Translation of the Book of Mormon


Most LDS Church members were taught that Joseph Smith used seer stones referred to as the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon (BOM)[1] to various scribes. The Urim and 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.

For years, faithful LDS historians taught 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. The LDS Church has in their possession the stone that Joseph Smith 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.

As of December 2013, the Church quietly released a short essay in the Topics section of the website that briefly discusses some parts of the actual translation method. However, there are no images used by the Church of Joseph using a stone in a hat.

Overview of Critics' position

LDS critics maintain that the Church has credibility issues as they have taught and still teach that Joseph translated the BOM using the Nephi Interpreters known as the Urim and 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 and Thummim

Angel takes Urim and Thummim

Seer stone found the plates?

Seer stone for revelation

Hiram Page

Seer stone today

Translation time-line problems

Prophets & seer stones

Seer stones in heaven

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 and 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 and 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.

Artistic depictions of translation

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 and 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

Contained in the Church's cannonized scripture is Oliver Cowdery's description of the translation and use of the Urim and Thummim:

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.

Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90. Transcription found here: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#100179

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. 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 and 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 and 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

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 and 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

References

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, Joseph, 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

When historical or doctrinal concerns arise, all too often a response from devout Mormons is, "It's too sacred to talk about." This is meant to silence the questioner because it is well-established in the Church that you aren't supposed to talk about "sacred" things. Probably nothing is more sacred than Jesus and the Atonement which are discussed openly in the Church. "Sacred" simply means worthy of worship or veneration; highly valued. When you don't talk about something, that is called "secret". What would have been "sacred" about translating?

Joseph had already said that he received the Urim and Thummim at the time he received the plates. In addition to translating at least a portion of the Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim, he said that he had received revelations through it (see the headings for D&C Sections 3, 6, 11 & 14). So having or using the Urim and Thummim wasn't secret, nor too sacred to talk about in that context. 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.

Did Joseph ever shy away from stating things that cause persecution? How could whatever he might have said about the translation process be any more outlandish than other proclamations he made (such as being visited by God and Jesus, or having an angel deliver gold plates to him)? This leaves one to wonder if Joseph was hiding something about the process.

The Urim and Thummim weren't the primary means of translation, a seer stone was, yet Joseph Smith never mentioned using a seer stone in the translation process. Nowhere was there a revelation recorded in which he was told to use a seer stone, nor was he told that he couldn't show or discuss seer stones. Was there something about that process he was hiding, or maybe even the fact that he used something other than the Urim and Thummim?

The response that Joseph's reticence might be related to previous experiences he had is interesting. Could those experiences possibly be that as part of the 1826 Bainbridge court appearance he was brought on charges of using stones in activities branding him an "imposter"? (for more information, see the section "Treasure Seeker" immediately below)

Whatever the reasons, it seems unusual that if Joseph was doing God's work that he should be so secretive about it.

Treasure seeker

Joseph Smith used the same seer stone he translated the Book of Mormon with to also seek for treasure before he received the book, let alone began the translation process. This provides some context for Joseph's use of seer stones.

Most Latter-day Saints are not aware of the use of seer stones by Joseph Smith. IF anything, they are only somewhat aware that he did some treasure seeking (sometimes referred to as "money-digging") in his younger days:

After I went to live with [Josiah Stoal], he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.

Joseph Smith—History 1:56

To help help allay concerns members have when wondering about the "money-digging," they are often told this:

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

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

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.120:

(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.)

These are usually the only statements that come up at church regarding Joseph's treasure-seeking past. They are often made to casually dismiss the allegations by critics that Joseph was someone very much involved in seeking buried treasure using seer stones.

In Joseph's official history he minimizes the money-digging allegations by mentioning only one incident. During that adventure, he further minimizes his role as money-digger by saying that he was encouraging Mr. Stoal to stop digging. Left unsaid is that Mr. Stoal hired Joseph to use Joseph's peep stone to look through and find treasure for him.

