

The Stone and the Hat

Prior to the appearance of the angel Moroni, Joseph possessed several stones that he used for the purpose of locating things, the most well known use being the location of lost objects or buried treasure. This was not as unusual of an activity at that time as it would appear to be from our modern perspective. In 1825 the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra reported that buried treasure had been found “by the help of a mineral stone, (which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it).”67 Regarding the Smith family and treasure seeking, Latter-day Saint scholar Richard Bushman notes,

So that once you spread out this process so that Joseph Smith is not a peculiarly weird version of treasure seeking but that it was widely practiced suddenly it was no longer a blot on his character or his family’s character. It was no more scandalous than say gambling–playing poker today. A little bit discredited and slightly morally disreputable but not really evil; and when it was found that all sorts of treasure seekers were also serious Christians, why not the Smith’s too? So instead of being a puzzle or a contradiction it was just one aspect [Page 164]of the Smith family culture and not really anything to be worried about.68

It makes logical sense that the Lord would choose to approach someone who would readily accept the idea that one could “see” using a stone. Joseph already believed that the stone could be used to “see” things, and the transition from using the stone to receive information to a means of receiving revelation from God would have been straightforward. Recall that to Joseph, the spectacles that he received from Moroni were simply a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed the treasure-seeking culture of that time, noting that “it was indulged in by upright and religious men such as Josiah Stowel[l],” who employed Joseph Smith “at fourteen dollars a month, in part because of the crushing poverty of the Smith family.”69

The Church’s Student Manual tells us that “Joseph and his brothers hired out by the day at whatever work was available. Treasure hunting, or ‘money digging,’ as it was then called, was popular in the United States at this time. In October 1825, Josiah Stowell, from South Bainbridge, New York, a farmer, lumber mill owner, and deacon in the Presbyterian church, came to ask Joseph to help him in such a venture.”70 The Prophet’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, noted that “after laboring for the old gentleman about a month, without success, Joseph [Page 165]prevailed upon him to cease his operations.”71 In March of the next year, several of Stowell’s relatives felt that Joseph had been defrauding Stowell, and brought charges against him. Joseph was taken before a judge and charged with “glasslooking.” In fact, the June 1994 Ensign noted Joseph’s trial and acquittal for “glasslooking” as one of the “highlights in the Prophet’s life.”

Highlights in the Prophet’s Life 20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.72

Brant Gardner clarifies the role that Joseph and his stone played within the community of Palmyra:

Young Joseph Smith was a member of a specialized sub-community with ties to these very old and very respected practices, though by the early 1800s they were respected only by a marginalized segment of society. [Page 166]He exhibited a talent parallel to others in similar communities. Even in Palmyra he was not unique. In D. Michael Quinn’s words: “Until the Book of Mormon thrust young Smith into prominence, Palmyra’s most notable seer was Sally Chase, who used a greenish-colored stone. William Stafford also had a seer stone, and Joshua Stafford had a ‘peepstone’ which looked like white marble and had a hole through the center.” Richard Bushman adds Chauncy Hart, and an unnamed man in Susquehanna County, both of whom had stones with which they found lost objects.73

The August 1987 Ensign relates how Brigham Young talked of Joseph obtaining his first seer stone “by digging ‘15 feet underground’ after seeing it first in another seer stone.”74 This occurred while Joseph was digging a well in the company of Willard Chase, who was himself a treasure seeker. Chase’s own account of the event noted that “after digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.”75 Joseph ultimately [Page 167]ended up keeping the stone, and it is this stone that he may have used during translation. Chase’s statement, made several years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, asserted that he was the rightful owner of the stone, claiming to have only lent it to Joseph.

Prior to receiving the plates, Joseph used the stone to “see” things as a seer. In 1835, Oliver Cowdery described how the angel Moroni revealed the location of the golden plates to Joseph Smith, stating that “the vision of his mind being opened at the same time, he was permitted to view it critically; and previously being acquainted with the place, he was able to follow the direction of the vision, afterward, according to the voice of the angel, and obtain the book.”76 At the time of Moroni’s visit, Joseph was well acquainted with the use of the seer stone to “see” things. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Joseph looked into his stone in order to see the vision of the hill in which the plates were hidden after receiving Moroni’s instructions regarding their location. One such account supporting this idea was given by Henry Harris in 1833, in which he stated, “I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. He said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit.”77

Joseph Knight also recounts that Joseph used the stone to identify his future wife Emma as being the person who should accompany him to retrieve the plates, noting that Joseph [Page 168]“looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, Daughter of old Mr. Hale of Pennsylvania, a girl that he had seen before.”78

The Spectacles, the Stone and the Curtain

The image of Joseph translating using the stone and the hat does not match the picture that we typically have in our mind of Joseph looking at the plates through a pair of “spectacles,” while sitting behind a curtain. However, the use of the stone and the hat provides a distinct advantage in bolstering the claim that Joseph received the Book of Mormon text through revelation. The absence of a curtain during the latter part of the translation, during which the entire text of the Book of Mormon that we now have was produced, substantially weakens the critical argument that Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon by plagiarizing a number of other works. Instead of having Joseph obscured by a curtain or blanket, which could have hidden any number of reference materials, Joseph sat in the open, dictating the text of the Book of Mormon to Oliver while looking at the interpreter placed in his hat. Now, instead of “Joseph the plagiarist,” those wishing to provide an alternate explanation of the translation must assert “Joseph the plagiarist who has a photographic memory.” This is of particular value with respect the biblical passages contained within the Book of Mormon, which duplicate the textual structure of the King James Version. Joseph was never seen consulting a Bible as he dictated the text of the Book of Mormon. One must either assume that he consulted a Bible out of view of others and memorized the text, or accept the claim that the text was revealed to him as he dictated it.

[Page 169]That having been said, there is ample evidence that a curtain or sheet of some kind was used during the early period of translation. Martin Harris is quoted as saying as much in an 1831 issue of the Palmyra Reflector. According to the Reflector, “Harris declares, that when he acted as amanuenses, and wrote the translation, as Smith dictated, such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself.”79 This would correspond to the early period of the translation during which Harris acted as scribe, prior to the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript.

The use of the curtain to screen the translator from the scribe certainly makes sense if the translation instruments being employed are the Nephite interpreters. Critic Eber D. Howe in his 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed notes that Harris mentions the use of a “screen.”

[Martin Harris] says he wrote a considerable part of the book, as Smith dictated, and at one time the presence of the Lord was so great, that a screen was hung up between him and the Prophet; at other times the Prophet would sit in a different room, or up stairs, while the Lord was communicating to him the contents of the plates. He does not pretend that he ever saw the wonderful plates but once, although he and Smith were engaged for months in deciphering their contents.80

The claim that Harris said that he saw the plates “but once” is quite consistent with the stage of the translation process during which a curtain was employed. Harris only saw them once when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses. It is apparent that during the initial stage of the translation process the sacred objects were required to be hidden from view of others. Charles [Page 170]Anthon, whose only knowledge of the process was relayed to him during a visit by Martin Harris, states,

This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those who stood on the outside. Not a word, however, was said about the plates having been decyphered “by the gift of God:” Every thing, in this way, was effected by the large pair of spectacles.81

John A. Clark, in a 1834 book chapter criticizing Mormonism, also associates the use of the curtain with the period during which Harris acted as scribe.

The way that Smith made his transcripts and translations for Harris was the following; Although in the same room, a thick curtain or blanket was suspended between them, and Smith concealed behind the blanket, pretend to look through his spectacles, or transparent stones, and would then write down or repeat what he saw, which, when repeated aloud, was written down by Harris, who sat on the other side of the suspended blanket.82

Clark’s mention of “transcripts” would make sense with the use of a curtain, since it is known that Joseph copied characters [Page 171]off the plates, and would have needed to shield them from view at that time.

Another hostile account published ten years later in 1844 notes that “The ‘prophet,’ as he is now called, took care, of course, that neither of them, nor any one else, should see the plates, the part of the room he occupied having been partitioned off from where they sat by a blanket.”83

Pomeroy Tucker, a friend of Martin Harris who later became skeptical of Harris’s involvement with Mormonism, claims that Joseph dictated “from behind a blanket-screen drawn across a dark corner of a room at his residence-for at this time the original revelation, limiting to the prophet the right of seeing the sacred plates, had not yet been changed, and the view with the instrument used was even too brilliant for his own spiritualized eyes in the light!”84 Since Tucker never observed the process of translation, it is likely that he heard this story from Martin Harris himself.

So far, all of the accounts describing the use of a curtain appear to have originated with Martin Harris. However, during an interview for the Chicago Tribune in 1885, Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer also mentioned the use of a curtain, although this particular account contains some obvious inaccuracies.

[Joseph] Smith [Jr.], also said that he had been commanded to at once begin the translation of the work in the presence of three witnesses. In accordance with this command, Smith, Cowdery, and Whitmer proceeded to the latter’s home, accompanied by Smith’s [Page 172]wife, and bearing with them the precious plates and spectacles. The house of senior Whitmer was a primitive and poorly designed structure, but it was deemed the most secure for the carrying out the sacred trust on account of the threats that had been made against Smith by his mercenary neighbors. In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portiere was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eye of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time concealed from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides.85

There are elements of this account that make it appear that the interviewer has mixed various aspects of the translation process. For example, it was not required that Joseph perform the translation in the presence of three witnesses—this is obviously a reference to the Three Witnesses. However, it is interesting to note that the interviewer states that Whitmer actually made an effort to specify that a blanket was used only to shield the translation process from others who might stop by. This may indicate that a curtain was used in a different manner in the Whitmer home than it was during Martin Harris’s tenure as scribe. Whitmer is then said to describe the actual translation process.

