Translation of the Book of Mormon


Most LDS Church members were taught that Joseph Smith used seer stones referred to as the Urim & Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon (BOM)[1] to various scribes. The Urim & Thummim was preserved in a stone box, along with the gold plates, for over 1,500 years for the purpose of enabling Joseph to translate the writings on the gold plates. Numerous illustrations in various Church magazines continue to depict this method every year.

However, devout LDS historians instead believe that Joseph put a stone that he had found while digging a well years before the BOM was translated into a hat and put his face into the hat to translate the BOM without the plates even being used.

Overview of LDS position

The modern Church rarely discusses the translation process. However, the Church magazine Ensign continues to publish images depicting Joseph Smith translating the BOM with the gold plates directly in front of him and usually without any seering devices present.[2] The Ensign has on only two occasions printed quotes that say that Joseph translated the BOM by placing his face in a hat with a stone. This was in July 1993 and September 1977. There are no images used by the Church of Joseph using a stone in a hat. Update: The Church released a short essay on 12/30/13 that briefly discusses some parts of this issue. It is in the topics section of the LDS website. This is discussed below.

Overview of Critics' position

LDS critics maintain that the Church has serious credibility issues as they have taught and still teach that Joseph translated the BOM using the Urim & Thummim[3] that came with the gold plates in the stone box when they know that's not the way it happened. The Church does not transparently and consistently teach how the translation actually occurred. Critics believe members have a right to know the actual history of the Church and not alternate versions.

References

  1. Oliver Cowdery describes these events thus: "...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.'" Joseph Smith—History, 1:71 (endnote), Pearl of Great Price. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1?lang=eng#note
  2. Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon (Gospel Art Book [2009], no. 92). http://www.lds.org/media-library/images/gospel-art/church-history?lang=eng#translating-plates-82841
  3. "At first Joseph spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the plates and the language in which they were written. As he studied and prayed, the Urim and Thummim helped him understand the characters on the plates." "Lesson 6: Joseph Smith Begins to Translate the Gold Plates," Primary 5: Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, (1997). (Primary Manual for ages 8-11). https://www.lds.org/manual/primary-5-doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history/lesson-6-joseph-smith-begins-to-translate-the-gold-plates

stoneandbook

Contents

Introduction

LDS member beliefs

Problem summary

Joseph's comments

Treasure seeker

Urim & Thummim

Angel takes Urim & Thummim

Seer stone found plates?

Seer stone for revelation

Hiram Page

Seer stone today

Translation timeline

Prophets & seer stones

Seer stones in heaven

Joseph Fielding Smith

Artist renderings

Church's response

Apologist Michael Ash response

Critics' summary

Editor's comments

FAIR debates MormonThink

Links

LDS member beliefs

Joseph Smith used the seer stones referred to as the Urim & Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon to various scribes, Oliver Cowdery being the scribe used for most of the Book of Mormon. The Urim & Thummim was preserved in a stone box, along with the gold plates, for over 1,500 years for the purpose of enabling Joseph Smith to translate the writings on the gold plates.

Numerous illustrations in various official church magazines (including the Ensign), books, paintings adorning LDS chapels, temples and visitor's centers throughout the world, all depict Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by showing him studying the golden plates, often touching the plates. The impression given is that the dictation process involved Joseph's direct visual contact with the plates. In some depictions there was a blanket between Joseph and the scribe. The various scribes were never allowed to see the plates as Joseph was translating.

Joseph Smith & Golden Plates 1

Joseph Smith & Golden Plates 1

Some illustrations show Joseph with the Urim and Thummim attached to the breastplate as described by Joseph in this 1970s version of the Book of Mormon reader:

Joseph Smith & Urim and Thummim

Another depiction of the Urim and Thummim based on the description by Joseph Smith:

Urim & Thummim

This image below was in the Oct 2006 issue of the Ensign which shows both Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery at the same table with the plates in full view of both of them, which is not what is generally taught in the Church.

NOTE: The Church reprinted this same image in the Dec, 2012 Ensign, page 9:

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery

Book of Mormon Stories, 1997 Ed.

trans7

Found on the online Video, Audio, and Images library is the following picture :

Joseph Smith translating

https://media.ldscdn.org/images/media-library/gospel-art/church-history/joseph-translating-gold-plates-329346-gallery.jpg

The following two images are from the official LDS website about Joseph Smith (there are a total of five pictures of Joseph Smith translating the plates on that page):

Joseph Smith Translating - Kilbourn

http://josephsmith.net/exhibit/the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng#mv20

Joseph Smith Translating - Kilbourn 2

http://www.josephsmith.net/exhibit/the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng#mv18

There is a video on this official LDS website about Joseph Smith that shows Joseph in the same act of translating as these pictures show.

Written descriptions of translation

In addition to the pictorial depictions of the translating process, there are several written accounts that lead devout LDS members to the belief that Joseph Smith only used the Urim and Thummim for the translation process.

Instruction to members on the Book of Mormon translation starts young. Unfortunately, there are inaccuracies and incompleteness which set the stage for misunderstanding at a young age. The following comes from the Primary Manual for children ages 8-11 (emphasis ours):

At first Joseph spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the plates and the language in which they were written. As he studied and prayed, the Urim and Thummim helped him understand the characters on the plates.

"Lesson 6: Joseph Smith Begins to Translate the Gold Plates," Primary 5: Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, (1997). (Primary Manual for ages 8-11). https://www.lds.org/manual/primary-5-doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history/lesson-6-joseph-smith-begins-to-translate-the-gold-plates

There is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever "spent a lot of time" studying the plates, or that he "became familiar with the...language" - it was a language unknown to anyone on the earth at the time of Joseph Smith. In fact, according to available evidence, the words Joseph Smith wrote appeared on one of the seer stones in English, so there was no need to study any language, nor was there a need to "understand the characters." Glaringly absent in the Primary Manual is any mention of seer stones or a hat.

In the Church magazine for youth, New Era:

In 1827, Moroni gave the gold plates to Joseph with instruction to protect them and translate them. Moroni also instructed Joseph regarding the use of the Urim and Thummim, sometimes referred to as interpreters, to aid in the translation process.

"More Precious than Gold," New Era, September 2002. https://www.lds.org/new-era/2002/09/more-precious-than-gold

Oliver Cowdery describes the translation and use of the Urim and Thummim thus:

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.

Joseph Smith—History, 1:71 (endnote), Pearl of Great Price. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1?lang=eng#note

From the Church's online Gospel Topics webpage (11 April 2014):

An ancient instrument or tool prepared by God and used by Joseph Smith to aid in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

"Urim and Thummim," Gospel Topics. http://www.lds.org/topics/urim-and-thummim

Summary of the problem

The actual method used by Joseph

There were numerous witnesses to the translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith. They all tell essentially the same story: Joseph put a stone (often called a seer stone or peep stone) in a hat, then burying his face in the darkened hat words appeared on the stone which he dictated to the scribe. The gold plates were either always covered in a cloth, where no one including Joseph could see them or they were not even in the room at the time Joseph was translating. The seer stone Joseph used was the same stone he found when digging a well with his brother Hyrum on Willard and Mason Chase's property when he was employed as a treasure seeker years before the Book of Mormon plates were retrieved by Joseph. Here are some accounts of this process:

 

 

Emma Hale Smith, Joseph's wife, was the first person to serve as his scribe. Here is her testimony asEmma Hale Smith recounted to her son Joseph Smith III:

In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table 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.

The Saints Herald, Vol. 26, No. 19, p.289

Robert N. Hullinger, in his book: Joseph Smith's Response to Skepticism, cites a personal interview Emma Smith-Bidamon gave to a committee of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1879. He notes on pages 9-10: "Smith's wife Emma supported Harris's and Whitmer's versions of the story in recalling that her husband buried his face in his hat while she was serving as his scribe."

David Whitmer

David Whitmer was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The majority of the translation work took place in the Whitmer home.

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. 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.

I, as well as all of my father's family, Smith's wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation... . He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation

Page 11 of his book An Address to All Believers in Christ, Part First, Chapter 1. Also, Interview given to Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881, reprinted in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Journal of History, vol. 8, (1910), pp. 299-300.

Martin Harris

Martin Harris, a Book of Mormon scribe for the lost 116 pages of the BOM, also one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, provided this information to his friend Edward Stevenson, who would later become part of the LDS First Council of Seventy.

Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said 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, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say "Written," and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.

Reported by Edward Stevenson, "One of the Three Witnesses," Millennial Star, Volume 44, pp86-87.

In his Comprehensive History of the Church (CHC), LDS historian and Seventy Brigham H. Roberts quotes Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses whose name is found in every edition of the Book of Mormon since its original edition. Harris said that the seer stone Smith possessed was a "chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum." Harris went on to say it was by using this stone that "Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates" (CHC 1:129. Also found in B. H. Roberts' Defense of the Faith and the Saints, p. 257.)

Martin Harris was one of the scribes Joseph Smith used to record the writing on the plates. This enabled him to give a first-hand account of how Smith performed this translation. Harris noted:

By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say 'written;' and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another appear in its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.

(CHC 1:29. Also found in B. H. Roberts' Defense of the Faith and the Saints, pp. 258, 277 & 350.)

Isaac Hale, the father of Emma Hale Smith, stated in an 1834 affidavit:

The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods.

Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), pp. 126-128.

Michael Morse, Emma Smith's brother-in-law, gave a first-hand account published in an 1879 article in the RLDS publication Saint's Herald:

When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes - Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down.

Joseph Knight, Sr., an early member of the Church and a close friend of Joseph Smith, wrote the following in a document on file in the LDS Church archives:

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 spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated.

(spelling preserved from original) Neal A Maxwell Institute


Seer Stone or Urim & Thummim?

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery was Joseph's principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, and another of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

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.

(spelling and emphasis preserved from original) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:14.

As described later in this article, Cowdery's use here of the terms "Urim and Thummim" was a common designation among Mormons after 1833 for Joseph's seer stone.

Editor Comment: Oliver did not give any details of the translation process. His statement above only mentioned the use of the Urim & Thummim. Several readers have asked us why we don't include a quote used by Fawn Brodie in No Man Knows My History where Oliver expressed doubts about the BOM translation as the plates were not present in the translation process. LDS historian Grant Palmer researched this quite thoroughly and could not find any evidence that Oliver said that. He said that it may have been said by one of the Whitmers, but not by Oliver. For this reason, we reject the quote, although for reference purposes, here it is:

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.

(Dialogue, Volume 15, No 2 summer 1982, pg 51)

In volume two of "A New Witness for Christ in America," LDS writer Francis Kirkham notes that Joseph Smith's brother William also confirmed the use of the hat. His account is similar to the accounts given by Harris and Whitmer although he refers to the seer stone as the "Urim and Thummim." He stated, "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" (2:417).

1830 Newspaper Account

The article from the Cincinnati Advertiser of June 2, 1830, supports the 'stone in the hat' translation method:

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.

The article corroborates the 'stone in the hat' version of the translation, as opposed to Joseph's description of 'two stones in silver bows.' Considering the earliness of the article, June 1830, it is closer to the original method of the translation as told by Smith's first scribes Emma, Harris, Whitmer, Joseph Knight, etc. before Cowdery became involved. Perhaps the original "seer stone" story evolved over time into the "Urim and Thummim" version.

http://sidneyrigdon.com/Classics1.htm

Artist's depiction of the actual translation process:

Artist's depiction of the Book of Mormon translation process

Image from Images Of The Restoration

References

Editor comment: On the current [3/23/14] Church website Josephsmith.net there is a subsection called Joseph Smith Translates the Gold Plates. That section contains five pictures and one video of Joseph translating with the plates in front of him. The Urim & Thummim/Nephite interpreters and/or seer stone in the hat are all conspicuously absent.

The LDS Church released an essay on 12/30/13 concerning the translation method of the Book of Mormon. It is refreshing for them to include the use of the seer stone:

Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.

https://www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation

Joseph's comments

When Joseph was asked how exactly he translated the Book of Mormon, he never gave any details, he only said that he did it by the "gift and power of God." In a general conference of the church in October 1831, in Orange, Ohio, Hyrum Smith asked his brother to give details of the BOM translation method. Joseph replied that "it was not expedient for him to tell more than had already been told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and it was not well that any greater details be provided."

Apologist's Response

Stephen D. Ricks, in "The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon," published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, said this (emphasis added):

We might ask ourselves, why was it that Joseph was so hesitant to answer the question in greater detail? And we know that he was, because in 1831, in October Conference in Orange, Ohio, his brother Hyrum, whom he so dearly loved, and for whom he did so much, and who did so much for him, asked him, in front of the conference, if he would please get up and tell the conference members in greater detail than he had before, just exactly how the Book of Mormon was translated. And in answer to that request, Joseph said that it was not expedient for him to tell more than had already been told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and it was not well that any greater details be provided.

That reticence, I suspect, is the result of some bad experiences that Joseph might have already had when he made known very sacred things to individuals. We recall, of course, from the very beginning where he let people know about the experiences of the first vision; the result was greater persecution than he could conceivably have imagined.


Critic's Response

Joseph had already said that he received revelations through the Urim and Thummim (see the headings for D&C Sections 3, 6, 11 & 14) so apparently the Urim and Thummim weren't secret. He was forbidden to show the Urim and Thummim to anyone except the witnesses (Joseph Smith History 1:42), but nowhere is he forbidden to talk about their use in the translation process. Apparently the Urim and Thummim weren't the primary means of translation anyhow, so why didn't Joseph Smith mention using the seer stone in the translation process? Nowhere is he told that he can't show or discuss the seer stone.