Many of the people who were digging for buried treasure were superstitious and there are strange stories connected with their 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. A candid old Presbyterian told me, that on the Susquehannah flats he dug down to an iron chest, that he scraped the dirt off with his shovel, but had nothing with him to open the chest; that he went away to get help, and when they came to it, it moved away two or three rods into the earth, and they could not get it. 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. They motioned back that they would not; but that they afterwards became frightened and did leave. At another time while they were digging, a company of horsemen came and frightened them away. 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, (August 1859) Mormonism—No. II, Tiffany's Monthly, 5(4), Joel Tiffany, ed., pp. 163-170. Found on Wikisource http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tiffany%27s_Monthly/Volume_5/Number_4/Mormonism--No._II

On another occasion Martin Harris, speaking to a group of Saints at Clarkston, Utah in the 1870's, admitted that he participated in some money-digging and that a stone box slipped back into the hill:

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. Also found in "Martin Harris Interview with Ole A. Jensen, July 1875," in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 2:375-6.

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 (this comes form the Salt Lake Messnger #95):

"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)

 

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

State of New York v. Joseph Smith, Judge Neely's Court Notes, Fraser's Magazine, 1873. Also found in "Bainbridge (NY) Court Record, 20 March 1826," Early Mormon Documents, 4:248-55, Dan Vogel, ed.

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. How likely is it 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?

LDS apologist Hugh Nibley, referring to the court record said,

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

Hugh Nibley, The Myth Makers, p 246.

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 used 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. They, along with other documents concerning the trial, can be viewed here: http://www.fullerconsideration.com/sources.php?cat=GP-T26

LDS apologist rebuttal: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 and Thummim

Some accounts refer to the seer stones as a pair of stones set in eye frames to resemble spectacles (Joseph himself writing in his own hand, "…the Lord had prepared spectticke spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters…" History, circa Summer 1832). Other accounts refer to a single seer stone by itself, such as this one by Emma Smith, saying that the translating process had Joseph "sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us…" (Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90. Transcription found here: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#100179). 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and Thummim had anything to do with "translating languages," or that they resembled "giant spectacles" as BOM witnesses claimed. Maybe the term "Urim and Thummim" gave the seer stone an air of Biblical authority to it so perhaps that's why people started using that term after 1833. This could explain why Joseph Smith backdated earlier references of "seer stone" with "Urim and Thummim" (compare Book of Commandments IX to D&C 10:1).

The idea that the "spectacle" version of the Urim and 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 and 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.

Seer stone, spectacles, interpreters and Urim and Thummim confusion

Now the first that my husband translated 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, also found in Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90. Transcription found here: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#100179

In Emma Smith's interview with Joseph Smith III, she said she was a scribe while Joseph used the seer stone:

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.

Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90. Transcription found here: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#100179

The only times Emma was a scribe was for an undisclosed, but apparently short amount before the 116 pages were lost, and the time directly after the pages were lost when the Urim and Thummim was returned, which, as Lucy Mack explains:

I will now return to Joseph's recital.

'After the angel left me,' said he, 'I continued my supplications to God, without cessation, and on the twenty-second of September [1828], I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim, with which I have again commenced translating, and Emma writes for me, but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust that it will be so. The angel was rejoiced when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and he told me that the Lord 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 receive the Urim and Thummim and was able to enter upon the work of translation again.'

Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations, by Lucy Smith (1853), p. 126.

If Emma was a scribe when the Urim and Thummim were returned, as Lucy states, then Emma's quote that Joseph only used the Urim and Thummim for the lost 116 pages is inaccurate. Or, the Urim and Thummim is the same thing as the stone. Emma would also be contradicting herself because she says that she sat with him "day after day" being a scribe while he used the stone.