[Page 173]Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After the prayer Smith would sit on one side of the table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time.86

In this instance, Whitmer seems to indicate the use of the Nephite interpreters in full view of others. Since Whitmer would not have been allowed to view the spectacles or the plates prior to being one of the Three Witnesses, this account does not correlate with other accounts, even those other accounts coming from Whitmer himself. It is possible that Whitmer described both aspects of the early translation using the spectacles and blanket as well as the later situation in which Joseph placed the translation instrument into his hat and dictated in full view of others. The interviewer may not have distinguished the various elements present during different periods of translation, and may have simply conflated these different elements into the single story that was produced.

By the time that the translation resumed after the loss of the 116 pages, the translation method appears to have changed substantially. Even if a blanket or curtain was used in the Whitmer home for any period of time, it appears to have quickly disappeared. The translation of the entire text of the Book of Mormon that we now have took place primarily at David Whitmer’s home. Not only is the use of a curtain not apparent, but there is an actual denial that it was used in the process. David Whitmer’s sister Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery stated,

[Page 174]I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him.87

Elizabeth asserts that the translation at the Whitmer home was performed using the translation instrument in the hat, thus eliminating any need for a curtain to shield the Nephite interpreters and the plates from view. Even the anomalous account reported to have come from David Whitmer regarding the use of a curtain at his home includes the claim that the translation occurred in the open, where anyone could observe it. The fact that Elizabeth felt the need to make such a statement at all strongly implies that there was still a story in circulation among the Latter-day Saints that a curtain was used in the translation process. In 1887, David Whitmer, who two years earlier in the 1885 Chicago Tribune interview asserted the use of the Nephite interpreters and curtain, now also described the translation method using the stone and the hat.

I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. [Page 175]One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.88

What Instrument Did Joseph Use to Translate the Book of Mormon?

In 1886, David Whitmer indicates that Joseph used his own seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text. In this interview, Whitmer indicates that the spectacles were never returned after the loss of the 116 pages and that a seer stone was made available to Joseph Smith for the purpose of continuing the translation; however, there is no way to confirm that this was actually the case.

What eventually happened to Joseph’s seer stone? According to David Whitmer, “After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished early in the spring of 1830 before April 6th, Joseph gave the Stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone anymore.”89 The stone ultimately made its way to Utah. At one point, the stone was present at the Manti Temple dedication. Wilford Woodruff wrote about this event in his journal: “Before leaving I Consecrated upon the Altar the seers Stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 [Page 176]feet under the Earth Carried By him through life.”90 In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith commented that “the statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is currently in the possession of the Church.”91 This means that the instrument by means of which the Book of Mormon may have been all or partially translated is currently still in the possession of the Church, as opposed to the “original” Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters), which were returned to the angel Moroni at some point during or after the translation.

References to the stone being used during the Book of Mormon translation are not confined to the nineteenth century. We have already seen a reference to the stone in the September 1974 Friend and Elder Russell M. Nelson’s quote of David Whitmer’s description of the stone and the hat in the July 1993 Ensign. These are not the only instances. Elder Neal A. Maxwell quoted Martin Harris in the January 1997 Ensign, noting that “Martin Harris related of the seer stone: ‘Sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin.’”92 In 1988, Elder Maxwell also referred to “the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon.”93 In the January 1988 Ensign, Church Educational System area director Kenneth Godfrey mentioned that “translation involved sight, power, [Page 177]transcription of the characters, the Urim and Thummim or a seerstone, study, and prayer.”94 Brigham Young University professor Richard Lloyd Anderson, in the September 1977 Ensign, quotes David Whitmer’s statement that “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light.”95

Elder Dallin H. Oaks clarified that “it should be recognized that such tools as the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, seerstones, and other articles have been used appropriately in biblical, Book of Mormon, and modern times by those who have the gift and authority to obtain revelation from God in connection with their use.”96

Early Church members knew that Joseph received revelation through the Urim and Thummim, which could have been either the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone. Doctrine and Covenants28 states that “Hiram Page, a member of the Church, had a certain stone and professed to be receiving revelations by its aid concerning the upbuilding of Zion and the order of the Church. Several members had been deceived by these claims, and even Oliver Cowdery was wrongly influenced thereby.”97 The fact that Oliver “was wrongly influenced thereby” clearly indicates that Oliver was quite aware that the Urim and Thummim was not limited to a single instrument. The resolution of this situation involved the Lord clarifying that, “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he [Page 178]receiveth them even as Moses” (D&C 28:2). Page’s stone was destroyed and any revelations that he received through it were disavowed. The problem was not the fact that Hiram Page was using a stone other than Joseph’s Urim and Thummim to receive revelation, but rather the fact that he was not authorized to receive revelation on behalf of the Church.

The Stone and the Hat Become Buried in History

We already know that Joseph Smith was reluctant to describe the translation process in detail. Brigham Young University professor Stephen Ricks feels that Joseph’s “reticence was probably well justified and may have been due to the inordinate interest which some of the early Saints had shown in the seer stone or to the negative and sometimes bitter reactions he encountered when he had reported some of his sacred experiences to others.”98 Thus, Joseph never discussed the details regarding which translation instrument he used to both translate the Book of Mormon and to receive revelation. Joseph simply told people that he received his early revelations through the “Urim and Thummim.”

During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to “gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon.”99 Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.100

[Page 179]As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that “the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them.”101 In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that “it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God.”102 Kirkham goes on to say that, “After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method.”103 Despite the fact that elements of Harris’s and Whitmer’s story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth.

[Page 180]In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone, but did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon.

SEER STONE NOT USED IN BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION. We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were returned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of translations by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors.104

Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity. In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous.

During the twentieth century, the story of Joseph translating behind a curtain while employing the Nephite interpreters as the Urim and Thummim remained firmly established and generally uncontested among the general Church membership. Latter-day Saint scholars, however, continued to research the stories of Joseph’s use of the seer stone. Such references never made it into the general Church curriculum or the awareness of the general Church membership. If you were a scholar, then you knew that Joseph used a seer stone. If you were a regular Church member, then you knew that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters. Discussions of Joseph’s use of “seer stones” or the practice of “treasure seeking” remained primarily in the realm of LDS scholars. During the tenure of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, from 1972 and 1982, some attempts were made to make certain elements of Latter-day Saint history more accessible to the average member. One 1976 book [Page 181]produced during this period, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, noted in a straightforward manner Joseph’s acquisition of his seer stone and its use in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Sometime around 1822, before his first visit from the angel Moroni, Joseph was digging a well with Willard Chase, not far from the Smith home, and he discovered a smooth, dark-colored stone, about the size of an egg, that he called a seerstone. He later used it to help in the translation of the Book of Mormon and also in receiving certain revelations.105

The visibility of these issues among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church’s founding events.

Mark Hofmann was a member of the Church who became involved with the acquisition and sale of historic documents during the early 1980s. He seemed to have a knack for acquiring missing documents that were alluded to by other documents related to Church history. For example, Hofmann claimed to have located a blessing in which Joseph Smith III was allegedly promised that he would be the next prophet of the Church. Hofmann also produced what he claimed was the Anthon transcript, which matched a description of the document provided by Charles Anthon himself. The most famous document in the collection of Hofmann forgeries was the Salamander Letter, which was purportedly written by Martin Harris. Hofmann’s documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for [Page 182]a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the “magical” aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.106

Some of Hofmann’s documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents.107 Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph’s early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. Elder Dallin Oaks emphasized that this in no way diminished Joseph’s standing as the Prophet of the Restoration.

Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. [Page 183]Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.108

The Translation Process Was Spiritual, Not Mechanical

The translation of the Book of Mormon was a spiritual process, not a mechanical one. The interaction of seer with seer stone is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it is not the most important aspect of the process. It should be kept in mind that Joseph chose to emphasize that the most important aspect of the translation was that it was accomplished by the gift and power of God. The precise means by which God accomplished that purpose are primarily of historical interest, and are not required to build faith. Joseph initially received revelation through the Urim and Thummim (either the spectacles or the stone), but eventually learned that he did not need a physical aid in order to act in the capacity of prophet and seer. One of the important lessons taught to Joseph during this process is that the use of these instruments required faith and humility, in order for Joseph to know the Lord’s will. David Whitmer describes this.

At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate, he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on the earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very [Page 184]strict the Lord is, and how He requires the heart of man to be just right in His sight, before he can receive revelation from Him.109

Joseph eventually realized that his ability to communicate with the Lord was not dependent upon a sacred object, but was instead a function of his faith and humility. He spiritually outgrew the need to use the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone, thereby setting the pattern by which every person has the promise of receiving personal revelation. The objects used to guide him to this realization eventually became unimportant in light of the greater lesson learned.