The response that Joseph's reticence might be related to previous experiences he had is interesting. For a man who made bold proclamations about many things, and frequently ridiculed for them, why not just give an explanation of the process? How could people conceive that whatever he said about the process could be any more outlandish than other proclamations he made? Could Joseph's reticence possibly be that as part of the 1826 Bainbridge court appearance he promised to end the practice of using his "peep-stone", and if he shared that the translation method included the seer stone, he would be going against his word? (see the next section "Treasure seeker")

Treasure seeker

The following section is presented as Joseph Smith used the same seer stone he translated the Book of Mormon with to also seek for treasure before he translated the Book of Mormon. This provides some context for the seer stone.

Most LDS are somewhat aware that Joseph Smith did some treasure seeking in his younger days. The following statement is sometimes quoted in church. This comes from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.120:

Q: 'Was Joseph Smith not a money digger?'

'Yes, but it was not a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.'

This is usually the only thing said at church regarding his treasure-seeking past. This statement is made to casually dismiss the allegations by critics of Joseph as someone very much involved in seeking buried treasure using seer stones. Perhaps this way LDS members can say that they know about his past dealings and that these activities were really nothing because the prophet Joseph said they were nothing. In actual fact, $14 a month was a pretty good income for a young single man in the 1820s considering the Erie Canal diggers only got $12 a month.

Many of the people who were digging for buried treasure were very superstitious. There were many strange stories connected with these treasure hunts. Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, related the following:

Mr. Stowel was at this time at old Mr. Smith's digging for money. It was reported by these money-diggers, that they had found boxes, but before they could secure them, they would sink into the earth.... There were a great many strange sights. One time the old log school-house south of Palmyra, was suddenly lighted up, and frightened them away. Samuel Lawrence told me that while they were digging, a large man who appeared to be eight or nine feet high, came and sat on the ridge of the barn, and motioned to them that they must leave.... These things were real to them, I believe, because they were told to me in confidence, and told by different ones, and their stories agreed, and they seemed to be in earnest-I knew they were in earnest (An interview with Martin Harris, published in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, p.165).

On another occasion Martin Harris admitted that he participated in some money-digging and that a stone box slipped back into the hill: "Martin Harris (speaking to a group of Saints at Clarkston, Utah in the 1870's): I will tell you a wonderful thing that happened after Joseph had found the plates. Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for some more boxes, or gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. ...but behold by some unseen power, it slipped back into the hill" (Testimony of Mrs. Comfort Godfrey Flinders, Utah Pioneer Biographies, vol. 10, p.65, Genealogical Society of Utah, as cited in an unpublished manuscript by LaMar Petersen).

STATE OF NEW YORK vs. JOSEPH SMITH

In March 1826, the twenty-year-old Joseph Smith was arrested and brought before South Bainbridge justice of the peace Albert Neely under the charge of being a "disorderly person and an impostor." This event stemmed from his employment as a treasure seer (or scryer) for Josiah Stowell and others the previous five months. Joseph was employed by Josiah Stowel to find hidden treasures in the ground by gazing into a stone. He led his employer to believe that he could find buried treasure by looking into a stone placed in a hat. Joseph paid $2.68 for the offense. The judge may have let him go if he agreed to leave the state because of his age. The following describes Joseph's treasure seeking for Josiah Stowel

Background summary of transcript

A transcript was torn from Judge Neely's docket book by his niece and taken to Utah in 1880s. It was published on three occasions (Fraser's Magazine 1873, Mormons 1883 and Utah Christian Advocate 1886). The original transcript was lost some time after it was published. LDS defenders argued for the next century that there never was a trial and questioned the authenticity of the transcript.

In 1971 Wesley P. Walters, a Presbyterian minister and researcher of Mormon history, went to New York to look for documentation of Smith’s 1826 hearing. In the damp, musty basement of the jail in Norwich, New York, Mr. Walters found the Chenango county documents for 1826. In these bundles of papers were two documents that related to Smith’s 1826 hearing. Mr. Walters explains:

The discovery among the 1826 Chenango County bills of two bills from the officials who participated in the arrest and trial of Joseph Smith at South Bainbridge in 1826 now confirms this story beyond question. The bill of Justice Albert Neely carries this entry:

 

joseph smith 1826 trial

 

same [i.e. The People]
vs.

Misdemeanor

Joseph Smith
The Glass Looker
March 20, 1826
To my fees in examination
of the above cause 2.68

 

The phrase ‘Glass looker’ appearing on Mr. Neely’s bill is the precise terminology preferred by Joseph Smith himself to describe his crystal gazing occupation and is the same that Mr. Benton adopted five years later to speak of Smith’s use of a peep-stone or glass placed in a hat, which he employed when hired to hunt for hidden treasures. The bill of Constable Philip De Zeng gives further historical evidence and details concerning this trial, by listing:

 

95 warrant fee

 

Serving Warrant on Joseph Smith & travel..........1.25
Subpoening 12 Witnesses & travel..........2.50 (3.50?)
Attendance with Prisoner two days & 1 night......1.75
Notifying two Justices..........................................1.
10 miles travel with Mittimus to take him............1.

 

"This new evidence corroborates and throws fresh light on two accounts of this 1826 trial published almost a hundred years ago but vigorously disputed by the Mormons since they first came into prominence. The first is an account of the trial by Dr. William D. Purple, an eye-witness to the proceedings and a personal friend of Justice Neely. The second is the official trial record itself, torn from the Docket Book of Justice Neely and published in three independent printings. Not only do the newly-discovered bills substantiate these two accounts as authentic, they now make it impossible for Mormon scholars to dismiss the numerous affidavits testifying that young Smith prior to founding the Mormon faith had earned part of his livelihood using a peep-stone to hunt for buried treasures. The peep-stone story can no longer be set aside as a vicious story circulated by those who wished to persecute the budding Prophet, for this new evidence, dating four years before he founded his church, witnesses incontrovertibly to Joseph’s early ‘glass-looking’ activities." (Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials, by Wesley P. Walters, pp.129-131)

The evidence shows that Joseph Smith appeared before Justice Neely for what was known as an "examination" (see A New Conductor Generalis: Being a Summary of the Law Relative to the Duty and Office of Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, Coroners, Constables, Jurymen, Overseers of the Poor, &c, &c, Albany, New York, 1819, pages 141-143).

This seems to be like the "preliminary hearing" we have today where the accused is bound over for trial at a later date. It would appear from page 109 of the same publication that since Justice Neely found Joseph Smith "guilty" of being a "disorderly person" he could have immediately sentenced him to "sixty days" in the "bridewell or house of correction, at hard labor," but instead he bound him over to be tried by three justices at a later date. These justices could have ordered "him to be detained at hard labor, for any future time not exceeding six months, and during his confinement to be corrected by whipping, according to the nature of the offense, as they shall think fit." (A New Conductor Generalis.)

Since we do not have the rest of Justice Neely’s docket book nor any other extant record concerning the matter, it is difficult to determine what finally happened in this case. It is possible that Joseph Smith could have admitted his guilt and struck an agreement with the county. Many times officials who wanted to cut expenses would be willing to let prisoners go if they would agree to leave the county where the crime took place.

On March 8, 1842, Justice Joel K. Noble, who acquitted Joseph Smith of some charges brought against him in 1830, wrote a letter in which he spoke of Joseph Smith’s "first trial" i.e., the case before Justice Neely. According to Justice Noble, Smith "was condemned" at that time. Wesley P. Walters wrote: "Mr. Noble succinctly states that the ‘whisper came to Jo., "Off, Off!" ’ and so Joseph ‘took Leg Bail,’ an early slang expression meaning ‘to escape from custody.’ What is obviously happening is that the justices are privately suggesting to this first offender to ‘get out of town and don’t come back,’ and in exchange they will not impose sentence… Judge Noble’s statement agrees precisely with an early account of this 1826 trial published just five years after the trial had taken place. It was written by Dr. Abram Willard Benton, a young medical doctor who lived in South Bainbridge at the time. Dr. Benton, like Justice Noble, mentions that Joseph had been involved in glass looking, and that he had been ‘tried and condemned.’ Dr. Benton adds that because Joseph was a minor at the time, being 20 years old, ‘and thinking he might reform his conduct, he was designedly allowed to escape.’ Therefore, the court, though it found him guilty of being in violation of the law, had intentionally not imposed sentence as a way of showing mercy on this youthful offender." ("From Occult to Cult With Joseph Smith, Jr.," Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y. Court Trials, p.123)

http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no95.htm

 

Based on these supporting documents, the following transcript taken from Judge Neely's docket appears genuine. LDS apologists raise questions and try to suggest the judgment was added by someone other than Neely. There is nothing to support that and the record stands as received. Here is the 1826 trial transcript:

Warrant issued upon written complaint upon oath of Peter G. Bridgeman, who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an imposter. Prisoner brought before Court March 20, 1826.

Prisoner examined: says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school. That he had a certain stone which he had occasionally look at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were at a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times, and had informed him where he could find these treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them. That at Palmyra he pretended to tell by looking at this stone where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania and while at Palmyra had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of its injuring his health, especially his eyes, making them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always declined having anything to do with this business.

Josiah Stowel sworn: says that prisoner had been at his house something like five months; had been employed by him to work on farm part of time; that he pretended to have skill of telling where hidden treasures in the earth were by means of looking through a certain stone; that prisoner had looked for him sometimes; once to tell him about money buried in Bend Mountain in Pennsylvania, once for gold on Monument Hill, and once for a salt spring; and that he positively knew that the prisoner could tell, and did possess the art of seeing those valuable treasures through the medium of said stone; that he found the [word illegible] at Bend and Monument Hill as prisoner represented it; that prisoner had looked through said stone for Deacon Attleton for a mine, did not exactly find it but got a p- [word unfinished] of ore which resembled gold, he thinks; that prisoner had told by means of this stone where a Mr. Bacon had buried money; that he and prisoner had been in search of it; that prisoner had said it was in a certain root of a stump five feet from the surface of the earth, and with it would be found a tail feather; that said Stowel and prisoner thereupon commenced digging, found a tail feather, but money was gone; that he supposed the money moved down.

That prisoner did offer his services; that he never deceived him; that prisoner looked through stone and described Josiah Stowel's house and outhouses, while at Palmyra at Simpson Stowel's, correctly; that he had told about a painted tree, with a man's head painted upon it, by means of said stone. That he had been in company with prisoner digging for gold, and had the most implicit faith in prisoner's skill.

Arad Stowel sworn: says that he went to see whether prisoner could convince him that he possessed the skill he professed to have, upon which prisoner laid a book upon a white cloth, and proposed looking through another stone which was white and transparent, hold the stone to the candle, turn his head to look, and read. The deception appeared so palpable that witness went off disgusted. McMaster sworn: says he went with Arad Stowel, and likewise came away disgusted. Prisoner pretended to him that he could discover objects at a distance by holding this white stone to the sun or candle; that prisoner rather declined looking into a hat at his dark colored stone, as he said that it hurt his eyes.

Jonathon Thompson: says that prisoner was requested to look for chest of money; did look, and pretended to know where it was; and prisoner, Thompson and Yeomans went in search of it; that Smith arrived at spot first; was at night; that Smith looked in hat while there, and when very dark, and told how the chest was situated. After digging several feet, struck something sounding like a board or plant. Prisoner would not look again, pretending that he was alarmed on account of the circumstances relating to the trunk being buried [which] came all fresh to his mind. That the last time he looked he discovered distinctly the two Indians who buried the trunk, that a quarrel ensued between them, and that one of said Indians was killed by the other, and thrown into the hold beside the trunk, to guard it, as he supposed. Thompson says that he believes in the prisoner's professed skill; that the board he struck his spade upon was probably the chest, but on account of an enchantment the trunk kept settling away from under them when digging; that notwithstanding they continued constantly removing the dirt, yet the trunk kept about the same distance from them. Says prisoner said that it appeared to him that salt might be found at Bainbridge, and that he is certain that prisoner can divine things by means of said stone. That as evidence of the fact prisoner looked into his hat to tell him about some money witness lost sixteen years ago, and that he described the man the witness supposed had taken it, and the disposition of the money: And therefore the Court find the Defendant guilty.

- Joseph Smith's 1826 court transcript; see Abanes, One Nation Under Gods, p. 501

Webarchive reference

Editor comment: As stated above, the transcript above was not found in the court documents, only the two bills from officials involved in the Chenango County trial of Joseph Smith at South Bainbridge in 1826 were found and exist today. This seems to confirm that a court of some kind took place but does not necessarily confirm that the above transcript is accurate. As stated above, the transcript originally came from the niece of Judge Neely, the official in the Joseph Smith case. She claimed to have torn the transcript from Judge Neely's docket book and took it to Utah in 1880s. It was published on three occasions (Fraser's Magazine 1873, Mormons 1883 and Utah Christian Advocate 1886). The original transcript was lost some time after it was published. LDS defenders argued for the next century that there never was a trial and questioned the authenticity of the transcript. Dan Vogel's videos on the 1826 trial (referenced below) go into much further detail in helping determine the validity of the transcript.