Interestingly, the manuscript copy of Lucy Smith's book did not use the words Urim and Thummim, stones, spectacles or interpreters to refer to what was taken away, that was a later editorial change for the Coray/Pratt/Richards edition. In the original, Lucy says that it was the actual "record," or "plates" taken from Joseph (deletions from original with strikethroughs and insertions with angled braces < > into the Coray/Pratt/Richards edition):

I then continued <said> Joseph my suplications to God without cessation that his mercy might again be exercised towards me and on the 22 of september I had the joy and satisfacton of again receiving the record <urim and Thummin> into my possession and I have commenced translating and Emma writes for me now but the angel said that if I get the plates again that the Lord would send some one to write for me and I trust that it will be so- he also said that the angel seemed <he was> rejoiced when he gave him <me> back the plates <urim and Thummin> and said that he <God> was pleased with his <my> faithfulness and humility also that the Lord was pleased with him and loved him <me> for his <my> penitence and dilligence in prayer in the which he <I> had performed his duty so well as to receive the record <urim and Thummin> and he <was> able to enter upon the work of translation again…

"Part 3. The New York Years," Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books (2001).

It was at David Whitmer's house in 1829 that Joseph finished the translation of the Book of Mormon, long after the angel took and returned the plates and Urim and Thummim. MJ Hubble reports the following from an 1886 visit with David Whitmer:

Joseph Smith was informed that for his transgressing the command [concerning the 116 lost pages]...the 'gift' of reading through the spectacles was taken from him for about 3 months & never was allowed to see the 'plates' again but at the end of his punishment, he was told that he might translate the book of Mormon, instead of the book of Lehigh but would not be permitted to see the 'plates' that the 'Characters' would appear before him & when he translated correctly they would disappear & new ones come in their place[,] if not translated correctly the first time they would remain until they were[,] which in several instances he knew to be true...

He [Whitmer] said Smith translated by means of a pair of large bound Spectacles ie the 'Book of Mormon', that the Characters would appear in the air & stay until correctly translated and then disappear that Smith was ignorant of the Bible that when translating he first came to where Jerusalem was spoken of as a 'Walled City' he stopped until they got a Bible & showed him where the fact was recorded - Smith not believing it was a walled city.

MJ Hubble interview of David Whitmer, 13 November 1886, Richmond, Missouri. Cited in "Missouri Mormon Manuscripts: Sources In Selected Societies," by Stanley B. Kimball. BYU Studies 14, 4 (1974), pp485-86.

It would seem that since Joseph was in David Whitmer's home, Whitmer would be reporting what he knew first hand, not what had happened previous to Joseph's arrival in his house. The translation process did not seem to be a secret within Whitmer's home. However, a year before David Whitmer's discussion with Hubble, he did an interview with Zenas Gurley in which he stated the Book of Mormon, other than the lost 116 pages, was translated using the "seer stone" (see below for the quote). So which was it, seer stone or spectacles? Or both? Or, are they the same thing with different names?

Michael Morse, married to Emma Hale Smith's sister, Trial Hale, was in the Whitmer home for the final part of the translation (May 1829-March 1830). The following is WW Blair's (of the Reorganized LDS Church) reporting of the interview he had with Michael Morse:

He [Michael Morse] further states that when Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon, he [Morse] 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 of 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 scribe—Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other, wrote it down.

Saints' Herald 26 (June 15, 1879): 190-91. Transcription found here.

Further confusion is added when looking at the dimensions of the spectacle version of the Urim and Thummim and compare it to Lucy's comments. Martin Harris sates that

The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.

Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, pp 163-170.

Upon Joseph returning from getting the plates, Lucy had this to say:

Joseph…said, "Do not be uneasy, mother, all is right-see here, I have got a key." I knew not what he meant, but took the article of which he spoke into my hands, and, upon examination, found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles. He took them again and left me, but said nothing respecting the Record.

That of which I spoke, which Joseph termed a key, was indeed, nothing more nor less than the Urim and Thummim, and it was by this that the angel showed him many things which he saw in vision; by which he could also ascertain, at any time, the approach of danger, either to himself or the Record, and on account of which he always kept the Urim and Thummim about his person.

Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), p. 378-79, 389.

According to Martin, the spectacle version seems a bit bulky and it would seem hard for Joseph to always have such a thing "about his person," especially while doing his farm work. Is it possible that Lucy is actually referring to the peep stone version and not the spectacle version?

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, Vol. 1, No. 8, p. 58) 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 Phelps' part that associated Joseph's 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 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.

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

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.

Cited in Richard van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing'," (PDF file) Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:2, p 54.

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 and Thummim."