Viewing the Translation Process from a Twenty-First Century Perspective

It is still desirable to reconcile the various accounts of the translation in order to understand how some have viewed various aspects of the process as contradictory. From this believer’s perspective, the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon and the subsequent emphasis and de-emphasis of its various elements appears to have taken the following course:

  • Joseph Smith received the plates and the Nephite interpreters from the Angel Moroni.
  • Joseph began the process of translation using the Nephite interpreters, with Martin Harris as scribe. A curtain separated the translator from the scribe, thus shielding the plates and the Nephite interpreters from view.
  • Joseph may have placed the Nephite interpreters in a hat in order to shield them from the light, in accordance with the method that he used when utilizing his own seer stone.
  • [Page 185]At times, Joseph may have switched to using his own seer stone, placing it in the hat. On one such occasion, Martin swapped the stones, which he would never have dared to do had Joseph been using the Nephite instrument.
  • Upon completion of and subsequent loss of the 116 pages of manuscript, the Angel Moroni took back the plates and the Nephite interpreters.
  • After a sufficient time of repentance, the plates were returned to Joseph, along with the Nephite interpreters.
  • Joseph began translating using either the Nephite interpreters or his seer stone, either of which may have been placed in the hat. The witnesses would not necessarily have been able to determine which instrument he was using, although Martin Harris’s swapping of the stone to test Joseph indicates that the stone was used at some point. This translation process occurred in plain view of those around Joseph, including his scribe Oliver Cowdery. There was no curtain present during this period of the translation process.
  • The translation process using the stone and the hat was observed directly by David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith, who shared their observations with interviewers many years later near the end of their lives.
  • As early as three years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, the term Urim and Thummim became applied to both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone. In the minds of the early Saints, they were essentially the same instrument used for the same purpose.
  • The term Urim and Thummim subsequently became understood as representing the Nephite interpreters exclusively, and the use of the seer stone and the hat became pushed back in history. The lack of a need to use a [Page 186]curtain to shield the translator from the scribe likewise became buried in history. The translation process became represented within Church literature and artwork by its earliest iteration: Nephite interpreters and plates shielded from the scribe by a curtain.
  • During much of the twentieth century, reports that the stone and the hat had been employed during the translation were dismissed with skepticism.
  • Partially as a result of the Mark Hofmann forgeries, new publications brought documents related to the use of the stone and the hat back into the public eye.
  • With the advent of the Internet, numerous documents related to the translation process became easily accessible to the general Church membership, once again highlighting the use of the stone and the hat. References to these items entered the popular media. The presence of this information made it appear that the story that we are familiar with in Church is contradicted by that provided by witnesses such as Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith.
  • The Church initiated efforts to make early documents such as the Joseph Smith Papers easily accessible, further supporting these early accounts.

The apparent contradictions between accounts of the translation are not actually contradictions at all, and are primarily the result of certain elements of the translation process being de-emphasized, or even denied at various points during the last century and a half. The use of the Nephite interpreters as Urim and Thummin, the use of the seer stone as Urim and Thummim, and the use of the hat with both instruments, as well as the appearance and disappearance of the curtain, all fit into the translation scenario at various stages of the process.
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Conclusion

The average member now has access to an abundance of information regarding the Book of Mormon translation process. The Internet has allowed hundreds of documents to be made available to anyone interested in viewing them, rather than restricting them to just scholars who take the time to access the archives. The Joseph Smith Papers project is a significant boon to historians and researchers who wish to view and examine the original documents associated with the restoration. One significant new product of this effort is the Church History website history.lds.org, which hosts Revelations in Context.110 On this site, the Church provides unprecedented detail regarding the production and evolution of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

With regard to the specific procedures involved in the translation, Brant A. Gardner’s 2011 book The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon provides a detailed analysis of the process.

The use of the seer stone should be of no particular surprise or concern to any Latter-day Saint who accepts that Joseph received a set of sacred stones that were consecrated for the purpose of receiving revelation and translation. After all, what precisely is the difference between using one seer stone versus another? One can assume that Joseph continued to use the Nephite interpreters, since they were the instrument that was consecrated specifically for the purpose of translation. However, it is entirely reasonable to assume that God could consecrate any other instrument that He wished to serve that purpose as well.

It is clear from the contemporary accounts that the object placed within the hat could either be the spectacles or the seer [Page 188]stone. Both were classified by the early Latter-day Saints as “Urim and Thummim.” It is therefore safe to say that, regardless of which actual instrument Joseph was using at any particular point in time, he did indeed translate the entire Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummim.

The primary issue that seems to concern some is the idea that Joseph translated in the open, in full view of others, by placing the instrument of translation in a hat and dictating text without looking directly at the plates. Why would the Lord allow Joseph to alter the method used to translate? The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon contains over 580 pages, which were dictated without repetition at a rate of seven to eleven-and-a-half pages per day.111 This is a significant accomplishment, regardless of the precise method used during the translation. A reasonable conclusion is that by allowing Joseph to dictate the entire Book of Mormon text in full view of witnesses without the process being obscured in any way, it significantly strengthens the position that Joseph was indeed receiving revelation rather than consulting other materials.

Finally, what of the plates themselves? If Joseph was not actually required to look at them directly during translation, then what was their purpose? Recall that the Urim and Thummim was a revelatory instrument. This means that rather than “translating” the plates in the traditional sense, Joseph received revelation that inspired him with an understanding of what was written there. He then expressed these concepts during dictation using his own language.112 The Book of Mormon, therefore, constitutes Joseph’s greatest and longest revelation. [Page 189]The plates did serve an important purpose, however. The Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses confirmed that the Nephite record actually existed and testified of this to the world, even after some of them left the Church. The witnesses’ testimony has endured against all attempts to discredit them. The fact that the plates actually existed, and that Joseph had to exert great effort to recover and protect them, helped shape the Prophet’s character during these crucial early years. And, the existence of a set of literal plates made it crystal clear that Joseph’s account was a real history: a genuine ancient people had learned of Christ, and had actually seen the Risen Lord. Joseph’s revelation was no romantic novel, nor was it pious make-believe.

An examination of the translation method in light of the information now available should not be used as a foundation for faith, nor should it contribute to the destruction of one’s faith. It is simply history, and as such provides a richer and more in-depth understanding of what actually happened, as well as filling in some of the gaps that are apparent in the story that we know. Elder Neal A. Maxwell offers some wise advice against becoming too focused on the mechanics of, rather than the results of, the translation.

We are looking beyond the mark today, for example, if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma’s words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark.113

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  1. John Quincy Adams, The Birth of Mormonism (Boston: Gorham Press, 1916), 36. 

  2. South Park Season 7, Episode 12, “All About Mormons” originally broadcast on 19 November 2003. http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s07e12-all-about-mormons

  3. Wikipedia article “Seer Stone (Latter Day Saints).” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seer_stone_(Latter_Day_Saints)

  4. For example, the illustrated Book of Mormon Stories (1978) shows Joseph and a scribe separated by a curtain. Joseph is looking directly at the plates without using a translating instrument. The Book of Mormon Reader (1985) and Book of Mormon Stories (1997) both replace this scene with one of Joseph and his scribe sitting at a table in the open, with the plates clearly in view. No attempt by the artist is made to depict the Urim and Thummim. There exists one image that may be found on the Internet which depicts Joseph Smith using the breastplate and spectacles, which is claimed to be from a “1970s” edition of the Book of Mormon Reader. A collection of images representative of the various ways the translation process has been depicted may be viewed on Blair Hodges’ Life on Gold Plates blog, “The ‘Stone-In-Hat’ Translation Method in Art,” posted on October 27, 2009. http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/10/stone-in-hat-translation-method-in-art.html

  5. Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 58. 

  6. Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 8. 

  7. Church History in the Fulness of Times, 58. 

  8. “Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879,” in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:541. 

  9. David Whitmer, quoted by Zenas H. Gurley, cited in Richard van Wagoner and Steven Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing’,” Dialogue 15/2 (Summer 1982), 54. 

  10. Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1993/07/a-treasured-testament

  11. “A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, September 1974, 7. http://www.lds.org/friend/1974/09/a-peaceful-heart

  12. “Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859,” in Early Mormon Documents, 2:305. 

  13. “Golden Bible,” Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph (New York, 31 August 1829). Reprinted from Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/BOMP/id/176

  14. “Golden Bible,” The Gem: A Semi-Monthly Literary and Miscellaneous Journal (Rochester, New York: 5 September 1829), 70. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/BOMP/id/161

  15. C. C. Blatchley, “Caution Against the Golden Bible,” New-York Telescope 6/38 (20 February 1830), 150. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/BOMP/id/4211

  16. Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio Phoenix, June 2, 1830. Reprinted from Wayne County Inquirer, Pennsylvania, ca. May 1830. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/BOMP/id/201

  17. Daily Albany Argus VI/1866, Oct. 15, 1831. http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NY/miscNYSe.htm#040931

  18. Morning Star VII/45, March 7, 1833. http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/NE/miscMe01.htm#030733

  19. “Mormonism,” Protestant Sentinel (Schenectady, New York) n.s. 5/1 (4 June 1834): 4–5. Reprinted from New England Review, ca. May 1834. 

  20. “Mormonism,” New York Weekly Messenger and Young Men’s Advocate (29 April 1835). Reprinted from The Pioneer (Rock Springs, IL), March 1835. 

  21. “William Smith, On Mormonism, 1883,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:497. 

  22. “Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835–1847,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4, 17–18. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized for readability. Original spelling is as follows: “Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes than he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it[.] Then <that would go away> the next sentance would Come and so on But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite[,] so we see it was marvelous[.] thus was the hol [whole] translated. ” One item of interest here is Joseph Knight’s use of the term Urim and Thummim to describe the “glasses.” The question is whether Knight’s account was recorded in 1827, or whether it was recorded after 1833, when the term Urim and Thummim was in common usage. According to Dean Jessee, Knight’s account is “undated and unsigned,” with the words “22 Sept. 1827″ being “inserted by Thomas Bullock, a church clerk from 1843 to 1847.” Knight’s account, therefore, cannot be used to establish with any certainty that the term Urim and Thummim was applied to the Nephite interpreters (the glasses) in 1827. See Dean Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17/1 (1976), 2. 

  23. W. W. Phelps, The Evening and The Morning Star, 1/8 (January 1833), 57. 

  24. The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, 26/22 (15 November 1879). 

  25. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Revised and Enlarged (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 174–75. 

  26. Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 175. 

  27. “Truman Coe Account, 1836,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:47. Originally printed in Ohio Observer (Hudson, Ohio), 11 August 1836. 