 

What is particularly noteworthy about this incident is the timing of the charges. These documents indicate that Joseph was involved in treasure seeking with a seer stone for profit after he received the First Vision but before he translated the Book of Mormon. This puts Joseph in a new light. It would seem that his belief in magic and seer stones was perhaps motivated more by profit and superstition rather than a sincere desire to bring forth the restoration. It would be very unlikely that the chosen prophet of the restoration would engage in such activities after conversing with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as well as the Angel Moroni. Would he really be doing such activities a year before he dug up the golden plates, after he had met with the angel Moroni for each of the prior three years?

…if this court record is authentic it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.

Hugh Nibley, The Myth Makers

The following references provide the details of the how the court records came to be, LDS apologist responses and evidence of the validity of the records. Basically LDS apologists use to refute the validity of the claims that were becoming better known starting in 1945 when Fawn Brody's book No Man Knows My History came out and discussed the court trials. LDS faithful argued that the evidence supporting the claims was not that convincing. Although famed LDS historian Hugh Nibley acknowledged that if the court records were actually true, it would lend a lot of credibility to the arguments against Joseph Smith and his divine claims. 

Note: A copy of the official court records (the two bills) was donated to the LDS Church in 2005. It can be viewed here: http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changech4.htm

LDS apologist rebuttal: The pro-LDS apologetic organization FAIR claims that the critics are misquoting the Nibley quote given above citing that it is incomplete and out of context. They suggest that Nibley was merely questioning Tuttle's own confidence in the authenticity of the document based on Tuttle's failure to acknowledge the document in later publications.

Since the two actual court document bills from 1826 were found in the courthouse in 1971, most apologists now usually acknowledge that a trial was held in 1826 against Joseph but that it isn't really that damaging to Joseph despite their earlier claims that if the trial was true it would be very damaging to Joseph Smith. Most apologists accept the validity of the court bills but still question the transcript reported to have been taken from Judge Neely's docket. FAIR's rebuttal to the 1826 Court Trial.

Critic's Comment: Joseph never found any treasure for the men that hired him to find treasure using his seer stones. However, he was able to convince them he had the ability by describing things on Josiah Stowel's property such as his house, outhouses and a painted tree. Obviously, he could have found out about these things without having special abilities. Also, it's very easy to plant a tail feather to prove he could 'see' distant things in his stone. When it came to treasure, he would always seem to have an excuse as to why they couldn't find the treasure even though he saw it in his stone. Often Joseph would say that the treasure kept sinking further into the ground as they dug or that the spirits of dead Indians were guarding the treasure and wouldn't let anyone have it.

Most LDS are not aware as to what extent Joseph was involved in treasure-seeking activities involving seer stones in a similar manner in which he brought forth the Book of Mormon. The references given below go into much further depth on Joseph and his family's involvement in these kinds of activities which may cast some doubt on Joseph's story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

Editor Comment: Most LDS defenders accept that a court trial did take place in 1826 and that the records uncovered are authentic but dispute the significance of the trial. Here is a reference on the LDS Church web site verifying that a trial did take place. From Highlights in the Prophet's Life on LDS.org:

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.

http://www.lds.org/ensign/print/1994/06/highlights-in-the-prophets-life?lang=eng&clang=eng

 

Also from another LDS apologist that acknowledges the evidence for the 1826 trial but disputes the significance of it. Here's the conclusion from pro LDS defender Brandon U. Hansen:

The evidence from published accounts and public records seem to allow one to be fairly certain in concluding that JS was detained and brought before Judge Neely under the disorderly person accusation. However, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that JS was ever brought before the "Court of Special Sessions" necessary to indict or hand out a verdict.

The 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith Jr.

Note: Brandon Hansen provides a fairly comprehensive apologetic defense of the 1826 trial in the above mentioned link.

LDS Historians' Views

Mormon historians are now conceding the reality of the Smith family’s involvement with magic. In D. Michael Quinn’s new edition of his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View he observes:

"Friendly sources corroborate hostile non-Mormon accounts. As historian Richard L. Bushman has written: ‘There had always been evidence of it ("money-digging in the Smith family") in the hostile affidavits from the Smith’s neighbors, evidence which Mormons dismissed as hopelessly biased. But when I got into the sources, I found evidence from friendly contemporaries as well, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, and Lucy Mack Smith. All of these witnesses persuaded me treasure-seeking and vernacular magic were part of the Smith family tradition, and that the hostile witnesses, including the 1826 trial record, had to be taken seriously.’ BYU historian Marvin S. Hill has likewise observed: ‘Now, most historians, Mormon or not, who work with the sources, accept as fact Joseph Smith’s career as village magician.’" (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd ed. 1998, p.59)

Video about Joseph Smith's 1826 Court Trial

Noted LDS historian Dan Vogel gives a thorough, scholarly examination of the 1826 trial in two videos. Part 1 discusses the documents and controversy surrounding Joseph Smith's 1826 trial, particularly with regard to the verdict. Part 2 discusses the testimony given at the trial. These videos should not be overlooked. The videos go into far more detail objectively analyzing all the evidences than the website references do and come to some pretty fair conclusions on what likely happened with the 1826 court trial.

Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial (Pt 1) - The Verdict - Dan Vogel

Joseph Smith's 1826 Trial (Pt 2) The Testimony - Dan Vogel

 

Also website: Rethinking the 1826 Judicial Decision - Dan Vogel

 

More on treasure seeking

  1. Hiel Lewis (Emma's cousin) stated that Joseph used the peep stone found while digging a well for the Chase family in 1822[B.H. Roberts CHC (Salt lake City: Deseret news Press, 1930), vol. 1, 120.] was used to translate the golden plates and "directed his enchantments and dog sacrifices; and it was all by the same spirit." [Hiel Lewis, "Review of Mormonism: Rejoinder to Elder Cadwell." Amboy Journal, June 4, 1879, Quoted in Quinn, 172.
  2. Alva Hale, Emma Smith's brother said, "Joe Smith never handled one shovel of earth in those diggings [treasure hunts]. All that Smith did was to peep with stone and hat, and give directions where and how to dig, and when and where the enchantment moved the treasure. That Smith said if he should work with his hands at digging there, he would lose the power to see with the stone. (Alva Hale, Quoted in Joseph Lewis, "Review of Mormonism," Amboy Journal, June 11, 1879, cited in David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2000), 38
  3. Lucy Mack Smith wrote that Josiah Stowel came all the way from Pennsylvania to see her son "on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye."
  4. This link includes information on seer stones used by non-LDS: JosephHantley Web Archive

Locations of Joseph Smith's Treasure Quests

LDS historian Dan Vogel discusses Joseph Smith's treasure-seeking activities in these informative youtube videos:

Locations of Joseph Smith's Treasure Quests pt 1 Dan Vogel

Locations of Joseph Smith's Treasure Quests pt 2 Dan Vogel

 

Video on Joseph Smith's 1823 Discovery of Gold Plates

Noted LDS historian Dan Vogel produced another video that provides some historical information relevant to the discovery of the gold plates. The purpose of this video will be to reconstruct the original story and restore it to its folk magic and treasure seeking context—a part of the story the average Mormon is unaware.

Occult context of Joseph Smith's 1823 Discovery of Gold Plates

 

References

Urim & Thummim

Some accounts refer to the seer stones as a pair of stones set in eye frames to resemble spectacles. Other accounts refer to a single seer stone by itself. Apparently the spectacle version was with the plates in the stone box. Some accounts state that they were only used for translating just the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon and were then taken from Joseph by the angel along with the plates, although there is no direct evidence that Joseph used the spectacle version of the Urim & Thummim for translating even the first 116 pages of the BOM. The accounts were reported in some newspapers but the reporters likely confused the spectacle version with the seer stone version as many Latter-day Saints did. The angel returned the plates but not the spectacle 'Urim & Thummim'. After this, Joseph used the single seer stone that he had in his possession from before the Book of Mormon plates were retrieved.

The term "Urim & Thummim" is mentioned seven times in the Old Testament (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; Deuteronomy 33:8; Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6 - in the latter two passages "Urim" is used alone.). The Urim & Thummim described in the Old Testament appears to more of a 'Yes/No' tool like a pair of dice rather than an actual translation device. We know of no historian or Biblical scholar who claims that the Biblical Urim & Thummim had anything to do with "translating languages", or that they resembled "giant spectacles" as BOM witnesses claimed. But the term 'Urim & Thummim' did give the seer stone an air of Biblical authority to it so perhaps that's why the church started using that term after 1833 and backdated earlier references of 'seer stone' with 'urim & thummim'.

The idea that the 'spectacle' version of the Urim & Thummim was larger than a man would use may have come from the prevalent belief that the ancient inhabitants of America were large people based on bones found in some mounds. When Joseph used the spectacles in conjunction with the plates, it was behind a curtain to shield the plates from view. No one was allowed to see the spectacles either. Joseph didn’t likely place the spectacle Urim & Thummim into a hat in full view like he did his seer stone despite the accounts of some confused reporters. The only possible time the spectacles were likely used was prior to formal translation when Joseph was copying the characters and possibly translating some of them from behind the curtain.

Term 'Urim and Thummim' not used until 1833

It is notable that the term "Urim and Thummim" is not found in the Book of Mormon and was never used by Joseph Smith with reference to producing the Book of Mormon until after 1833. In that year, a close associate of Joseph Smith, W.W. Phelps, speculated that the ancient Nephite interpreters, mentioned in the Book of Mormon and by Joseph Smith, might be the Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament. Phelps wrote in the LDS publication The Evening and Morning Star (Jan. 1833) that the Book of Mormon had been translated, "through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles - (known perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim). Phelps words, "known perhaps in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim" show that it was merely speculation on his part that associated Joseph's magic seer stone with the biblical Urim and Thummim. Phelps' speculation gained quick popularity to the point where LDS writers used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to both the mystical interpreters Joseph Smith said were with the gold plates, and to the seer stone Joseph placed in his hat while dictating the Book of Mormon. As a result, many LDS writings used the term Urim and Thummim synonymously for seer stone. An example of this confusion of the terms is provided by the tenth President of the LDS church, Joseph Fielding Smith:

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 now in the possession of the Church.

According to David Whitmer, the entire Book of Mormon text we have today came through Joseph's seer stone and not through the Nephite interpreters. In an 1885 interview, Zenas H. Gurley, then the editor of the RLDS Saints' Herald, asked Whitmer if Joseph had used his "Peep stone" to do the translation. Whitmer replied:

... he used a stone called a "Seers stone," the "Interpreters" having been taken away from him because of transgression. The "Interpreters" were 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.

These comments from David Whitmer regarding the loss of the "Interpreters" and Joseph's subsequent use of his stone, help clarify some confusion regarding what exactly Joseph used to produce the Book of Mormon. When Joseph first announced the discovery of gold plates with strange engravings, he also claimed there were special spectacles called "Interpreters" that were with the plates. Joseph said these were to help in the translation process. However, after Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation that Joseph loaned to him, Joseph claimed that the angel took back both the plates and the Interpreters as punishment to Joseph. He would later get back the gold plates, but was told he would not receive the Interpreters, but instead was allowed to use his seer stone to produce all of the Book of Mormon we have today. As time went on, Joseph Smith and others would refer to the seer stone both as "Interpreters" and as the "Urim & Thummim."

 

Emma Smith also stated that the spectacle version of the Urim & Thummim was used for only the first 116 pages and then a stone was used for the rest. In this letter to a friend in 1870 she writes:

Now the first that my husband translated, [the book] was translated by the 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. (Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March, 1870, Community of Christ Library-Archives)

 

Editor comment: We contacted apologists at FAIR and they also agreed that it was W.W. Phelps who first coined the phrase "Urim & Thummim".

Even LDS apologist Stephen Ricks acknowledges that the term "Urim and Thummim" was not used by any Mormon until about 1833:

"the term Urim and Thummim (first used by W. W. Phelps in 1833), which is generally associated with the Nephite interpreters, is frequently used in a rather undifferentiated manner to indicate either the seer stone or the interpreters."

B.H. Roberts

Although Mormon historian B. H. Roberts claimed that Joseph Smith used the Urim & Thummim, he frankly stated that he sometimes used a "Seer Stone" to translate the plates: "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 & Thummim, since by means of it - as described above - as well by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates." (Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 1, page 129)

B.H. Roberts explains the difference between the seer stone and the translating device found in the stone box:

"The sum of the whole matter, then, concerning the manner of translating the sacred record of the Nephites, according to the testimony of the only witnesses competent to testify in the matter is: With the Nephite record was deposited a curious instrument, consisting of two transparent stones, set in the rim of a bow, somewhat resembling spectacles, but larger, called by the ancient Hebrews 'Urim and Thummim,' but by the Nephites 'Interpreters.' In addition to these 'Interpreters' the Prophet Joseph had a 'Seer Stone,' possessed of similar qualities to the Urim and Thummim; that the prophet sometimes used one and sometimes the other of these sacred instruments in the work of translation; that whether the 'Interpreters' or the 'Seer Stone' was used the Nephite characters with the English interpretation appeared in the sacred instrument; that the Prophet would pronounce the English translation to his scribe, which when correctly written would disappear and the other characters with their interpretation take their place, and so on until the work was completed" (B.H. Roberts, The Seventy's Course in Theology, First Year, p.111).

http://www.askgramps.org/3269/in-what-way-did-the-prophet-joseph-smith-translate-the-book

Urim & Thummim in the Doctrine and Covenants

It should be noted that the mention of the Urim & Thummim in Doctrine and Covenants 10:1, dated "summer of 1828," was written back into this revelation at a later date. In its original form as Chapter IX of the 1833 Book of Commandments, the revelation makes no mention of the Urim & Thummim (scanned image of 1833 Book of Commandments, Chapter IX and D&C 10:1). The mention of Urim & Thummim in what is now designated D&C 10:1 first appears in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Commandments, where it is found as Section XXXVI.

Critic's comment: Apparently the Church took that action to cover up the 'peep-stone' accounts, and replace it with something that sounded Biblical, rather than occultic.

References

Angel takes Urim & Thummim?

Joseph Smith claimed that when he was a teenager, in 1823, that a Nephite by the name of Moroni, who had died over 1000 years ago, visited him in his bedroom at night. The resurrected Nephite told Joseph that there was a cache of items buried together in a hill near Joseph's house. The items included a book made of gold, a breastplate, and two seer stones. From Joseph's own description (emphasis added):

He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants. Also, that there were two stones in silver bows (and these stones, fastened to a breast-plate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim) deposited with the plates, and the possession: and use of these stones was what constituted Seers in ancient or modern times, and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book." - (History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, 2:34-35)

As mentioned in the section above by David Whitmer, after the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were translated and then lost by Martin Harris, the Angel punished Joseph by taking away the golden plates and the Urim & Thummim. After Joseph repented for allowing the plates to be lost, the angel returned the golden plates to him but he did not return the Urim & Thummim. Instead Joseph had to resort to using a common stone that he had found while digging a well in the company of his brother Hyrum, for Willard and Mason Chase.

Joseph was digging a well for Mr. Chase. Martin Harris stated that the stone was 24 feet underground. (Martin Harris statement in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, pages 163-170.)

Dan Vogel quotes sources that indicate that in the fall of 1825, Joseph Smith sent Hyrum Smith to Willard Chase to borrow the stone from Willard. Willard Chase said that Hyrum came to him claiming that Joseph needed the stone to "accomplish some business of importance, which could not very well be done without the aid of the stone." Chase was hesitant but Hyrum persisted and promised to return the stone. But Chase would never see the stone again. (Willard Chase, ca. 11 De4c. 1833, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 241 (Also found in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 2:66)

Does it make any sense at all that the angel would actually punish Joseph by taking away the very means by which he needed to translate the plates? The 'Nephite Interpreters' were kept with the plates for thousands of years for the purpose of allowing the sacred golden plates to be translated to a modern-day language. Why preserve the Urim & Thummim and only allow it to be perhaps used for translating the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon? Why punish Joseph after he repented - wasn't he forgiven, he did after all get the plates back, which are certainly more important than the Urim & Thummim? And why punish him in this manner by forcing him to resort to using a common stone he found while digging a well? Also, why does the church continually perpetuate the belief that the Urim & Thummim, contained in the stone box along with the gold plates, was used in translating the Book of Mormon when it was only perhaps used for the first 116 pages which were lost anyway?

The 2008 Sunday School manual on Joseph Smith (Chapter 5 on repentance - first page) states that:

For a time, the Lord took the Urim and Thummim and the plates from Joseph. But these things were soon restored to him. "The angel was rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim," the Prophet recalled, "and said 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 my duty so well as to be able to enter upon the work of translation again."

Reference given for this is: Quoted by Lucy Mack Smith, The History of Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet, 1844-45 manuscript, book 7, p. 11, Church Archives.

The History of the Church Vol. 1, ch 3 states that "the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again."

However, David Whitmer and Emma Smith said that the original Urim & Thummim was taken back by the angel after the 116 pages were lost and not returned. This seems more likely because if Joseph did have the original Urim & Thummim, why would he use a common stone he found while digging a well to translate the rest of the BOM? The fact that he used a single stone for translating the BOM is not in dispute as is mentioned many times by devout LDS historians such as B.H. Roberts and even apostle Russell M. Nelson. Also, the Church has this stone in its possession today but not the original spectacle-version of the Urim & Thummim, that was reportedly in the stone box.

Also, it should be noted that FAIR also apparently disagrees with the above statement recorded in the 2008 Sunday School manual. FAIR's web site states

Thus, "it" (Joseph's gift) was restored to him, but there is no indication that the Nephite interpreters (Urim and Thummim) were also returned, Joseph having also lost "them." That is, after repenting, Joseph would recover his seer stones, but apparently not the the Urim and Thummim. Some Church sources have seen this as the point at which Joseph received the seer stone for the first time, but this is likely incorrect. http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith_and_seer_stones

Many critics contend that there never was a spectacle-version of the Urim & Thummim. There doesn't appear to be any firm validation that anyone actually saw it other than Joseph, although Lucy Smith (Joseph's mother) claimed to have felt the breastplate under a cloth. Some critics speculate that perhaps the spectacle version and breastplate would not pass a detailed inspection so Joseph substituted one of his common seer stones when the angel purportedly took back the plates and Urim & Thummim after losing the lost 116 pages. Or perhaps he started using the stone sometime during translation of the first 116 pages to Martin Harris. If they used a curtain, as sometimes reported, Martin wouldn't know exactly what Joseph used and may explain why Martin said "that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim". David Whitmer wasn't there, Emma may have been confused but Harris never said he saw anything other than the stone.

References

Seer stone found plates?

Although Moroni is commonly believed to have instructed young Joseph on where the plates were in Hill Cumorah, there is evidence that he found the plates using a seer stone that he had previously used for treasure-seeking. From Martin Harris:

Mr. Harris says: "Joseph Smith, jr., found at Palmyra, N. Y., on the 22d day of September, 1827, the plates of gold upon which was recorded in Arabic, Chaldaic, Syriac, and Egyptian, the Book of Life, or the Book of Mormon. I was not with him at the time, but I had a revelation the summer before, that God had a work for me to do. These plates were found at the north point of a hill two miles north of Manchester village. Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many thing to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates.

Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly

Also, the pro-LDS source FAIR confirms this and provides their own commentary.

Critic's comment: Even the apologists at FAIR confirm this account. Is it not troublesome that a common stone found some 24 feet beneath the ground on Mr. Chase's property had the exact same seering ability as the sacred Urim & Thummim that was preserved in a stone box for 1,500 years? Had the seer stone Joseph used been given to him by an angel or had been the same Urim & Thummim used by the prophets in the Bible, then this would be understandable, but there is nothing to indicate why the stone found on Mr. Chase's property had the same ability as the fabled Urim & Thummim.

Seer stone for revelation

The seer stone that Joseph found on Mason Chase's property 24 feet underground while digging a well, was used for obtaining revelation from God as well as for translating ancient documents.

From David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, p.30 - p.31 [It will be on slightly different pages in different editions of Whitmer's pamphlet - emphasis added.]

We were waiting on Martin Harris who was doing his best to sell a part of his farm, in order to raise the necessary funds. After a time Hyrum Smith and others began to get impatient, thinking that Martin Harris was too slow and under transgression for not selling his land at once, even if at a great sacrifice. Brother Hyrum thought they should not wait any longer on Martin Harris, and that the money should be raised in some other way. Brother Hyrum was vexed with Brother Martin, and thought they should get the money by some means outside of him, and not let him have anything to do with the publication of the Book, or receiving any of the profits thereof if any profits should accrue. He was wrong in thus judging Bro. Martin, because he was doing all he could toward selling his land. Brother Hyrum said it had been suggested to him that some of the brethren might go to Toronto, Canada, and sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon for considerable money: and he persuaded Joseph to inquire of the Lord about it. Joseph concluded to do so. He had not yet given up the stone. Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation that some of the brethren should go to Toronto, Canada, and that they would sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon. Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery went to Toronto on this mission, but they failed entirely to sell the copy-right, returning without any money. Joseph was at my father's house when they returned. I was there also, and am an eye witness to these facts. Jacob Whitmer and John Whitmer were also present when Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery returned from Canada. Well, we were all in great trouble; and we asked Joseph how it was that he had received a revelation from the Lord for some brethren to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right, and the brethren had utterly failed in their undertaking. Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: "Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil." So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man. When a man enquires of the Lord concerning a matter, if he is deceived by his own carnal desires, and is in error, he will receive an answer according to his erring heart, but it will not be a revelation from the Lord.

In discussing the "Canadian Copyright Caper" B. H. Roberts quotes this entire passage in Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 1 pp. 162-66

Apostle Orson Pratt tells of Joseph using the seer stones for revelation

On 4 November 1830 Smith used the white stone to dictate for Orson Pratt, a recent convert, what is now Doctrine and Covenants 34. Forty-eight years later, Pratt related the circumstances of this experience during a visit to David Whitmer's home with Joseph F. Smith: "he asked Joseph [Smith, Jr.] whether he could not ascertain what his mission was and Joseph answered that he would see & asked Pratt and John Whitmer to go up stairs with him. and arriving there Joseph produced a small stone called a seer stone. and putting it into a hat soon commenced speaking."

Pratt, who met Smith after the church president had stopped using the brown stone, subsequently told a congregation of Mormons that he was present "on several occasions" when Smith received revelations and that "sometimes Joseph used a seer stone when enquiring of the Lord, and receiving revelation."

Smith also used a white stone to give a prophetic blessing. According to Newel K. Whitney, who would become one of the church's presiding bishops, Smith gave him a patriarchal (prophetic) blessing on 7 October 1835 "through the Urim and Thummim," or the white seer stone. This is the only known use of a seer stone for giving a patriarchal blessing in the Church. However, this event lends credence to the statements of unfriendly Palmyra and Pennsylvania neighbors that Smith first used a stone in the 1820s for what they described as "fortune-telling."

Hiram Page

Hiram Page, one of the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon and a leader in the early days of the Church, had a peep stone which he used to obtain revelations. Joseph Smith himself stated that Hiram Page gave false revelations through his stone and that the other witnesses to the Book of Mormon were influenced by his revelations:

To our great grief, however, we soon found that Satan had been lying in wait to deceive,... Brother Hiram Page had in his possession a certain stone, by which he obtained certain "revelations" ... all of which were entirely at variance with the order of God's house, ... the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery, were believing much in the things set forth by this stone, we thought best to inquire of the Lord concerning so important a matter ... (History of the Church, by Joseph Smith, vol. 1, pp.109-10).

The Doctrine and Covenants 28:11 instructs Joseph Smith to have Oliver Cowdery tell Hiram Page that "those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him."

Critic's comment: This is perhaps further evidence of how superstitious and gullible people were at that time, including the Book of Mormon witnesses.

References

Seer stone today

Joseph had given the seer stone, that he used to translate the Book of Mormon with, to Oliver Cowdery. Until his death in 1850, Cowdery kept this brown stone as a sacred relic of the Book of Mormon translation. Brigham Young's brother Phineas, who was Cowdery's brother-in-law, obtained the stone from Cowdery's widow in 1850 and made a gift of it to Brigham Young.

Three years later, one of Young's counselors in the First Presidency confirmed to a Salt lake City congregation that Young had "the Urim and Thummim" (JD 2:111). Following Young's death in 1877, his widow Zina D.H. Young obtained this seer stone at an estate auction of her husband's personal effects, and she and her daughter Zina Y. Card eventually gave it to his successor John Taylor.

In 1882 Apostle Franklin D. Richards examined "the Seer Stone that Oliver Cowdery gave Phineas Young," observing that "the pouch containing it [was] made by Emma [Smith]." One of John Taylor's body guards recorded in 1887, "On Sunday last I saw and handled the seer stone that the Prophet Joseph Smith had. It was a dark color, not round on one side. It was shaped like the top of a baby's shoe, one end like the toe of the shoe, and the other round."

Wilford Woodruff, as new president of the church in 1888, dedicated the Manti, Utah temple. While there, Woodruff had the stone upon the alter: "Before leaving I Consecrated upon the Altar the seers Stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 feet under the Earth [and] Carried By him through life" (Wilford Woodruff's journal, 18 May, 1888).

After Woodruffs death in 1898, his successor Lorenzo Snow displayed the brown, Book of Mormon seer stone to a local bishop of the church. Frederick Kesler wrote in his diary that Snow "showed me the Seerers Stone that the Prophet Joseph Smith had by which he done some of the Translating of the Book of Mormon with. I handeled [sic] it with my own hands. I felt as though I see & was handling a very Sacred thing. I trust & feel that it will work in his hands as it did in the Prophet Joseph Smiths hands," and added that this stone's "color was mahoganey."

This seer stone is now kept in the First Presidency's private vault (Sources: Roberts 1930, 6:231n; J. F. Smith 1954a, 3:225; McConkie 1966, 818; Joseph Anderson 1971).

Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the LDS church: "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 now in the possession of the church." (Doctrines of Salvation,Vol. 3, p. 225)

In about 1982, a descendent of Brigham Young, Mary Brown Firmage was told by the First Presidency's secretary that there were 3 seer stones in First Presidency's vault. She was allowed to see one when she visited that office. She reported: "The stone was not chocolate brown but rather the color of brown sugar. It was 3-4 inches long, 2 inches wide, and had a hump in the middle which made it perhaps 2 inches thick at the thickest point. It was fiat on the bottom and had three black, concentric circles on the top 1/2 inch. Below the circles were many small black circles. The stone was not transparent." (Mary Brown Firmage interview with Richard S. Van Wagoner, 11 Aug 1986. Van Wagoner papers, Marriott Library)

In more recent years, Grant Palmer [three-time director of LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah] was "shown by Earl Olson" the three "seer stones in First Presidency Vault." The first was "milk chocolate [in color], like a baseball [in shape, with] no stripes." Different from the descriptions of the founding prophet's dark-colored Book of Mormon seer stone, this first stone's origin and chain-of-ownership are unknown (at least outside the LDS Presidency's office). The second was "shiny or polished stone, [with] stripes, dark brown [-] size between egg and handball." ...The only description Palmer gave for the third was that it was a "small stone." The brown and white stones are the only seer stones Joseph Smith definitely used, yet he acquired others as Church T. Young told the apostles in 1855 that Smith had five seer stones...

Young's statement makes it clear that Smith did not regard his seer stones simply as relics of his youth. Rather, as church president Smith continued to discover new seer stones (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 245 - 246). Salt Lake City Messenger Issue No. 105

Critic's Comment: It is no wonder that the Church rarely talks about this stone openly in modern times. How many members know about it? Can you imagine the embarrassment if this stone was actually shown to the world as the stone Joseph put in a hat and buried his face in the hat to bring forth the Book of Mormon? In 2006, the LDS Church had a special display at their Church Museum of different Joseph Smith artifacts. They even had a mockup of the gold plates. However, they chose not to display any of Joseph Smith's seer stones. Since one of these stones was used to translate all of the published Book of Mormon, one wonders why it wasn't included in the display? Could it be that the current prophet is embarrassed by the very instrument used to produce LDS scripture?

References

Translation timeline

The following critic's comments were taken in its entirety from a posting on the RFM message board:

Joseph is allowed to take possession of the plates on September 22, 1827, but apparently doesn't know what to do with them for 7 months because he doesn't begin translating them until April 1828. The manuscripts for the Book of Lehi are lost in June 1828.

However, this is where the story really starts to get fishy. Joseph starts to re-translate in September 1828 with Emma as his scribe. So that is 3 months after the manuscripts were lost. Joseph does this without any kind of instruction or revelation to do so. In fact, Joseph doesn't start the book of Lehi, not even the Books of Nephi. The really odd thing is that as Joseph is starting the re-translation process, he doesn't start at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. He starts where he left off: at the end of the Book of Lehi, or the beginning of the Book of Mosiah.

Joseph only manages to dictate a few chapters of Mosiah and forgets about the whole thing from September to April of the next year. Finally, 7 months after that, Joseph is ready to translate the Book of Mormon with rapid-fire succession, this time with Oliver Cowdery as principal scribe.

Oliver Cowdery Wants To Translate Like Joseph

Oliver Cowdery is absolutely amazed by Joseph's ability to look into the hat and translate the records by looking into the seer stone. So Oliver eagerly wants to help in this astonishing and amazing process and be more than just a scribe. Oliver is granted by God to be given the gift of translation in D&C 8. The Lord responding to Oliver's request says "Ask that...you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up...and according to your faith shall it be done unto you." So Oliver looks into the hat, and... nothing. All he sees is a rock in a hat.

We can imagine the conversation that transpired between Joseph and Oliver. Oliver looked into the hat and saw nothing. Joseph looks into the hat and says "yup, it is certainly working, I can see the words just fine." Oliver looks in to the hat and...still nothing...hmmm...Frustrated, Oliver Cowdery went back to writing what Joseph was dictating by looking at the rock in the hat some more. Joseph then receives a revelation that is found in D&C 9 and gives Oliver this message from the Lord:

Behold, I say unto you,(Oliver)...that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record...Be patient, my son, for it is wisdom in me, and it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time. Behold, the work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph. And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you. Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.

So the Lord Basically tells Oliver that he takes back what he said in D&C 8 about him being able to help out as translator, oh and it's Oliver's fault for not having enough patience. God tells Oliver that because he started taking from Joseph, now he lost his translating privileges all together. Oh, and Oliver, don't cry about it and be happy about being scribe.

Translation Continues

Joseph Smith STILL has not translated 1st and 2nd Nephi, and he still hasn't received any kind of revelation that instructed him to start the re-translation process of the Book of Mormon. However, finally in May of 1829 Joseph receives a revelation that is now known as D&C section 10 that tells Joseph to write the Book of Nephi instead of the Book of Lehi. So presumably after they finished with the rest of the Book, they went back and translated the 1st and 2nd books of Nephi and placed them at the beginning of the book.

Trying to match the dates with his story

Revelation as published in 1833

Joseph Smith received what is now known as D&C section 10. However, the original publication of this revelation was in a book known as the Book of Commandments. The Book of Commandments was the original Doctrine and Covenants, which was published in 1833. The revelation is documented as chapter 9 in the original Book of Commandments. In it, it says that Joseph received the revelation in May of 1829.

Revelation as published in 1835

The original Doctrine and Covenants as published in 1835 also includes this same revelation and once again, it says the revelation was given to Joseph in May 1829. There is no doubt that Joseph had time to correct the date, because he made several "corrections" to the revelation, by adding the words "Urim and Thummim" and a few other alterations. The funny thing is that finally now in May of 1829, the Lord says referring to the gift of translation: "it is now restored unto you again...continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun"

So it is NOW restored to Joseph, even though he already had been continuing the translation since September of the previous year, 8 months prior. Hmm. So Joseph just instinctively knew not to re-translate the Book of Lehi when he began the re-translation process. Perhaps he thought it would turn up? But when he began the re-translation process, why did he skip over 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni and Words of Mormon to translate Mosiah without any instructions from God? It doesn't make any sense at all.

Revelation as currently published

The LDS church knows the dates don't make any sense at all and the revelation found in D&C 10 don't match Joseph's story. The historical records show us that Joseph began the re-translation process in September 1828, but he didn't receive the revelation with instructions on what to do about the Book of Lehi until May 1829. What the LDS church has done is simply changed the date of the revelation to better fit Joseph's story chronologically. In the current publication of the Doctrine and Covenants, the LDS church has changed the date of the revelation as found in D&C 10 from the actual date of the revelation in May 1829 to the summer of 1828. They have done this to reflect the fact that Joseph actually started the re-translation process in September of 1828. Now let's be clear on this, because this is what is most troubling for me: The LDS church changed the date of the revelation to reflect a chronology that would better fit Joseph Smith's story. They have committed outright fraud. They are literally lying about the date of his revelation.

Apologist Response

The only arguments that I have heard is that the editor of the D&C only had the best intentions in mind and did not mean to commit fraud by changing the date of the revelation, yeah, as if making alterations to canonized scripture is done without authorization from the first presidency, right. Let's see what LDS apologist Richard Bushman has to say regarding the date change:

The order of translation in turn bears on the date of section 10 in the Doctrine and Covenants, currently dated "summer 1828." The manuscript version of the History of the Church gives May, 1829 for the date of section 10. The Book of Commandments, the first printed version of the Doctrine and Covenants dated the section May, 1829, as well. A later editor changed the date to summer, 1828, because the directions for translating I Nephi are in that section. The revelation would have lost its point by May, 1829 if Joseph had begun the translation of I Nephi three months previously.

What Richard Bushman is saying is that whoever changed the date assumed that when Joseph began the re-translation of the Book of Mormon that he started with 1 Nephi and went to the entire book. Although I admire Bushman for his attempts that are much more satisfying than the typical "read the Book of Mormon and pray about it" response, the other problem is that the revelation instructs Joseph not to re-translate the Book of Lehi, which Joseph already skipped over. Joseph already skipped passed 1 Nephi as well, so if Joseph Smith had already translated 1 Nephi, the revelation would have been pointless. The whole thing just doesn't pass the "smell test." I think it is much more likely that Joseph Smith always had the fear in the back of his mind that someone had the original manuscripts and if he tried to reproduce the book of Lehi, his secret would be out. He probably came up with the 'replacing it with the Book of Nephi' idea mid-"translation".

Regardless, the LDS church is lying about the date of the revelation of section 10 to reflect a time line that makes the story more believable.

Regardless, if they have any integrity, they will change it back to the actual date to reflect reality. This is one of the biggest problems I have with the church, is that the date does not reflect the correct one. But then again, Joseph Smith might have been wrong about when he received his revelation and maybe he was just speaking as a man, after all, even prophets of God are not infallible. So what the LDS church is saying right now is that Joseph Smith didn't get the date right. If Joseph Smith couldn't even get the date right, how do we know he got the message straight? He made changes to the revelation years later, so how do we know we have the correct message now?

I think it is much more likely and reasonable to say that Joseph Smith simply got caught in his own lie. The date that he said he got that revelation doesn't match the historical records, so the LDS church changed the date. The LDS church has falsified a document and now knows the date is incorrect, and therefore is committing fraud.

So let's recap the timeline because it is a little confusing.

  • 1822 - Joseph Smith finds a seer stone while digging a well by his farmhouse
  • Sept 1823 - Joseph Says he sees Moroni in a vision in his room and is allowed to see the plates but not take them.
  • Sept 1824 - Joseph visits the plates again, but is not allowed to take them
  • Sept 1825 - Joseph visits the plates yet again.
  • March 1826 - Joseph is arrested for "glass looking" with the seer stone to find buried treasure
  • Sept 1826 - Joseph visits the plates
  • Sept 1827 - Joseph finally takes possession of the plates
  • April 1828 - Joseph begins translation of Book of Lehi with Martin Harris as scribe
  • June 1828 - Manuscripts for Book of Lehi are lost
  • July 1828 - Joseph receives revelation telling him his gift of translating is taken away for a season
  • Sept 1828 - Joseph starts re-translation of Book of Mormon without any instructions from God or any kind of revelation. He just does it on his own, the really odd thing is he doesn't attempt to re-translate the Book of Lehi, and skips 1Nephi, 2Nephi, Jacob, Enos, Jarom, Omni and Words of Mormon. He continues where he left off chronologically at the end of the Book of Lehi, or the beginning of Mosiah. His wife Emma served as scribe.
  • April 1829 - Joseph begins the "rapid-fire" translation now with Oliver Cowdery as scribe
  • April 1829 - Oliver Cowdery wants to translate with the magic rock in the hat, is granted the ability, then God changed his mind because Oliver isn't patient enough.
  • May 1829 - Joseph receives revelation not to re-translate Book of Lehi and to replace it with Books of Nephi. The Lord also tells Joseph that "NOW" his gift of translating is "restored" hmm...
  • June 1829 - Transcript is finished, witnesses "see" the plates and Joseph gives them back to Moroni.
  • End of critic's comments

Editor comment: We're not entirely sure how significant this issue is. Some critics label this as additional evidence of Joseph's deception. B.H. Roberts acknowledges the date problem but defends it as an honest mistake as Joseph did seem to place the content of D&C 10 right after D&C 3 content, and also says that it was only a few days later that he received the command to continue translating. The problem then arises as to why he waited until April to continue through the translation. A response taken from LDS lessons is at www.ldsgospeldoctrine.net (see page # 8 under the heading "Excerpt from The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith").

In our opinion, we'll give B.H. Roberts the benefit of the doubt here and state that this is perhaps the least significant issue regarding the translation problems of the Book of Mormon.

Prophets & seer stones

Joseph Smith's moving away from using instruments of folk magic, contributed to the apostasy of some early Mormon believers. Members of the Whitmer family were so devoted to the importance of seer stones that David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and Hiram Page later dated the beginning of their own disenchantment with Mormonism at the time when Joseph Smith stopped using the seer stone as his instrument of revelation.

At least a few church members used seer stones at church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, and in Nauvoo, Illinois. Newel K. Whitney, for example, not only received a patriarchal blessing in 1835 at Kirtland through Joseph Smith's stone, but Whitney's brother later stated, "Mormon elders and women [at Kirtland] often searched the bed of the river for stones with holes caused by the sand washing out, to peep into. N. K. Whitney's wife had one. I took it to search for a cot I had lost from my injured finger. She said it was wicked to trifle with sacred things."

Descendants of Elias Pulsipher have stated that while in Kirtland Pulsipher "found a brown colored stone about 2 1/2 inches wide and 6 inches long with two holes in it. The Prophet Joseph examined it and declared it to be a seer stone. It is not known if Elias could use it but his daughter could. She located drowned persons, lost cattle and other items for people who sought such information. Her daughter [Elias's granddaughter] also could use it and after [sic] would see whatever she desired. One strange thing happened though: she once asked to see Satan-which she did-but that was the last time that stone ever worked for anyone."

While Brigham Young as succeeding church president had no desire to use seer stones himself, he endorsed their use. "Joseph said there is a [seer] Stone for every person on Earth," Young reminisced in 1855, then admitted, "I don't know that I have ever had a desire to have one."

Nevertheless, at the first general conference following the death of Joseph Smith, Young told church members, "The president of the priests has a right to the Urim and Thummim, which gives revelation" (HC 7:285), and, in an 1860 sermon, "Showed that the gift of seeing was a natural gift, that there are thousands in the world who are natural born Seers, but when the Lord selected Joseph Smith to be his vice-gerent and mouthpiece upon the earth in this dispensation, he saw that he would be faithful and honor his calling."

Shortly after the publication of a summary of this sermon, Apostle John Taylor explained to a church congregation the meaning of Young's remarks in regard to seer stones and church authority: "Brigham Young in saying that He did not profess to be a prophet seer & Revelator as Joseph Smith was, was speaking of men being born Natural Prophets & seers. Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all. He had not this gift [of using seer stones] naturally yet He was an Apostle & the President of the Church."