  28. Gardner, The Gift and the Power, 7. 

  29. A Letter to Those Who Have Attended Mormonite Preaching (London: J. B. Bateman, 1840), 1–4. 

  30. “William Smith interview by J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender, 1890,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:508. 

  31. “A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, September 1974, 7. http://www.lds.org/friend/1974/09/a-peaceful-heart

  32. Deseret News, 28 December 1881. 

  33. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, January 1988. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/01/a-new-prophet-and-a-new-scripture-the-coming-forth-of-the-book-of-mormon

  34. “Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:532. Text has been formatted for readability. Original text is as follows: “Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.” 

  35. The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald 26/22 (15 November 1879). http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#111579

  36. Zenas H. Gurley, quoting “Dr. Robinson,” Source: Zenas H. Gurley, “The Book of Mormon,” Autumn Leaves 5 (1892): 451-54, located on the Book of Abraham Project. http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/BOM-Witn.html

  37. “Mormon Relics,” The Sunday Inter-Ocean, Vol. 15, No. 207 (Chicago, Illinois, 17 Oct. 1886). Also Saints’ Herald 33 (13 November 1886): 706, cited in Van Wagoner and Walker, “The Gift of Seeing,” 53–54. 

  38. Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold (American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2003), 167. 

  39. Brown, Plates of Gold, 167. 

  40. “Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835-1847,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4:15. Spelling has been modernized and formatted for readability. Original spelling and formatting is as follows: “After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he set his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says well I am Dissop[o]inted. well, say I[,] I am sorrey[.] Well, says he[,] I am grateley Dissop[o]inted, it is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates[,] and[,] said he[,] they appear to be Gold But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummem then [than] he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[.] They are Marvelus[.] Now they are written in Caracters and I want them translated[.]” 

  41. Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–26. 

  42. “William Smith interview by J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender, 1890,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:508. 

  43. “Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, 17 February 1834,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4:378. 

  44. John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (1839), 12. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/fullbrowser/collection/BOMP/id/4577/rv/compoundobject/cpd/4592

  45. B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:257.  

  46. Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Great and Marvelous Are the Revelations of God,” Ensign, January 2013, 45–46. http://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/01/great-and-marvelous-are-the-revelations-of-god

  47. Elder’s Journal, July 1838, 1:43. 

  48. “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 March 1842. Also found in “The Wentworth Letter,” By Joseph Smith Jr. (1805–44), Ensign, July 2002. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2002/07/the-wentworth-letter

  49. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007), 71. Quoted by Lucy Mack Smith, “The History of Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet,” 1844–1845 manuscript, book 7, p. 11, Church Archives. 

  50. “Lucy Smith History, 1845,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:370–71. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized for readability. Original spelling, strikeouts and additions noted by editor Vogel are as follows: I then continued[,] <said> Joseph[,] my supplications to God without cessation that his mercy might again be exercised towards me and on the 22 of September I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the record <urim and Thummin> into my possession and I have commenced translating and Emma writes for me now but the angel said that if I get the plates again that the Lord woul[d] send some one to write for me and I trust that it will be so-he also said that the ange<l> <he> seemed <was> rejoiced when he gave him <me> back the plates <urim and Thummin> and said that he <God> was pleased with his <my > faithfulness and humility also that the Lord was pleased with him and loved him <me> for his <my> penitence and diligence in prayer in the which he <I> had performed his duty so well as to receive the record <urim and Thummin> and he <was> able to enter upon the work of translation again. 

  51. “Lucy Smith History, 1845.” Original spelling, strikeouts and additions noted by editor Vogel are as follows: I then continued[,] <said> Joseph[,] my supplications to God without cessation that his mercy might again be exercised towards me and on the 22 of September I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the record <urim and Thummin> into my possession and I have commenced translating and Emma writes for me now but the angel said that if I get the plates again that the Lord woul[d] send some one to write for me and I trust that it will be so-he also said that the ange<l> <he> seemed <was> rejoiced when he gave him <me> back the plates <urim and Thummin> and said that he <God> was pleased with his <my > faithfulness and humility also that the Lord was pleased with him and loved him <me> for his <my> penitence and diligence in prayer in the which he <I> had performed his duty so well as to receive the record <urim and Thummin> and he <was> able to enter upon the work of translation again. 

  52. “Lucy Smith History, 1845,” 370–71. 

  53. W. W. Phelps, “Letter No. 4,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1/5 (Feb. 1835), 65. http://en.fairmormon.org/Messenger_and_Advocate/1/5

  54. Oliver Cowdery, Latter Day Saint’s Messenger and Advocate 1/14. Emphasis in original. http://en.fairmormon.org/Messenger_and_Advocate/1/1

  55. Oliver Cowdery, Defence in a rehearsal of my grounds for separating myself from the Latter Day Saints, (1839), 5. This document is a historical forgery. http://books.google.com/books?id=imVVAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

  56. The Cowdery phrases were extracted from the Messenger and Advocate 1/1; 2/1; 1/ 5; 1/7 and 1/10 . Whitmer material was taken from An Address to All Believers in Christ, 27, 31, 35, 42, 45, 61, 62, and 95. 

  57. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, April 1987. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/04/i-have-a-question

  58. Richard G. Scott, “Using the Supernal Gift of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2007. http://www.lds.org/ensign/2007/05/using-the-supernal-gift-of-prayer

  59. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God’,” Ensign, September 1977, 79. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/09/by-the-gift-and-power-of-god

  60. Anderson, “By the Gift and Power,” 79. 

  61. Personal Statement of S. W. Richards, 25 May 1907, at Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, Special Collections, quoted in Anderson, “By the Gift and Power,” 79. 

  62. Anderson, “By the Gift and Power,” 79. 

  63. It was a common practice for Joseph to edit and supervise others in editing the wording of revelations. The Church has recently published the original text of the revelation comprising D&C Section 8, in which the Lord tells Oliver, “[R]emember this is thy gift now this is not all for thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout Behold it hath told you things Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands.” Revelation, April 1829–B [D&C 8], in Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Stephen C. Harper, eds., Manuscript Revelation Books, vol. 1 of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), 17. The phrases found in the Revelation book “working with the sprout” and “thing of Nature to work in your hands” were first edited by Sidney Rigdon, and subsequently by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Frederick G. Williams for inclusion in the Book of Commandments to read “working with the rod” and “rod of nature, to work in your hands.” This wording has led some to speculate that Oliver possessed his own revelatory instrument and that he used it during his attempt to translate. In preparation for the publication of this revelation as part of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, these phrases were ultimately edited to read “gift of Aaron” and “gift of Aaron to be with you.” 

  64. Jeffery G. Cannon, “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” Revelations in Context (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 15 December 2012). https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-oliver-cowdery

  65. Doctrine and Covenants, 1835. P. 171. Joseph Smith Papers, Church Historians Press. http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/doctrine-and-covenants-1835#179

  66. Revelation, June 1829-E [D&C 17], located on the Joseph Smith Papers website. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized and strikeouts and insertion marks have been removed for readability. The original text reads as follows: “Behold I say unto you that you must rely upon my word which if you do with full purpose of heart you shall have a view of the plate and also the brestplate the sword <of Laban the> Urim, and Thumim of Laban the Urim and Thumim <which was> given to the brother of Jared upon the mount when he talked with the Lord face to face and the marveelus directors which was given to Lehi while in the wilderness on the borders of the red sea . . .” http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-june-1829%e2%80%93e-dc-17

  67. “Wonderful Discovery,” Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, New York (27 December 1825). 

  68. Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith Miscellany” (Mesa, Arizona: FAIR, 2005 FAIR Conference). http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2005-fair-conference/2005-a-joseph-smith-miscellany

  69. Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign, October 1987, 63. The name “Stowel” is sometimes spelled as “Stowell” or “Stoal.” http://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/10/recent-events-involving-church-history-and-forged-documents

  70. Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 42. 

  71. Lucy Mack Smith, in Scott Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor, The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft), 124. Also cited in “Lucy Smith History, 1845,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:310. Lucy’s statement regarding Joseph’s work for Stowell (spelled “Stoal” in her manuscript) only appears in the 1853 version and does not appear in the original 1845 manuscript. 

  72. “Highlights in the Prophet’s Life,” Ensign, June 1994, 24. 

  73. Brant A. Gardner, “Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?” 2009 FAIR Conference presentation. Gardner references [9] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 38. and [10] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 70. http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2009-fair-conference/2009-joseph-the-seer-or-why-did-he-translate-with-a-rock-in-his-hat

  74. Wilford Woodruff journal, 11 September 1859, cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, August 1987. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/08/the-alvin-smith-story-fact-and-fiction

  75. “Willard Chase Statement, Circa 11 December 1833,” in Early Mormon Documents, 2:65–66. Published in Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: Telegraph Press, 1834), 240-8. Chase claimed, “It has been said by Smith, that he brought the stone from the well; but this is false. There was no one in the well but myself. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.” 

  76. Oliver Cowdery, Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1/5 (February 1835), 80. 

  77. Henry Harris, statement in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252. 

  78. Dean Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17/1 (1976), 2. Original spelling: “looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, Daughter of old Mr. Hail of Pensylvany, a girl that he had seen Before.” 

  79. Palmyra Reflector, 1829–1831, “Gold Bible, No. 6,” (19 March 1831) in Early Mormon Documents, 2:248. 

  80. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 14. 

  81. “Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, 17 February 1834,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4:379. 

  82. John A. Clark, “Gleanings by the Way” (Philadelphia, 1842), 230. Available in Google Books: http://books.google.com/books/about/Gleanings_by_the_way.html?id=Q-sQAAAAIAAJ

  83. Robert Baird, Religion in the United States of America (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1844), 647–49. 