By the 1880s, a dramatic shift in attitude about magic had begun to occur among church leaders. The First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles no longer had the four men who had personally experienced and publicly endorsed folk magic beliefs and practices. Heber C. Kimball had died in 1868, Brigham Young in 1877, Orson Hyde in 1879, and Orson Pratt in 1881. Their successors had more in common with denominational Christianity than with the folk religion of many first generation Mormons.

After the 1880s, LDS authorities typically regarded seer stones as unusual relics of an increasingly distant sacred past.

In fact, church leaders were becoming suspicious of any Latter-day Saints who used seer stones. As early as 1884, George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency, pronounced this warning in a sermon at the Salt Lake Tabernacle: "Do not seek for those who have peepstones, for soothsayers, and for those who profess to be able to counteract the influence of witchcraft," and concluded: "All who take these methods and encourage these practices I say that the anger of Almighty God will descend upon them unless they repent," (JD 26: 65-66)

Less than ten years later, scientist James E. Talmage examined Ruston's stone, after which LDS president Wilford Woodruff said, "He has but little encouragement to offer for the use of seer stones." In 1900, Brigham Young's daughter Susa Young Gates referred to "peep-stones, in the hands of silly and irresponsible people," and that such stones "occupy the same place exactly as other forms of witchcraft and fortune-telling."

The next year John A. Widtsoe (president of a Utah college and later an apostle) published in the church's official periodical the following, particularly stark condemnation: "There are men among us, holding the Holy Priesthood, who in events of their lives would rather stare into a bit of flint-glass that enterprising dealers name a seer-stone, for the solution of their troubles, than to go with the power and authority of their Priesthood to the Almighty Father in prayer."

By the mid-twentieth century, Mormons so overwhelmingly regarded seer stones as artifacts of the past that no evidence of continued seer stone divination was uncovered either by a Mormon fundamentalist who extolled its past use or by Utah folklorists researching the subject.

References

Seer stones in Heaven

Many LDS defenders say that the Urim & Thummim or seer stone was used just by Joseph Smith to primarily translate the Book of Mormon and for some revelations, but that it was not needed any more. However, in 1843 Joseph Smith revealed section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants which mentions the eternal importance of seer stones for everyone:

D&C 130: 10-11

10 Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known;

11 And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.

So apparently the seer stone wasn't just a one-time use device by Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon with, but rather something of eternal significance so important that everyone that gets to the Celestial Kingdom will receive one. Why is this so rarely talked about openly at church when it's plainly in our modern-day scriptures?

Joseph Fielding Smith

The 10th president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith said the following:

While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet JS used a seerstone 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 is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that the stone was used for this purpose.
...
It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the prophet would substitute something evidently inferior [to the U&T] 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 seerstone, which he may have used for some other purposes.

Doctrines of Salvation vol.3 pg 225-226

So apparently even the 10th president of the Church thinks that using a stone to translate the Book of Mormon with "hardly seems reasonable." That's the same view any reasonable, intelligent person probably should have. President Joseph Fielding Smith makes a good point here when he says "It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the prophet would substitute something evidently inferior [to the U&T] under these circumstances."

This is further evidence showing that it doesn't appear reasonable for Joseph to translate the BOM using a common stone he found with his brother Hyrum on Mason Chase's property years before the gold plates were given to him when the stone box had an instrument referred to as the urim & thummim, which was kept and preserved with the plates for some 2,000 years, for the very purpose of translating the plates.

Artist renderings

The following comes from the Mormon Discussion post of Aristotle Smith:

One of the common complaints that critics of the church make is that all artistic renderings of the translation of the Book of Mormon are completely wrong. They always show Joseph poring over gold plates or using the Urim and Thummim, or deep in thought, or something that accords with common Mormon misunderstandings of how the translation happened. They never show it how it happened, with Joseph sticking his head in a hat.

LDS apologists have generally retorted that it's artistic license or the artists don't know what is going on. I mean the artists just paint the stuff and the GAs believe in the freedom and integrity of the artist and his/her product so they wouldn't dare tell the artists to go back to their studios and get the paintings correct. Above all they always emphasize that art isn't doctrine and that only bozos get their doctrine from art.

Up until now I have sided with the apologists, but I am now switching sides to the critics on this one. Why? Because of this art work put in the December 2011 issue of the Ensign. Please take a minute to compare the original art work on the left and the Ensign's version of the art work on the right at this web page:

http://www.dovesandserpents.org/wp/2012 ... st-angels/

angels without wings

Basically, someone at the Church Office Building (COB) decided to edit Carl Bloch's "The Resurrection" to make it more in harmony with LDS beliefs. Specifically, the angels in the Ensign version lack wings and are dressed more modestly (shoulders covered).

If the LDS church can censor and edit a great painting to accord more with Mormon doctrine, then they sure as hell can tell their in-house and contract artists to get the translation renditions correct. From this we can conclude that the COB doesn't give a care about artistic integrity. And they sure are worried that people are getting their doctrine from art work. Since this is the case, the COB has no excuse to continue publishing the misleading pictures of the Book of Mormon translation. They either need to commission new works of art to reflect reality or it's time to edit in Joseph's face in a hat in all of the existing LDS artwork depicting the translation process.

Picture published in the Ensign article, Dec 2011, pg 54

Poster Aristotle Smith

Response by the Church

We regret that [as of 7/2/13] we could not find this issue discussed in detail in any official church publication or official LDS website. The only references we could find, where the Church mentions the stone in the hat method, is in Elder Nelson's talk from the July 1993 Ensign (shown below) and the Sep 1977 Ensign). However, we do present four common responses we have heard from average, devout members and from LDS apologists, as well as critics responses to them. We also show a presentation done by FAIR on this topic and a critic's video response.

UPDATE: On 12/30/13 the Church released the 4th essay addressing troubling issues in its history. An essay on the mechanical process in which the Book of Mormon was translated is now in the topical guide of the LDS.org website. It is found here: Book of Mormon Translation

The article is fairly brief and only superficially addresses the problem. For example the article states that a spectacle "urim & thummim" was used to translate the BOM as well as a common stone discovered in the ground. First the essay mentions how special the spectacle version of the urim & Thummim was:

“kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”

Then the essay introduces the 'seer stone':

"The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture."

But the Church does not bring up an obvious natural question this would bring up:

Why would a common stone "discovered in the ground" have the same prophetic seering abilities as the spectacle urim & thummim which was "“kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages”?

Since the official Church essay fails to adequately address the majority of the issues raised by critics about the BOM translation, readers will need to review all of the information on MormonThink's Book of Mormon Translation section. We will update MT's section with information provided in the essay in the near future.

True believer's response #1

Knowledgeable, devout Latter-day Saints are aware of the facts concerning the translation process and generally don't dispute the claims. However many naive, less-seasoned members that we have talked to (including members of our own families) have questioned the validity of the numerous statements made concerning the 'stone in the hat' method vs. what they have been taught in Sunday school. Basically they say 'how do we know the statements made by these individuals e.g. Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, etc. are to be believed over what they have been taught in church?' (Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th president of the Church questioned this also).

Critic's response to true believer

Martin Harris' testimony above is from the LDS book by the Assistant Historian of the Church and Seventy, B.H. Roberts entitled Comprehensive History of the Church.

The LDS Church is usually very low-key about the actual translation process as reported by the various witnesses as evidenced by what's written in the Church's teaching manuals, Church publications, Church websites and material used for the missionary discussions. However, occasionally some high-ranking members of the Church hierarchy are more forthcoming about the actual process. The following is from Apostle Russell M. Nelson who was speaking to a group of mission presidents. This is taken from the July 1993 Ensign and is available in the archives on the Church's official web site. Take in mind that The Ensign is almost considered scripture by The Church as a modern method to communicate God's word.

A Treasured Testament

By Elder Russell M. Nelson Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

Elder Russell M. Nelson

Adapted from an address given 25 June 1992 at a seminar for new mission presidents, Missionary Training Center, Provo, Utah.

Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign, July 1993, 61

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.)

Also, the LDS apologist web site 'AskGramps' confirms the method but does not offer any explanation: http://www.askgramps.org/3269/in-what-way-did-the-prophet-joseph-smith-translate-the-book

True believer's response #2

I am confident that there are many who are investigating the Church who turn to Internet sites to get an understanding of what the Book of Mormon is all about. When they read or hear about the use of seer stones for the first time (in a hat), it can seem strange and very different.

Even Hyrum, the brother of the Prophet was told by Joseph Smith that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” and that “it was not expedient for him to relate these things” (History of the Church, 1:220).

Don't get hung up on the use of a "seer stone in a hat" that may have been used in the early days of translating the Book of Mormon. The method of how it was translated is not a big deal. The real test of the authenticity of the book is found in Moroni's promise. Ask God in prayer.

Latter-day Commentary

Also,

It is important to remember that what we do know for certain is that the translation of the Book of Mormon was carried out "by the gift and power of God." We do not know the exact method of translation. Many have offered their own opinions, but it should be kept in mind that these opinions are given by people who never performed the translation process itself: They can only report on what they observed the Prophet doing at the time. Whether Joseph used the "original" Urim & Thummim or the seer stone to perform this sacred task is beside the point, and it does not diminish the power of the resulting work. One should read the Book of Mormon itself and evaluate its message rather than get wrapped up in the detail of its exact method of translation.

FAIR web site

Critic's response to true believer

If you really believe it makes no difference that Joseph Smith put his face in a hat with a common stone, that he found 24 feet underground while digging a well, and dictated the entire Book of Mormon without even using the Golden Plates, than why doesn't the Church plainly teach this? Even missionaries, that are aware of the actual translation process, will purposely tell investigators the incorrect, commonly-believed version of Joseph using the Urim & Thummim in conjunction with the plates, instead of mentioning the verified 'stone in the hat' method with the plates not even being in the room.

Church Education teachers have actually been disciplined for teaching truths such as the plates were not used in the translation process (two CES teachers have confirmed this). This shows to what lengths the church goes to in order to keep the common member from knowing how the translation of the Book of Mormon was actually done. If it's the truth, as admitted to by top church authorities, why not teach it honestly to everyone and let the people decide if they think it's believable or not?

Also, if it is really no big deal receiving revelation from a stone in a hat, ask yourself how many people in the church would be comfortable if the current prophet of the church was asked on national TV by Larry King or some other talk show host how exactly he received God's word and he said he would put a stone in a hat and put his face in the hat and received revelations that way?

True believer's response #3 - alternate theory

Perhaps Joseph used the stone as a prop to focus on. Maybe he preferred something tangible to concentrate on when he received revelations?

Conversations with various true believers that do not believe that the stones had any special power. Note: we list this reasoning as many LDS disagree with what the apologists have said on this issue.

Critic's response to true believer

Martin Harris wanted to test Joseph so he found a small stone of a similar size, shape and color of the seer stone Joseph was using. He substituted this for the one Joseph was using when he wasn't looking. When Joseph tried to translate again he couldn't using this stone. So it is apparent that the seer stone must have had some special property and not merely have been an object to focus on or Joseph would have been able to translate from the stone Martin substituted.

"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" (Kenneth Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture," Ensign, Jan. 1988)

Or perhaps more likely, Joseph noticed that the stone was different and used this as an opportunity to prove to Martin that he was indeed a seer by pretending not to be able to translate when he noticed that it wasn't the same stone. Take in mind that Joseph was known to carry this stone with him and likely knew exactly what it looked like, so he would have very likely been able to immediately tell that Martin had switched the stone. How likely is it that Martin could quickly find a stone that was lying around that matched the same size, color and shape almost exactly of the one Joseph had? To Martin they would have looked similar enough but Joseph would have been able to tell the difference as he would stare at the stone for hours at a time when translating or obtaining revelation. Also, it's not like Joseph lived in a rock quarry with thousands of odd-shaped stones lying around.

 

Joseph very much believed in the actual power of seer stones. He said "every man should have a seer stone". That statement indicates he used this as a real seer stone instead of just a random object to focus on. He also gave his prize possession to Oliver Cowdery when he was done translating the Book of Mormon instead of merely discarding it as he might if it was just a simple stone. The witnesses to the translation indicated that English words would appear in the stone that Joseph would read to the scribe.

Joseph also used seer stones to attempt to find treasure during his money-digging days. He also used it to convince Martin Harris that he had the special power when he used his seer stone:

I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth, and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him--I said, "Take your stone," I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it [out] and placed it in his hat--the old white hat--and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look [to] one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick, and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.

"Mormonism--No. II," Tiffany's Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859):163- 70, New York City.

Take in mind that during the early 1800s, people believed in the power of seer stones. David Whitmer, in his famous 'To all believers of Christ' pamphlet, describes Joseph using the seer stone to get the translation. He doesn't say this to indicate his skepticism, on the contrary, to David Whiter this is PROOF that the revelations came from God and not from man. In this century of course, translating by using a stone is believed to be sheer fantasy.

Also, Joseph's former associates in the treasure-seeking business also believed in the power of the stone. They demanded the stone back from Joseph saying that he found the stone on Mr. Chase's property while he was working for him. Of course no treasure was ever found by Joseph but the ignorant townspeople of the era still believed in the power of seer stones despite its apparent lack of producing any real treasure.