  84. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 36. Available in Google Books: http://books.google.com/books/about/Origin_rise_and_progress_of_Mormonism.html?id=1SPym5-HSN4C

  85. “David Whitmer Interview with Chicago Tribune, 15 December 1885,” in Early Mormon Documents, 5:153. Also reprinted in the Deseret News, 6 January 1886. 

  86. “David Whitmer Interview with Chicago Tribune,” in Early Mormon Documents, 5:153–54.  

  87. Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, “Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery Affidavit, 15 February 1870,” in Early Mormon Documents, 5:260. 

  88. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (1887), 12. 

  89. Whitmer, An Address, 32. Joseph Smith’s claim that he no longer needed the seer stone in order to receive revelation was one factor in Whitmer’s eventual disillusionment with him. 

  90. Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 18 May 1888, quoted in Richard O. Cowan, Temples to Dot the Earth (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 1997). 

  91. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:225. 

  92. Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God’,” Ensign, January 1997, 36. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1997/01/by-the-gift-and-power-of-god

  93. Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 26. 

  94. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, January 1988. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/01/a-new-prophet-and-a-new-scripture-the-coming-forth-of-the-book-of-mormon

  95. Anderson, “By the Gift and Power,” 79.  

  96. Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign, October 1987, 63. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/10/recent-events-involving-church-history-and-forged-documents

  97. Heading to Doctrine and Covenants 28. 

  98. Stephen D. Ricks, Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, n.d.), http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=10 

  99. Keith W. Perkins, “Francis W. Kirkham: A ‘New Witness’ for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, July 1984. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1984/07/francis-w-kirkham-a-new-witness-for-the-book-of-mormon

  100. This effort on the part of the Maxwell Institute was referred to as the “Kirkham Project.” See “Early Book of Mormon Writings Now Online,” Insights 30:2 (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute), which notes that “for more than 10 years Matthew Roper, research scholar at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and head of the project, has been collecting this literature. The collection builds upon the early efforts of Francis W. Kirkham, an educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Roper, during the 1930s Kirkham began collecting rare newspapers relating to early Latter-day Saint history. Subsequent researchers and historians have discovered many additional items, all of which are included in this new collection.”  

  101. Francis W. Kirkham, “The Manner of Translating the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era, October 1939, 632. 

  102. Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America (Independence, MO: Press of Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1951), 194. 

  103. Kirkham, A New Witness, 196. 

  104. Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225. Emphasis in original. 

  105. James. B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 40–41. 

  106. A list of known Hofmann forgeries related to Church history appeared in “Fraudulent Documents from Forger Mark Hofmann Noted,” Ensign, October 1987.  

  107. Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, August 1987. Anderson states, that “attempts to reposition the foundations of the Church on the basis of documents tied to Mark Hofmann are now outdated, because he has pleaded guilty in open court to selling false documents. Thus, revised histories based on these documents must now be revised themselves.” 

  108. Oaks, “Recent Events.” 

  109. Whitmer, An Address to All Believers, 30. 

  110. Revelations in Context. https://history.lds.org/series/doctrine-and-covenants-revelations-in-context?lang=eng#/date/10/1

  111. John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone, “How Long Did It Take to Translate the Book of Mormon?” (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute). http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/books/?bookid=71&chapid=767

  112. There are various schools of thought among Book of Mormon scholars regarding whether the text of the Book of Mormon represents a “loose translation” as opposed to a “tight translation” of the meaning of the characters on the plates. Given that I am not a scholar, it is not my intention to draw any conclusions regarding this aspect of the translation. I simply assert that some form of revelation occurred. 

  113. Maxwell, Not My Will, 26. 

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About Roger Nicholson

Roger Nicholson is a native of the San Francisco Bay area. He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Brigham Young University in 1985 and a master’s in computer engineering from Santa Clara University in 1993. After spending several years editing LDS-related Wikipedia articles, he is currently an editor and administrator of the FAIR Wiki, sponsored by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research.

35 thoughts on “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation

  1. An excellent article!

    The likelihood that Joseph did not refer to a KJV in translating those portions of the Book of Mormon that quote the Bible is very interesting in view of the similarities of many of those texts to the KJV. While Joseph may have been quite familiar with the Bible at the time, quoting Isaiah 11 word for word with no differences and with no reference materials might have been quite beyond him. That’d suggest the similarities with the KJV are not due to Joseph’s language alone – and likewise the more significant differences (aside from the likes of “or out of the waters of baptism”) were not at his initiative either.

  2. On reading words in stones using the Urim and Thummim:

    See The Temple Institute of Jerusalem
    http://www.templeinstitute.org/beged/priestly_garments-8.htm

    From the Time of Moses
    The urim v’tummim is unlike any other aspect of the priestly garments, for it was not created by those skilled artisans who fashioned the other items, aided by their understanding and inspiration; and it was not created from the donations or contributions of Israel, as were all the other appointments of the Temple. The entire matter is one of those mysteries which was handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai by G-d Himself, and its secret was transmitted orally down through the generations.

    At the time of the original Tabernacle erected in the desert, Moses took the original urim v’tummim, written in sublime holiness, and placed it inside the breastplate of judgment, after Aaron donned the ephod. This is reflected by the verse (Lev. 8:7), “… and he put the ephod upon him, and he fastened him with the belt of the ephod… and he put the breastplate upon him, and into the breastplate he put the urim v’tummim.”

    Only Questions of Congregational Importance
    The process of questioning for Divine aid with the ÔUrim V’Tummim’ was done in the following manner: When a question arose whose implications were so consequential that the entire congregation of Israel would be effected-such as, for example, the question of whether or not to go out to war – then, the King of Israel (or the commanding officer of the army) would ask his question before the High Priest. An ordinary person, or someone not representing the entire community would not ask of the urim v’tummim.

    The High Priest stands facing the Ark of the Testimony, and the questioner stands behind him, facing the priest’s back. The questioner does not speak out loud, neither does he merely think the question in his heart; he poses his query quietly, to himself – like someone who prayers quietly before his Creator. For example, he will ask “Shall I go out to battle, or shall I not go out?”

    A Meditative Experience and a Prophetic Revelation
    The High Priest is immediately enveloped by the spirit of Divine inspiration. He gazes at the breastplate, and by meditating upon the holy names of G-d, the priest was able to receive the answer through a prophetic vision-the letters on the stones of the breastplate, which would shine forth in his eyes in a special manner, spelling out the answer to the question. The priest then informs the questioner of the answer.

    Flavius Josephus writes (Antiquities 3:8:9) that the stones also shone brilliantly when Israel went forth into battle. This was considered as an auspicious sign for their victory.

    Another midrashic passage indicates that when the tribes of Israel found favor in G-d’s eyes, each respective stone shone brilliantly. But when particular members of any one tribe were involved in a transgression, that tribe’s stone would appear tarnished and dimmed. The High Priest would see this phenomena and understand its cause. He would then cast lots within the rank of this tribe, until the guilty person was revealed and judged (Midrash HaGadol).

    • Mark,
      I have read that the Nephite Interpreters were kept in a pocket in the breastplate (Largey, Book of Mormon Reference Companion, p. 773). Some say that they were made up of two triangular shaped (19th century “diamond”) stones prepared by the Lord and set in glass, one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David. See http://oneclimbs.com/2010/08/25/interpreters-and-combinations/

      http://www.israelrevealed.com/flag.htm & http://www.israelrevealed.com/mailing/sup-ot/ot-summary26.pdf states:
      Urim and Thummim: The Magen David is always shown as two triangles, interwoven. One possible explanation is that the two triangles represent a characterization of the Urim and Thummim. According to statements attributed to Joseph Smith, the Urim and Thummim were two triangular stones connected by a silver bow. One pointed up and the other pointed down. Superimposed they make a fascinating Magen David! Since the Urim and Thummin were revelatory tools, it is possible that they represent or operate on a simple principle of revelation. The answer is yes or no. “. . . study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right . . .” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:8)

      An Internet search indicates that Dr. Einar C. Erickson references “Dennis L. Largey, ed. Book of Mormon Reference Companion, Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, 2003, p. 773″ on this but Largely doesn’t mention the stones as “one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David.” I looked it up in my copy of the Book of Mormon Reference Companion and that part isn’t there.

      Erickson quoted Largely at http://www.einarerickson.com/content/view/111/38/ saying:

      EARLY DESCRIPTIONS OF THE URIM AND THUMMIM
      The book by Lucy Mack Smith on the life of her outstanding son is a special source of things pertaining to the Urim and Thummim, as well as many other things. Lucy Mack Smith described the instrument as “consisting of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles’…David Whitmer also compared the Urim and Thummim to a pair of eyeglasses, but noted that ‘the bow between the stones was more heavy; and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find in spectacles’.” (Largey, p. 773) Lucy reported that the breastplate upon which this was fastened, “was concave on one side, and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of two of my fingers (for I measured them), and they had holes in the end of them, to be convenient in fastening.” (Lucy Smith p. 111; Largey, p. 773)
      “William Smith said the spectacles were attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened at the outer shoulder edge of the breastplate…this rod was just the right length so that when the Urim and Thummim was removed from before the eyes it would reach to a pocket on the left side of the breastplate where the instrument was kept when not in use.” (Largey, p. 773) William also described the bow as in the form of a figure 8. The breastplate was much too large for Joseph Smith who could only see through one stone at a time. (Largey, p. 774) Joseph was 200 pounds or more, and nearly six foot two inches tall. If the breastplate was too large for him, one can imagine the stature of the brother of Jared or even Shem or Methuselah if they had this particular instrument before. The subsequent history of the Jaredite instrument is unknown. The Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon is essentially about the life and descendants of Jared. If we had a similar record of Jared’s brother, much more may have become known about the instrument and how it was used and the great revelations it provided Mahonri Moriancumer. (Largey p. 463) Historically, others have also testified about the Urim and Thummim.

      TWO TRIANGLE STONES OF CELESTIAL MATERIAL:
      Some understood the two triangle stones of celestial material, actually prepared by the Lord (Mosiah 28:13-14) ; Largey, p. 773) set in glass, one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David, an apt symbol of the Urim and Thummim. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, were to testify that he had seen them. (D&C 17:2-5)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hexagram attributes the idea to Daniel Rona. I have listened to him speak in the past so that’s probably where I’ve heard it.

      See also:
      http://www.hebrewresources.com/discus/messages/5/144.html?ThursdayNovember3020000653pm

      Brant Gardner has indicated that the “Book of Mormon interpreters are distinct from the Old Testament urim and thummim, and both have undergone some elaborations in the telling/guessing. I suspect that some of the descriptions of the interpreters were informed by lore about the urim and thummim, just as the description urim and thummim became the name Urim and Thummim and applied indiscriminately to the seer stones and the interpreters.

      As for the traditions of the triangular shape, I would consider those later traditions. I don’t remember anything like that in Van Dam, Cornelis. The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997, which is an excellent source.

      I’m wondering if anyone has any more information on the Urim and Thummim – Magen David connection and where this came from?

      • As I was reading this fine article, I was thinking about Lucy Mack Smith’s description of the triangle diamonds and was expecting the information to be included in the article, but I am glad someone else brought it up. I know Lucy Mack Smith is not as highly regarded by some for having exactness in her account, but I have always found it useful.

  3. An excellent and comprehensive article. I couldn’t find anything in Nicholson’s conclusions and opinions that I could disagree with (which is unusual for me ;-) ).

    According to the quote from President Wilford Woodruff [Page 176] Joseph Smith found the seer stone “by Revelation,” that he used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. This implies that this was no ordinary stone but one that had been previously prepared, or consecrated, for the purpose of revelation. We may conclude from this that other prophets of God had anciently dwelt in the area where it was found.

  4. I loved your willingness to consider all sources and then find their commonalities.
    The results boiled down to a very nice bibliography with information on how to “teach” people who might be shocked at the new information NOT from an anti point of view.
    A few years ago I read an article by Hugh Nibley on why Joseph didn’t need to have the actual scroll of Abraham in front of him to “translate” it. He used as a basis that sometimes Joseph left the plates under the bed as he dictated as if they were on the table. I can’t find the article now, but would be interested in where Hugh Nibley got his information.

    • I appreciate your comment. On Facebook someone had questioned why I didn’t try to qualify each of the sources that I used more than I did. I feel that the reader is quite capable of determining for themselves which sources they agree with and which they do not. Once I begin trying to tell the reader how they ought to view and interpret each source, the article becomes defensive – something I was trying to minimize here. I didn’t want the article to be a defense against criticism, but rather an exposure of much of the relevant data on the subject with an explanation of how one particular believer views it. It seems that believers and critics both each view a specific subset of sources and often miss the complete picture. I was attempting to present a more complete picture of the sources from a believer’s perspective. I am aware that a critic could take all of the exact same sources and write a completely different article around them.

  5. Compare the above description of the ancient process of using the Urim and Thummim with Moroni the general sending men to Alma the High Priest (who possessed the Nephite intepreters) with an inquiry about where to engage the Lamanites in battle:

    Alma 43
    23 But it came to pass, as soon as they had departed into the wilderness Moroni sent spies into the wilderness to watch their camp; and Moroni, also, knowing of the prophecies of Alma, sent certain men unto him, desiring him that he should inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites.

    24 And it came to pass that the word of the Lord came unto Alma, and Alma informed the messengers of Moroni, that the armies of the Lamanites were marching round about in the wilderness, that they might come over into the land of Manti, that they might commence an attack upon the weaker part of the people. And those messengers went and delivered the message unto Moroni.

  6. As a non-Mormon Christian I am struck by the great lengths required to explain and support the presumed legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s revelation and interpretation. I understand that the whole of Mormonism rests on this foundational belief and it is obvious that the Internet has made the disparate accounts and apparent inconsistencies that surround Mormon history and doctrine more visible to LDS members and the general public. After all, the questions surrounding the Book of Mormon do not stop with their origination.

    I admire the detailed work that went into this article but as a non-Mormon they come off as vain attempts to reconcile statements and accounts that, on their face, are contradictory and at best confusing. The examination of the details requires considerable “gymnastics” and contortions to make a case that should not be difficult to make.

    Contrast this with the Bible. While certainly its credibility has been attacked, the historic record is consistent on the life of Jesus, his words, and the accounts of his followers. There is no need to decode or explain anything. In fact, there is no reason to add anything to His gospel. This is what is overlooked by so many Mormons. The obvious fact that there was and is no need for a “restoration”. The historic gospel message of salvation that preceded Joseph Smith’s earthly existence is sufficient. It is the hope of the world, not Mormonism. Mormonism is riddled with things that must be explained away, as this article illustrates. The New Testament gospel is consistent. Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.

    This leads to my greatest issue with Mormonism. It is the same issue I have with non-Mormon religions, Catholicism, Christian denominations, & non denominational movements. Here it is:

    Whenever salvation is in any way tied to a specific church or movement, its message, its practices, its ceremonies, its rules and your fidelity to them, Jesus is diminished. He said of Himself “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by Me.” Mormonism teaching and history may be the subject of debate. Those in the church will understandably feel a need to defend them. However, what cannot be defended is the emphasis on an attachment to the “Church” as conditional to salvation. Whether it is stated overtly, as with the LDS, or implied, as with certain evangelical churches, anything that leads people to believe that they are saved as a result of their faithfulness to a particular organization rather than to the person of Jesus Christ is heresy.

    Mormonism is full of rules and obligations that must be adhered to to maintain good standing by its members. To be a good Mormon is measured by the level of compliance. It makes human behavior the basis of salvation. Temple marriage and other privileges are clearly tied to the conduct of the person, not to the finished work of Jesus. The reservation of blessing for those who comply with the Church’s rules and teachings is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. This is also the case if a Charismatic Pentecostal church similarly teaches its followers that you are “in” if you do what the church leaders say and “out” if you don’t.

    The definition of the term “Christian” is Christ follower, not Joseph Smith follower, Jimmy Swaggart follower, or Pope follower.

    Any church that makes itself central to salvation is flawed. Jesus is sufficient and church should be a gathering of believers as we see in the early church where behavior barriers such as food laws and other behavioral standards were abandoned. Resurrecting behavior-based religion stands in complete contrast to the liberating message of Jesus Christ that needs no window dressing or additives from Joseph Smith or any other modern “prophet”.

    • Danny:

      As for your issues with the Mormon Church, I suspect that most of us who believe in the restoration would disagree with the way you have characterized our beliefs. I think you would find that we would agree that we follow Christ and not a church. However, just as with Christ, the way to follow him has been clarified and made relevant through his Apostles and through revelation to continue to make his way available to all who wish to follow it.

      As for the “great lengths required to explain” the translation process, I think you are misunderstanding the difference between explaining the process and looking at the historical record of those who have described the process. Joseph Smith simply indicated that it was through the gift and power of God. That is really quite simple and no description of the process provides anything that can substantially change that very simple declaration.

    • Danny,

      Regarding your statement: “Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.”

      I find nothing to disagree with in your statement. I have not yet read of a Biblical prophet that was not “deeply flawed” in some way, yet God seems to chose to work through those with weaknesses. As great a prophet as Moses was, he was still not permitted to enter the promised land. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the article.

      • I certainly concede your point regarding Biblical prophets. They too were ‘deeply flawed’, as am I. The point was not to suggest that Joseph Smith was somehow more flawed than others. It has been my observation however that the Mormon church views him as unique among the prophets. Most modern “religions” tend to place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on their founder. Mormons are not alone in claiming subsequent revelation in the modern era despite the scriptural warnings against adding to the “book”. Each group tends to venerate a man or a woman and do not see it as a diversion from Jesus. Similarly, as I stated earlier, the organization he/she founded itself becomes central, authoritative, and the only path to God, or in the case of Mormonism, godhood. This in my opinion is error. The Gospel as found in the New Testament is complete and utterly sufficient. What more do we need than a Savior whose sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God, atoned for our sins, and sits at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us? What more do we need? He said “It is finished”. Only arrogance would suggest otherwise, regardless of who it comes from.

        • Danny,

          We place Joseph Smith in the class of prophets who dispensed, or re-dispensed (restored), the fullness of the Gospel to the world, directly from God, at various times as required throughout the history of man. These prophets include Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Moses (Jesus Christ personally restored the fullness of His Gospel when He was on the earth). You are correct in that we do put more emphasis on Joseph Smith than on other prophets. We do this because he is the prophet who restored the fullness of the Gospel in our day. He is the prophet of our “dispensation” of the Gospel.

          As to your reference of scriptural warnings about adding to the “book,” surely you are aware that John in Revelation (Revelation 22:18-19), and Moses in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4:2), were referring to adding to or taking away from the words of their respective books. These books were not compiled into the Bible at the time they were written and do not warn against recording further revelations from God. There is nothing in the Bible which precludes further revelation or further scripture. Jesus himself stated that, “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Surely whoever those “other sheep” were they recorded His teachings. Also, these records must surely be revealed if there is to be “one fold.” As John wrote, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).

          Jesus was killed because the religionists of His day were convinced that their scriptures were “complete and utterly sufficient.” Joseph Smith was killed for the same reason.