In D&C 28:11, it talks of Hiram Page using his own seer stone to get revelations. So it is obvious that those intimately involved with Mormonism, in the early stages of the Church, believed that seer stones really had the power to be used to receive revelations from Deity.

True believer's response #4 - The Church does not hide this information

Not true. It is commonly mentioned in essays by LDS historians (Bushman, Givens and so forth), and has been mentioned by authors we publish in the FARMS Review. The LDS Church doesn't try to hide from its members that a seer stone in a hat was used in translating the Book of Mormon or that the plates were not necessarily used in the translation process. Elder Nelson's article from The Ensign shows that the Church isn't trying to be deceptive. The Church just doesn't want people to be caught up in the details and wants the members to focus on the Book of Mormon teachings themselves and not on how it came to be.

Why don't missionaries teach the historically-correct method to investigators? Missionaries are almost always young and inexperienced, and quite unfamiliar with the subtle details. They have not studied in depth the historical sources. I don't expect missionaries to be up on all the technical details. They rely on what they were taught by people who simply did not know the details. But nothing one can say about Joseph Smith's use of seer stones tells us a thing about how he was able to see words that he dictated to his scribes. We should cease thinking that we know a thing about the method by which he was able to dictate the text of the Book of Mormon. What can be known is that for all or virtually all of the text as we now have it, he put his face in a hat where he seems to have seen the words he dictated to his scribes, but we have exactly no idea how he was able to do that other than it was by the gift and power of God. It seems that having the plates present would not have helped him read them. He could not read them the way a scholar can translate German or Hebrew.

One of the disadvantages of a lay priesthood and Church is that we teach each other. So, teaching and details will be no better than the knowledge of each member. The CES teachers instructed to not teach the historically accurate method might have been told this by others who simply were not properly informed.

I think "the Church" considers it a relatively minor point. What is more amazing--looking through seer stones hooked to a breast plate, or looking in seer stone in a hat? Both are equally "incredible" or "miraculous," if you will.

FAIR apologists. Note: they all stated it was only their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the view of FAIR or the LDS Church.

Critic's response

If you asked 10 random people at church if the plates were used in the translation of the BOM, we would guess that the number of people that would correctly say "No" would be something less than 10. In our experience, only those who really studied Church history know this and even then they aren't sure. Most bishops we have talked to do not know about the 'stone in the hat' method.

The average member doesn't know the truth of the translation process because the occasional rare reference to support the true process is over-shadowed by the many references to the more-commonly believed method. Paintings, illustrations in all the various official Church magazines including The Ensign, various Church books and in paintings adorning LDS chapels, temples and visitor's centers throughout the world, depict Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by showing him in deep concentration as he studied the golden plates.

The Ensign, as recent as Dec 2012 (and probably since then as we don't track this) showed the traditional incorrect method of translation so the church is making no effort to educate the masses. We have yet to see a picture of Joseph looking into a hat in any Church publication.

Also the teaching manuals do not talk about it. The Church teachers do not teach it. We haven't heard any General Conference talks that discuss it. It's no wonder that the vast majority of members don't know how the Book of Mormon was really translated.

Why does the Church discipline its Church Education System teachers for teaching that the gold plates were not used in the translation process? CES teachers were specifically told not to teach this, regardless if it was true or not.

Most young missionaries do not know about the translation and therefore do not teach it to prospective members. It's likely that if they did they would be disciplined and instructed not to teach it.

I knew a man who was serving a mission later on in life and he knew about the real translation process. I asked him if he would discuss the method with an investigator if the investigator asked how exactly the BOM was translated. He said no, not even if the investigator asked him point blank if that was the method used. With this kind of attitude prevalent in the Church, we cannot believe that the Church, or those few knowledgeable members, is anything but deceptive regarding the translation process of the BOM.

FAIR has an impressive list of articles that mention the seer stone, which they present as evidence that the church doesn't hide the seer stone history. But, virtually all the actual church references (not apologist references) only mention the word 'stone' without mentioning the hat also, so the context isn't given. Most members don't read obscure articles in Dialogue or apologist publications. We could not find any articles in the last 20 years that mentioned the 'stone in the hat.' We only found two articles in the last 50 years that mentioned this (Sep 1977 Ensign and July 1993 Ensign) and even they only briefly mentioned it. The average member will very likely not find out that Joseph used a stone in a hat to translate the BOM, without using the plates, by reading only LDS Church publications.

Take in mind there are two significant items here regarding just the translation process. The first is that the spectacle-version of the urim & thummim, that came with the gold plates in the stone box, wasn't really used to produce the BOM. Instead, he used a common stone found while digging a well for Mr. Chase. The second is that the plates were not used in any way in the translation process. If all the members knew these facts, then this may very well change their opinion of the BOM. It is every member's right to know these facts so they can make an informed decision.

FAIR Presentation - 2012

On March 29 & 30 of 2012, there was a presentation held at the Utah Valley University entitled 'Mormonism and the Internet.' Guest speakers included FAIR president Scott Gordon. In his presentation he brought up how the church doesn't hide the translation in a hat method.

In Scott's presentation at the 41:07 mark he has a slide that says "Translation with a Hat." He then lists five LDS sources that he claims states that Joseph translated the BOM with a hat.

I looked them up and three of the references do not even say the word "hat." They talk about the translation but do not say he put his face in a hat, which is the issue:

He lists:

Ensign Jan 97, pg 36 (NO HAT MENTIONED)

Ensign, Jul 93, pg 61 (HAT IS MENTIONED)

Ensign, Jan 88, pg 6-13 (NO HAT MENTIONED)

Ensign, Sep 77. pg 79 (HAT MENTIONED)

Friend, Sep 1974, 7 (NO HAT MENTIONED)

If FAIR wants to claim that the critics are wrong when they say that the church isn't forthcoming in much of its history like the actual BOM translation process, and attempt to prove this by showing five examples taken from the church, they should at least be truthful in the sources they use as examples. Only twice was the word "hat" mentioned. Take in mind that the title of FAIR's presentation is 'Translation with a Hat.' Hat is the keyword here.

Looking at the two times the word "hat" was actually used in the articles discussing the BOM translation, one was 20 years ago and the other was 36 years ago. The church has of course had many opportunities to mention the "stone in the hat" method in the numerous articles and images used in its publications over the last 50 years, but to only mention hat twice and to have ever single image showing Joseph actually using the plates while translating with no image of his face in the hat is very misleading.

Youtube Video of Fair's Presentation: Tactics of a Mormon Apologist

This excellent 18 minute video by FlackerMan analyzes methods used by typical Mormon apologists who try to devalue claims made by those questioning the LDS religion or expressing doubts. FlackerMan takes apart a presentation that Scott Gordon, president of the Mormon apologetic group FAIR, gave at Utah Valley University in 2012. Gordon presents two lists of references that he claims proves the church is being open and honest about Joseph Smith's polygamy and the translation method of the Book of Mormon. Do these lists show what Gordon claims, or are they simply obfuscation?

Some critics believe that perhaps the Church occasionally mentions some of the problems of its history in some article, that is glossed over by the average member, just so it can say that it doesn't hide anything. But the reality is it isn't plainly taught to the members and certainly NEVER to investigators.

 

Ask the Apologist

For this topic or any topic throughout this website, we tell readers that if the true-believer response isn't sufficient that they can go to FAIR and use the ask the apologist feature and get their answers on any topic in their own words. [Can you imagine the apologists putting an 'ask the critics' feature on their website so their readers can fully understand the critics' arguments?]

 

 

Translating the Book of Mormon by Michael Ash

In June 27, 2013, LDS apologist Michael Ash wrote an article in Meridian Magazine called Translating the Book of Mormon. An editor responds to it here:

Much of what Brother Ash discusses on the BOM translation method has already been discussed above but I'll respond again as needed.

Brother Ash states:

The average member’s mental image of Joseph translating the plates is generally formed from artwork in Church magazines and comments from Sunday school teachers rather than from a critical examination of the historical evidence.

That is of course true. He lists the images commonly shown in Church magazines of Joseph in deep concentration as he studies the plates. He says "All of these images are incorrect."

He states "the majority of the text was translated in the open while the plates were covered with a cloth. The plates were never in open view..."

Ash goes on to say:

While some LDS artwork doesn’t depict any translating tools, most informed members are aware of the Nephite “Interpreters” that Moroni put in the stone box with the plates so Joseph would have a tool for translating. According to those who handled the Interpreters they were like large spectacles with stones or crystals in place of lenses.

Both the critics and apologists agree on most everything up to this point. However, Ash gives the following explanation to help explain the stone in the hat:

Unfortunately the Interpreters didn’t come with instructions and Joseph was apparently left on his own as to how to use them.

First off, Ash contradicts what the Church teaches. In the 2002 Church magazine for youth, New Era:

In 1827, Moroni gave the gold plates to Joseph with instruction to protect them and translate them. Moroni also instructed Joseph regarding the use of the Urim and Thummim, sometimes referred to as interpreters, to aid in the translation process.

"More Precious than Gold," New Era, September 2002. https://www.lds.org/new-era/2002/09/more-precious-than-gold

It clearly states that "Moroni also instructed Joseph regarding the use of the Urim and Thummim, sometimes referred to as interpreters, to aid in the translation process."

It appears that the gospel according to Brother Ash is in contradiction to Church teachings. Also, it really wouldn't make much sense for God to carefully preserve the urim & thummim for 2000 years for the sole purpose of translating the plates and to have the angel give Joseph the plates with the urim & thummim and then not tell Joseph how to use them to translate.

Ash then goes on to say:

Long prior to acquiring the plates the young Joseph Smith was a believer in divination. In fact, he and his friends and family believed that he had the God-given gift to find lost objects by way of a seer stone. Seer stones were thought to be special stones in which one could see the location of the object for which one was divining. The seer stones were related to crystal balls or the practice of looking into pools of water or mirrors to divine information (such as the Queen’s magic mirror in the Snow White tale).

True. But notice how Ash neglected to say that Joseph never found any treasure when people hired him to use his seer stones to find treasure. Joseph may have believed it (or maybe just said he could so people like Josiah Stowel would pay him for basically doing nothing). Ash also said the stones 'were thought to be special stones' but he didn't say that they were in fact 'special stones'.

Ash goes on:

While this seems strange in modern times, in Joseph’s day many intelligent, educated, and religious people believed that such real powers existed in the forces of nature.

No doubt. But this only goes to show how superstitious and gullible people were at the time Joseph lived. Ash states:

When Joseph first acquired the Nephite Interpreters he also tried placing them into a hat to shield the light. Although he apparently managed to translate the 116 lost pages by this method he complained that he had a hard time fitting the spectacles into the hat and that the two lenses were set too far apart—and were apparently made for someone with a broader face. It gave him eyestrain when he stared into the lenses.

There is little reliable, historical evidence supporting that Joseph had problems putting the spectacle version of the Urim & Thummim into a hat - a reference from William Smith Joseph's brother and reporters that would confuse the spectacle version of the Urim & Thummim with the seer stone version, just like many early Latter-say Saints did.

The idea that the 'spectacle' version of the Urim & Thummim was larger than a man would use may have come from the prevalent belief that the ancient inhabitants of America were large people based on bones found in some mounds. When Joseph used the spectacles in conjunction with the plates, it was behind a curtain to shield the plates from view. No one was allowed to see the spectacles or the plates. Joseph didn’t place the spectacle Urim & Thummim into a hat in full view like he did his seer stone. The only possible time the spectacles were used was prior to formal translation when Joseph was copying the characters and possibly translating some of them from behind the curtain.

But aside from that, this implies that the Nephite prophets that apparently made the original 'spectacle version' of the urim & thummim would have used a hat or some other light-obscuring device also? There's no mention of Mosiah using a hat with the Urim & Thummim. But apparently they didn't have a problem putting it into some form of hat 2,000 years ago.

And why was the urim & thummim made to be attached to a breast plate? It doesn't sound like it was designed to be put into any type of hat.

Many critics contend that there never was a spectacle-version of the Urim & Thummim. There doesn't appear to be any firm validation that anyone actually saw it other than Joseph, although Lucy Smith (Joseph's mother) claimed to have seen and felt the Urim & Thummim and claimed to have felt the breastplate under a cloth. Some critics speculate that perhaps the spectacle version and breastplate would not pass a detailed inspection so Joseph substituted one of his common seer stones when the angel purportedly took back the plates and Urim & Thummim after losing the lost 116 pages. Or perhaps he started using the stone sometime during translation of the first 116 pages to Martin Harris. If they used a curtain, as sometimes reported, Martin wouldn't know exactly what Joseph used and may explain why Martin said "that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim".

Joseph Smith & Urim and Thummim

 

urim


Ash continues:

After Joseph lost the first 116 pages, the Interpreters and his gift to translate were temporarily taken away. Eventually, after repenting, Joseph’s gift was returned but instead of using the Nephite Interpreters Joseph was allowed to use his seer stone to finish the translating process. In Joseph’s “language” the seer stone had the same properties as the Interpreters and was therefore also a Urim and Thummin(m).

 

Does it make any sense at all that the angel would actually punish Joseph by taking away the very means by which he needed to translate the plates? The 'Nephite Interpreters' were kept with the plates for thousands of years for the purpose of allowing the sacred golden plates to be translated to a modern-day language. Why preserve the Urim & Thummim and only allow it to be used for perhaps translating the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon? Why punish Joseph after he repented - wasn't he forgiven, he did after all get the plates back, which are certainly more important than the Urim & Thummim? And why punish him in this manner by forcing him to resort to using a common stone he found while digging a well?

Ash also disagrees with what the Church has published when it said that the urim & thummim was returned to Joseph along with the gold plates:

The 2008 Sunday School manual on Joseph Smith (Chapter 5 on repentance - first page) states that:

For a time, the Lord took the Urim and Thummim and the plates from Joseph. But these things were soon restored to him. "The angel was rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim," the Prophet recalled, "and said 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 my duty so well as to be able to enter upon the work of translation again."

Reference given for this is: Quoted by Lucy Mack Smith, The History of Lucy Smith, Mother of the Prophet, 1844-45 manuscript, book 7, p. 11, Church Archives.

The History of the Church Vol. 1, ch 3 states that "the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again."

Note: As explained above, there are also references from David Whitmer and Emma Smith that the angel did not return the original 'spectacle version' urim & thummin which agrees with what Ash claims but disagrees with the 2008 Church teaching manuals. David Whitmer wasn't there, Emma may have been confused but Harris never said he saw anything other than the stone.

It's interesting that Ash says that "Joseph was allowed to use his seer stone to finish the translating process". This is speculation by Ash and doesn't explain why the angel did not return the actual urim & thummim that he carefully protected in a stone box for 2,000 years.

Ash claims:

In Joseph’s “language” the seer stone had the same properties as the Interpreters and was therefore also a Urim and Thummin.

The seer stone Ash speaks of was found on Mason Chase's property when Joseph and Hyrum were digging a well for Mr. Chase. This was years before the BOM was translated. Ash does not explain why a rock found on Mason Chase's property would have the same 'seering' ability as the original 'spectacle version' of the urim & thummim used by the Nephites. This makes little sense. The Church still has this stone in its vault as testified above. If Ash is right that this seer stone really has some special seering ability, it could be examined in modern times for special properties or even used by the modern-day prophets but it is hidden away and not even shown or talked about to members.

Ash seems to be implying that perhaps it was enough for Joseph to believe that his stone was a urim & thummim and would work the same when he says:

[Joseph] believed that his seer stone was a Urim and Thummin like the Interpreters.

However, if the stone did not have any special ability and Joseph merely thought it did than how does he explain the following:

Martin Harris wanted to test Joseph so he found a small stone of a similar size, shape and color of the seer stone Joseph was using. He substituted this for the one Joseph was using when he wasn't looking. When Joseph tried to translate again he couldn't using this stone. So it is apparent that the seer stone must have had some special property and not merely have been an object to focus on or Joseph would have been able to translate from the stone Martin substituted.

"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" (Kenneth Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture," Ensign, Jan. 1988)

Or perhaps more likely, Joseph noticed that the stone was different and used this as an opportunity to prove to Martin that he was indeed a seer by pretending not to be able to translate when he noticed that it wasn't the same stone. Take in mind that Joseph was known to carry this stone with him and likely knew exactly what it looked like, so he would have very likely been able to immediately tell that Martin had switched the stone. How likely is it that Martin could quickly find a stone that was lying around that matched the same size, color and shape almost exactly of the one Joseph had? To Martin they would have looked similar enough but Joseph would have been able to tell the difference as he would stare at the stone for hours at a time when translating or obtaining revelation. Also, it's not like Joseph lived in a rock quarry with thousands of odd-shaped stones lying around.

Ash tries to make the 'hat' as the only issue of significance:

In reality the major difference between the average-member-view of the Book of Mormon translation (Joseph looked into the crystals in the Interpreters) vs the historical view (Joseph looked into a seer stone in a hat) is the “hat”—one is a stone or crystal out of the hat; the other is in a hat.

Another significant difference is that the average-member-view has Joseph actually using the gold plates when he translated the BOM. The gold plates were painstakingly made by the Nephites for 1,000 years and kept preserved in a stone box for another 1,500 years and they weren't even used in the translation process. The same with the urim & thummim. It was kept in the stone box for 1,500 years and only claimed to have been used for the first 116 pages of the BOM, which were lost anyway. The plates were not used and a simple stone found on Mason Chase's property was used instead. So why did the Lord bother having the Nephites engrave the gold plates and to preserve them along with the original urim & thummim which were not even used in translating the BOM we have today?

 

Not hiding anything?

Ash repeats what apologists always say:

Although the historical picture of the Book of Mormon translation process is not as commonly known to some members as it perhaps should be, despite the cries of critics the Church hasn’t been hiding this information. It has been mentioned for instance in the Ensign,[v] (one instance in which the talk was originally given to Mission Presidents[vi]), the Friend,[vii] as well as other LDS-targeted publications.

Ash dismisses the critic's 'cries' with a wave of his hand, but when you actually check his references you see a different story. Ash cites three articles. The first one is 36 years old from 1977. The second one was 20 years ago from 1993 and the third one does not even mention the 'hat'. So only one 'stone in the hat' mentioned in a Church magazine in the last 35 years. Now compare that to all the dozens of images shown to members during that same time that shows a completely different method with Joseph actually using the plates without a stone and hat. This sounds like the Church really doesn't want the 'stone in the hat' method to be commonly known by the members and it still isn't. And it certainly is never taught to investigators. Note also how Ash carefully words that last phrase 'as well as other LDS-targeted publications'. That means not owned by the Church but magazines like Sunstone and Dialogue that are not read by the average member.

In conclusion, in Brother Ash's zeal to smooth over this problematic area of Mormon history, for every problem he attempts to solve he just creates another problem with no answer. It appears that apologetics alone won't be able to adequately resolve this issue.

 

 

 

Ending summary by critics

Imagine what would happen if the current President of the Church said he received revelation by putting his face in a hat with a stone. If he said this to the members, they would start leaving in droves. If he said this to the world at large, the LDS church would be the laughing stock of modern religions. Yet if it was acceptable to use 180 years ago, why not now? Applying any sort of scientific reasoning and common sense, it is just as ridiculous to think that you could receive revelation through a stone in the 1800s as it is now. There's no evidence to prove that rocks could give people revelation back then and it can't be done that way now.

The name 'Urim & Thummim' is also deceptive, as it was never referred to as such until long after the Book of Mormon was published. If W.W. Phelps never suggested in 1833 that perhaps the seer stones were the Urim & Thummim of the Old Testament, then they would not be referred to as such today. The term was never used by Joseph or anyone else until then. The Church rewrote the historical accounts to make it appear that from the moment Moroni appeared they were referred to as the Urim & Thummim. How much less credible would it be, if instead of the biblical sounding 'Urim & Thummim', we referred to the sacred object as 'the stone Joseph found while digging a well'?

The fact that the plates were not used in the translation process is especially disturbing. Even if they were in the room uncovered, Joseph couldn't see them with his face buried in a hat. According to the witnesses, the plates were always covered in a cloth or not even in the room when the translation was taking place. So why bother having prophets painstakingly record their actions on golden plates for 1000+ years when they weren't even used in the translation? If God simply revealed the writings from the plates to Joseph through a stone, why have the plates at all?

And isn't it strange that Oliver Cowdery couldn't translate using the same stone Joseph used when Oliver was told before in a revelation that he would be able to translate the ancient records?

In the times Joseph lived, people believed in magic. Having visions was not that uncommon. Joseph's family also believed in magic and the power of seer stones. Oliver Cowdery used a divining rod. People believed in something called 'second sight' where people would see things as a vision in their mind. Joseph and his peers believed in it so strongly that they would actually go and try to dig up treasure that they saw in their minds - always to no avail. The court records that were found prove that Joseph was involved in treasure seeking with a seer stone for profit after he received the First Vision but before he translated the Book of Mormon. This casts considerable doubt on his motives and methods for producing the Book of Mormon and starting the LDS Church.

A General Authority believes seer stones are of Satan

This comes from Apostle Bruce R. McConkie in his book Mormon Doctrine under peepstones:

In imitation of the true order of heaven where seers receive revelation from God through the Urim & Thummim, the devil gives revelations to some of his followers through peepstones or crystal balls.

Did the seer stone have any special ability?

Question to ask the true believers - was the seer stone just a stone or did it indeed have special ability to translate ancient writings? If you say it did have special abilities then how do you account for the fact that Joseph found the stone some 24 feet underground on Willard & Mason Chase's property while he and Hyrum were digging a well for Mr. Chase? He was not given the stone by the angel nor was it in the stone box with the plates. He had the stone years before the Book of Mormon translation commenced. Also this is the very stone he used in his failed attempts to find treasure with. Plus since the Church still has this stone it could be examined for unique properties or even used by the current prophets as seering device but it apparently just sits in the vault like an ordinary stone.

If you say no, Joseph just used this stone to concentrate with and it had no special powers then how do you account for the fact that Joseph was unable to translate when Martin Harris swapped stones in order to test Joseph?

There is no faithful answer to this question that does not bring up serious problems in regard to the seer stone method of translating that Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon.

Why not tell the members openly?

The Church is guilty of not plainly teaching the truth to its members, let alone investigators of the church. The hierarchy of the church knows how it was done, as evidenced by Russell M. Nelson's talk to the mission presidents. Even devout members and missionaries, that know how the process was done, will almost always omit this detail and even lie to prospective members as they will more easily believe the commonly-told story instead of the actual method. Does this sound like an ethical thing for God's true church to do?

Why doesn't the church be honest when teaching the method to investigators or even its own members?

The short answer of course is that it would make the whole story sound unbelievable. Very few people in the 21st Century would likely join the church if the missionaries plainly taught that Joseph put his face in a hat with a common stone in it and translated the Book of Mormon when the plates were either covered so no one, including Joseph could see them or that the plates were hidden in the woods when he translated them. But that doesn't make it right to deceive innocent truthseekers, does it?

Editor Comments

Both the critics and defenders of the faith have compelling points to make. The editors of this section give their own opinion:

There seems to be little doubt that Joseph translated the published Book of Mormon using a simple stone placed in a hat without even using the gold plates. Perhaps what we find most disturbing about the translation process is that it is acknowledged by the LDS apologists and occasionally by high-ranking officials such as Elder Nelson yet it still is not plainly taught to the members. If it's not really that important, as some LDS defenders claim, then why don't we, as a church, just acknowledge this openly and stop hiding it? We've only seen one LDS article in the last 35+ years that has mentioned both the stone and the hat and even then only briefly. Also, every image that shows up in any Church magazine shows a misleading process.

We are also disturbed by the current trend in the Church of showing pictures that portray Oliver Cowdery in full view of the plates when Joseph was translating. This was not what we were taught growing up in the church. It also doesn't make sense, if Oliver Cowdery saw the plates all the time during the months he scribed for Joseph translating the BOM, why bother having the angel show Oliver the plates again? Growing up in the church, we were all clearly taught that Oliver never saw the plates when he was scribing for Joseph. We were also taught that a curtain was placed between them so the scribe never saw the plates. Why is the Church trying to change this account and also to another wrong version? The evidence above clearly shows that Oliver never saw the plates when he was translating and that Joseph didn't even use them when he translated.

Aside from the inaccurate translation depictions in the Ensign, the church continues to show the Joseph Smith Movie at the JS Memorial Building. The movie has many inaccuracies including showing Joseph translating the BOM by using the plates in full view of Hyrum and without burying his face in a hat.

Most of us could probably accept the translation method more easily if we had always been taught about the 'stone in the hat' method but we have a hard time accepting it now knowing that the leaders know about it but all the Church manuals, paintings, Church magazines, Church website, Church movies, missionary discussions, etc. purposely show a very different method. Even today the pictures in The Ensign and other Church magazines continue to show the more 'holy-looking' method of translation rather than what they know to be the actual method. One thing is for sure, we don't look at the paintings and pictures of Joseph translating the Book of Mormon the same way we used to.

FAIR debates MormonThink

In 2009, the Mormon apologetic organization FAIR continued to debate some of the contributors of MormonThink on the issue of the Urim & Thummim - specifically regarding why the Urim & Thummim was not returned to Joseph along with the plates after the 116 pages were lost. The interesting back and forth analysis is found here: http://www.mormonthink.com/fairseerstones.htm

Links

PBS made a special called 'The Mormons'. It aired in two parts on April 30 and May 1, 2007. The first part briefly mentions the 'stone in the hat' method of translation. This is mentioned, not by a critic of the Church, but by defender of the faith Daniel Peterson, who is a devout LDS apologist and member of FARMS and FAIR. The show also verifies the 1826 court trial of Joseph Smith and his early treasure seeking. It can be viewed online.

http://www.pbs.org/mormons/view/

Editor comment: On the PBS Special, LDS apologist Daniel Peterson says that the stone Joseph used to translate the BOM with is something we don't know much about except that it was found in the vicinity of Cumorah. That is Peterson's attempt to make it sound as if the stone was something that the Nephites had used or something anciently divine. In reality, Peterson is undoubtedly aware that the stone was found some 20 feet underground on Mason Chase's property when Joseph and his brother Hyrum were digging a well for Mr. Chase years before the gold plates were even given to Joseph. He also neglected to say that the church still has this stone in their possession.

Also, please see this reasonably accurate Youtube video made by some friends of MormonThink on the Book of Mormon translation.

Supporting the critics

Youtube video clips

Supporting the church

Note: LDS apologetic responses can be obtained on this and other issues by using the 'ask the apologist' feature on the FAIR web site.

Neutral