          • I believe the Biblical warnings are not only about not adding to nor taking away from specific books but a divine Principle that men are not to add to nor take way from any words of the Word of God. God know that if people do this then others can be influenced falsely by a faulty record, just as Joseph Smith has accused the ancient scribes of doing. However, Joseph Smith did, himself, “add to and take away from” many specific books of the Bible. He did so in his so-called “Inspired Version” of the Bible. He did so without reference to any ancient manuscripts whatsoever, but supposedly, by pure revelation. No matter that the modern church does not hold this up as a Standard Work. Joseph Smith said it was True and modern Prophet, Apostle, Seer and Revelator Bruce R McConkie said it should be considered as much Scripture as True as any other LDS Standard Work. Joseph Smith did indeed add to and take away from the Word of God. The Question is, was He authorized to do so. If so, he had the approval of God and was justified. If not, he is facing the penalties which the Bible attributes to those who tamper with the Word of God. If Joseph was authorized and his Revelation of the “JST” and it was from God, why do LDS not really use it? If it is truly what Joseph claimed it to be, it is a priceless treasure to be shouted from the roof tops. Thoughts…

          • Sam,

            (I think we’ve reached a limit for embedded replies, so I apologize if this comment is in the wrong spot).

            We actually do have quite a bit of material from the “Inspired Version” of the Bible within the current set of Latter-day Saint Scriptures. Not only are passages included in the footnotes of the LDS King James Version of the Bible, but the entire Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price was the result of the “Joseph Smith Translation.” It is actually more interesting and educational for us to compare what Joseph Smith modified against the KJV, yet it does not diminish the value of the KJV for us.

            I understand the “shouting from the rooftops” is hyperbole, but I would say that we definitely acknowledge the value of the JST and use it substantially.

          • I am replying to comment – “Roger Nicholson on June 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm” : Yes, portions of the JST are used in the LDS Bible but the whole work has never been nor is not OFFICIALLY acknowledged as a “Standard Work” nor as Bruce R McConkie declared it, “…a thousand times over, the best Bible now in existence…” So my assertion is not hyperbole but absolutely sincere that, if the so-called “Inspired Version” is really what McConkie claimed it to be, it should be very touted as being that, and at very least, an LDS Standard Work. But, for some reason, it is not. Nonetheless, my most important point: Joseph did indeed “add to and take from the words of this book” and many other of the books contained in the Bible and, as such, he either WAS indeed authorized to give this dispensation one of the greatest, most priceless treasures, his “Inspired Version of the Bible”, OR he was not authorized to do so and will be subject to the penalties therein described in the Biblical passages for presumptuously adding to God’s Word. If Joseph was authorized, and it is a True document and it is the best Bible in existence, a thousand times over, why is it not a Standard Work? If the Inspired Version is really Inspired, as the other Standard Works are believed to be, then I do not agree that the JST has been sufficiently acknowledged nor used in the LDS church.

          • Sam,

            I agree with your position that if the scriptures brought forth by Joseph Smith were not authorized by God then Joseph Smith is in deep trouble with God. The first time I read the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon, the Spirit of God bore a personal witness to me that they were from God and were authorized by Him. After fifty years of studying and comparing these scriptures to the Holy Bible I am even more convinced that they were not only authorized by God but that it would have been impossible for anyone to produce them without the help of God.

            Your question is valid as to why the Joseph Smith Translation has not been published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its entirety. I am probably the least qualified on this blog to answer that question, but I believe that it has much to do with the possession and rights to the original manuscripts. To be as brief as possible, Joseph Smith was martyred before the full bible translation was published and the manuscript ended up in the hands of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (recently renamed the Community of Christ). They did publish the entire translation and retained the copyright. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as “the Church”) was somewhat wary of what had been published because they did not have access to the original manuscripts. As scholars of the Church gained access to these manuscripts the Church became more confident in the accuracy of what had been published and began to use and refer to many excerpts. As the Church does not have the copyright I don’t know the legalities that may be holding them back from publishing the full version. What you have suggested is a great idea and I would like to see the Church do just that if they could. Perhaps someone else could shed more light on this subject.

    • Comparing the historical record of early Mormon events to that of the 4 gospels is like comparing apples to oranges. Christ lived 2000 years ago, while Joseph Smith lived just less than 200 years ago. The difference that makes in the amount of contemporary documentation, and the preservation/survival of that documentation is enormous. With the life of Christ, we have four documents preserved, which contain ONLY the stories told by believers, and only survived because the believers kept making copies for centuries. But with Joseph Smith, we the stories as he told them, as his followers told them, and as his enemies told them. We have first, second, and third had sources. We have eyewitness reports, and we have hearsay and rumor. So, is it messy and at times contradictory? You bet. But so is any and all well-documented history. (If I had a nickel for every time this last semester my history professor said something like, “Well, we aren’t really sure what happened because there are conflicting reports, but we think…”!) That is the nature of the game. Do you really think that there were no conflicting reports of Jesus’s miracles from believers and skeptics alike? No rumors flying around Jerusalem at the time, which were uncritically accepted as fact?

      If we Mormons had been given 2000 years to tell our story, and to be the only ones preserving it, etc. then you could bet by now the only available sources would be the ones that tell the narrative the way the LDS Church tells it now – By the Gift and Power of God, through the instrumentality of the Urim and Thummim (assumed to be the Interpreters). A lot of details would have been lost, the rumors would have faded away, and with them much of the controversy would also disappear. That is what happened with mainstream Christianity and the Bible. The controversy has faded (of course, many scholars continue to dispute the origins of the 4 gospels and what not, but that is for another day, I suppose), but a lot of details have been lost in the process as well. (The ending of the Gospel of John assures us as much.)

      But, since we don’t have that luxury, we must parse through a complicated historical record, and I commend Mr. Nicholson for doing just that, and doing a fine job of it, too. Ultimately, the historical record won’t settle the question of where the Book of Mormon came from. Seer stone or spetacles, we still have this long, detailed, and complex text with ties to the ancient Near East and to Mesoamerica. Where the heck did this text come from? Well, Joseph said it was translation from a set of gold plates, which he dictated by the power of God. None of the historical sources either prove or disprove that, and none of them ever will. A commitment for or against the Book of Mormon will always require faith, with assurance coming from something beyond historical records.

    • Danny, I realize that it is a current theme among many Christians that they don’t need organized religion, a church, to fully worship Jesus Christ. I don’t know on what this concept is based because it is certainly not found in the New Testament. Jesus taught that we did need to be organized into a church and the early Christians followed this teaching. There are over a hundred references to the church in the New Testament, including the following.

      “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

      “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)

      “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:” (Ephesians 2: 19-21)

      “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)

      The Church of Jesus Christ is His Church, and is organized in accordance with His commandments, in ancient times as well as in modern times.

      • To this end, we mustn’t forget that the compilation and preservation of the New Testament came about because of an organized church. Otherwise, Jesus would be nothing more than a footnote in Josephus and what not.

  7. “While certainly its credibility has been attacked, the historic record is consistent on the life of Jesus, his words, and the accounts of his followers.”

    That’s a very debatable claim.

    One of the purposes for the rise of the “search for the historical Jesus” movement beginning in the 19th century, including the advent of modern New Testament historical and textual criticism, was to try and shift out the “Jesus of history” from the “Jesus of faith”, on the precise grounds that the Gospels were, according to this theory, a jumbled mess of pseudo-history interpolated with real, authentic history about Jesus. The Gospels as historical documents were viewed very skeptically by the “historical Jesus” schools, for the precise reasons Danny lists here: confused accounts, jumbled sources, contradictory claims, etc.

    It became the job of the exegete, in this school, to shift through and sort out exactly what happened to and what was said by the man from Nazareth, and strip away all that mythological stuff about virgin births, miracles, being raised from the dead, etc., that had been, allegedly, interpolated by wishful thinking Christian authors.

    This continues today in many academic circles. Try and take any college level course on the New Testament without eventually running into the “historical Jesus” school and its theories being taught.

    If I were a non-Mormon Christian, like Danny, I would be really careful in criticizing ambiguities in the Mormon historical record, since there exist many more ambiguities in the history of early Christianity and the authorship and composition of the New Testament books.

    (And this isn’t even going into the nightmare of tackling the question of the historicity and authorship of the Old Testament books in the light of modern Syro-Palestinian archaeology.)

    “There is no need to decode or explain anything.”

    Yes, there is. That’s the job of someone performing exegesis on the Bible: explain or “decode” the meaning of the Bible. Without some sort of exegesis on the part of the reader, the Bible becomes a meaningless text written 2000 years ago that’s impossible to understand. People can do either good exegesis or bad exegesis, but exegesis they must do, in order to get any meaning from the Bible.

    I see Nicholson doing “exegesis”, if you will, on the historical accounts surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon. It’s an attempt to understand and “decode” what these sources mean. This is an entirely appropriate undertaking, and I commend Nicholson for his fine work here.

    “Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.”

    What’s so funny is that Joseph Smith himself said this exact thing multiple times during his life. I am unaware of any statement by Joseph Smith saying we should worship him. The Prophet on multiple occasions admitted his own imperfections, as we all must do if we are to be humble before God, and consistently directed the Latter-day Saints’ attention of worship towards the Savior.

    But Joseph’s imperfections and mistakes doen’t negate his call as the Lord’s prophet in these days, nor diminish the marvelous things he did accomplish (the translation of the Book of Mormon being just one). Imperfections don’t make one ineligible to be called of God to perform great tasks. Otherwise, what could possibly be done by us fallible, imperfect humans?

  8. For what it’s worth, we should not forget that the Book of Mormon bears an undeniable testimony of Jesus. I know a few biblical scholars who believe in the bible, but somehow deny the divinity of the Savior. As I contemplate their arguments, there is a certain *shrug* I give in response as they cast doubt on Christianity’s interpretation of scripture and their understanding of the the Savior’s mission. Why don’t their arguments bother me? Because I have access to additional scripture in the Book of Mormon. And it is through this additional scripture that I can accept and believe in the divinity of Jesus as Christianity generally understands it in the Bible. Otherwise, I’d have extreme difficulty believing in Jesus being anything more than a great moral teacher.

  9. Thank you for an excellent article. I commute about an hour or so each way each day and listen to podcasts on various subjects while I do. I listened to this podcast both on the way to work and back home again. I thought it was excellent. I was familiar with most of the basic concepts and some of the quotes, but this is the best treatment of the context and putting them together I have read (or heard).

  10. Nicholson wrote:

    “The primary issue that seems to concern some is the idea that Joseph translated in the open, in full view of others, by placing the instrument of translation in a hat and dictating text without looking directly at the plates.” (Page 188)

    While teaching the Doctrine and Covenants in Gospel Doctrine Class today I noticed that half of the class members were not reading from their printed scriptures but were peering into a smooth flat piece of molten rock through which they read the relevant passages. Then it struck me that we already have a first generation personal Urim & Thummim. One can see or learn almost anything on earth by peering into this clear piece of stone. Surely it is no longer a mystery that the Lord could show an “e” version of the Gold Plates to Joseph Smith for translation through his seer stone.

  11. Just a comment to some who have asked me privately why I didn’t talk very much about Joseph Smith’s use of the seer stone prior to the translation of the Book of Mormon. The focus of this essay was the Book of Mormon translation, and represents an attempt to place the use of the Nephite interpreters and seer stone into an understandable context for believing members. Joseph’s acquisition and use of his seer stones is an interesting subject and deserves much more than a passing mention, however, to do it justice within this article would not have been possible, particularly since the article had already reached 70 pages.

  12. Emma noted that when she translated, she and Joseph spent “hour after hour with nothing between us.”

    The author asks “Where was the curtain?”

    Emma’s comment is one more proof of the Restoration (or two, if you want to be more accurate). There is no way that she wouldn’t know of the accounts of the translation, in which curtains and dividers were common — in fact, she specifically address them, by noting that they were not there.

    If Emma were spinning tales, she would have mentioned the curtain, rather than going out of her way to disagree with decades’ worth of testimony by others.

    OF COURSE Joseph and Emma had nothing between them. She was his HELPMEET, his Eternal Companion, not someone selected from outside the home as a scribe. There was no need for a barrier, because of this simple fact. We see several other times throughout their life together where she seems to be inspired by the Lord to the same extent, but in a different way.

    One example is the Word of Wisdom. She complained to Joseph, who went to the Lord and was given the actual commandment. Joseph was too busy to consider the problem that Emma identified (tobacco juice mess), but it was this inspiration which led to one of the most important commandments that we’ve been given, one which sets us apart and makes us stronger. The Lord could, of course, have simply given the word to Joseph, but the way that this was done takes it from being a sermon from the pulpit, and instead provides a personal understanding which can be taken into the heart of every member who has ever known a mother or wife.

    So it was with Emma’s working with Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon. In this one statement of hers, we see the will of the Lord that, even in the most important calling that a man can be given, there must be nothing to separate husband and wife.

  13. I would like to thank Roger Nicholson for this article. I have not read all the comments and it’s been several days since I’ve read the article so forgive me for any repeats, but what strikes me as odd is the fact that everybody seems oblivious to the obvious. The comments of those who witnessed the translation process do not conflict with one another but show that the whole translation process evolved. With each witness we get a snapshot of the process at that point in time. It is only natural that Joseph Smith would have been experimenting with various processes from the beginning to find out what works best and that his methodologies would change over time until he found something that was most comfortable to him. I don’t remember reading anywhere that he ever really used the breastplate to hold the interpreters. From the sounds of it, he actually tried to use the interpreters as glasses and that they were too wide. What I envision is that the breastplate would hold the interpreters somewhat away from the eyes and the plates would then be places at a location to be viewed comfortably through the interpreters like a view scope. I envision the interpreters slightly closer to the plates than to the user’s eyes.
    So thank you Roger, your article brought forth many insights and ideas to my mind.

  14. Danny,

    You said, “To be a good Mormon is measured by the level of compliance. It makes human behavior the basis of salvation. Temple marriage and other privileges are clearly tied to the conduct of the person, not to the finished work of Jesus. The reservation of blessing for those who comply with the Church’s rules and teachings is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.”

    I find this astonishing, especially from someone who claims that Jesus should be the center. Have you ever seen the “compliance” or questions given to members to enter the temple? They are administered by a bishop, a New Testament office, and provide the individual the opportunity for inner reflection. Those questions are the culmination of the individual seeking and learning of the “finished work of Jesus.” Jesus said, “Come follow me.” I do not see any “human behavior” or “Church’s rules and teachings” in the LDS Church that is so uniquely Mormon, that it takes away or adds to what Christ did. It all comes down to living and learning our way back to God, based on Biblical principles and modern revelation that is rooted in the Bible, nothing more and nothing less.

  15. Eyewitness testimony confirms that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the same manner that he once hunted for buried treasure: that is, with his brown-colored seer stone placed in the crown of his white top hat and his face snug to its brim. Rather than seeing treasures in the bowels of the earth, Smith claimed he saw luminous words on the stone, which he read to a scribe. In this manner the entire Book of Mormon as we have it came into existence. This fact conflicts with Joseph Smith’s official history, which claims that he used magic spectacles—which he euphemistically called Urim and Thummim—attached to a breastplate. [external link removed]

  16. Excerpts:

    It is possible that the reporter [of Martin Harris] conflated the story of the spectacles and Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone in a hat. Such confusion would be understandable. Since the spectacles were buried with the plates for the purpose of translating them, it would only be natural to assume that it was the instrument Joseph Smith put into his hat.

    Nicholson also quotes Martin Harris’s 1859 interview with spiritualist Joel Tiffany as evidence that Harris “told a consistent story” throughout his life (132). After recounting Harris’s description of the spectacles, Tiffany quoted Harris saying: “I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat.” This account is obviously garbled since Harris was never allowed to handle either the plates or spectacles uncovered or to view them in a casual non-visionary manner. Rather than showing that Harris “told a consistent story,” as Nicholson argues, it shows quite clearly that it was easy to misunderstand Harris’s account of an inherently confusing story. Moreover, despite Nicholson’s assertion, these accounts are inconsistent with more reliable sources, to be discussed, where Harris describes Smith using a seer stone in his hat. … William Smith and Joseph Knight were not eyewitnesses and do not reveal the source of their information, so it is possible that they could have also conflated stories in an attempt to harmonize the story of the spectacles in Joseph Smith’s history and eyewitness accounts of his putting the seer stone in his hat.

    To overcome this obvious problem, Nicholson refers to Martin Harris’s description of the spectacles in his 1859 interview with Joel Tiffany, which says the stones in the spectacles were “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” He then observes, “This does not necessarily imply that they were transparent.” The argument he apparently tries to make is that the Nephite Interpreters did not operate by looking “through” them like spectacles but onto them like Smith did with his brown stone. Never mind the numerous more reliable sources that say otherwise, some of which come from Harris. Martin told the Reverend Clark in 1828 and Edward Stevenson in 1870 that the stones of the spectacles were “clear” and “transparent.” (Episcopal Recorder, 5 Sept. 1840; Deseret Evening News, 13 Dec. 1881). Oliver Cowdery testified at Smith’s 1830 trial in South Bainbridge that “Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows.” (Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 April 1831).

    Nicholson has interpreted this [Emma Smith’s statement to Emma Pilgrim] as meaning the spectacles were used for the entire lost 116-page manuscript except for occasional use of the seer stone, that the “timeframe for the transition from the Nephite interpreters to the seer stone … occurred after the loss of the 116 pages and upon the resumption of translation”—but clearly this was not the case (141). Given her own descriptions of the stone in hat during her work as scribe, she more likely meant that the occasional parts that were translated with the spectacles were among the manuscript pages that Harris lost. However, the important part of what Emma said was that the spectacles were not used after the loss of the 116 pages, which as we shall see Nicholson disputes.

    In regard to Nicholson’s theory, a question presents itself at this point: If Nicholson wants to believe Smith used the spectacles with the hat, why does he assume it was out in the open and not also behind the curtain? The reason is: he wants the spectacles to be used throughout the entire translation and he knows after the loss of the 116 pages “Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.” (168) This is necessary to harmonize the accounts of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery with the other eyewitnesses. … However, one should not assume the alternation was between putting the spectacles or seer stone in the hat, but rather more likely between the hat and the curtain. Thus Palmyra newspaperman Abner Cole reported in 1831: “Harris declares, that when he acted as amanuenses, and wrote the translation, as Smith dictated, such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself.” (Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831)

    The idea that Emma Smith and David Whitmer, both of whom said Joseph Smith did not use the spectacles after the loss of the 116 pages, were mistaken because they couldn’t see what was in the hat is pure apologetic fiction. If such were the case, the witnesses would have observed Smith taking precautions to prevent them from viewing the instrument. Since Smith would have had no reason to keep his use of the spectacles from Emma and the Whitmers, Nicholson’s theory has no credibility and is an obvious invention to avoid troubling evidence of Smith and Cowdery’s misrepresentation.

  17. Dan Vogel:

    Thanks for your work on these subjects. Too bad it’s impossible to convince some of the likely truth when their careers, desires or wishes point in the opposite direction.

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