 

Emma Smith also stated that the spectacle version of the Urim and 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, also found in Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," Saints' Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90. Transcription found here: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IL/sain1872.htm#100179.

 

Apologist's comment: 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 and 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 and 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, "6. The Manner of Translating the Book of Mormon,"The Seventy's Course in Theology, First Year, pp 111-12. Archived copy at Archive.org.

Urim and Thummim in the Doctrine and Covenants

The mention of the Urim and 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 and Thummim (scanned image of 1833 Book of Commandments, Chapter IX and D&C 10:1). The mention of Urim and 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.

Likewise, in D&C 17:1 it says:

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

The heading for Section 17 says that this revelation was given June 1829 "through the Urim and Thummim." If this revelation were recorded, using these words, in June 1829, this would show that the words "Urim and Thummim" were used prior to 1833. However, the only copy of this revelation is found in Revelation Book 2. As noted in the "Historical Introduction" section of the online "The Joseph Smith Papers:"

D&C 17:1

Revelation Book 2 contains the earliest extant copy of this revelation. Undated, it apparently was copied sometime after 25 November 1834 by scribe Frederick G. Williams. No earlier copy is extant. The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants and later accounts give the date as June 1829.

"Revelation, June 1829-E [D&C 17]," Joseph Smith Papers.

Since this is the case, the earliest we can assume the revelation was given is 1834.

Critic's comments: The Urim and Thummim were supposed to have been returned by June of 1829, so to what does D&C 17:1 refer to? It is specifically speaking of the Urim and Thummim that the Nephites had, the "interpreters" which are the spectacles version. The section refer to it as the Urim and Thummim, not a Urim and Thummim. The heading likewise refers to the Urim and Thummim. It seems unlikely that Joseph Smith would, while using his seer stone, call the seer stone the Urim and Thummim and then say that he would show the Urim and Thummim to the witnesses but be referring to the interpreters/spectacles.

Editor's comment

As can be seen, there is much confusion with the medium of translation, the name of that medium and the time frame in which a particular medium was used. References to the medium include Urim and Thummim, spectacles, interpreters, seer stone, stones and peep stone, depending on the source. Why is there so much confusion?

Of greatest concern is why the Church obscured the information? Did they take action to cover up the 'peep-stone' accounts, and replace it with something that sounded Biblical, rather than occultic?

References

Angel takes Urim and Thummim?

Joseph Smith claimed that when he was a teenager, in 1823, that a Nephite by the name of Moroni, who had died 1200 years previously, 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 and 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 and 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, "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface." (Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, pp 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)

Critics' Comments: Does it make sense that the angel would 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 2011 Sunday School manual on Joseph Smith 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.

"Chapter 5: Repentance," Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2011), 69-77. Original source is 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 and 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 and 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 and Thummim, that was reportedly in the stone box.

Many critics contend that there never was a spectacle version of the Urim and 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 and Thummim after losing the 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 during that time, and Emma may have been confused, but Harris never said he saw anything other than the stone.

References

Did the seer stone find the 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, 1859, pp 163-170.

Another source seems to corroborate this.

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.

Henry Harris, statement given to Jonathan Lapham, Justice of the Peace, in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252

Critic's comment: It is 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 and Thummim that was preserved in a stone box for 1,500 years. If the stones were so common, why the need to preserve the Urim and Thummim? Why punish Joseph with taking away the Urim and Thummim when he all along had a seer stone capable of the same function? Had the seer stone Joseph used been given to him by an angel, or had directed him to this stone, then this would make more sense. However, there is nothing to indicate why the stone found on Mr. Chase's property had the same ability as the sacred Urim and 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 (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.

David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Chapter IV, pp 30-31.

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."

James R. B. Vancleave to Joseph Smith III, 29 Sept. 1878, "Miscellaneous Letters and Papers," Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri. See also Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book Co., 1991), 239-40. Quoted in H. Michael Marquardt&Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism. (1994)

Additionally,

Shortly after the visit Pratt and Smith reported to President John Taylor and Council of Twelve Apostles that when Pratt spoke to a small group meeting at Plano, Illinois, on 12 September 1878, he "explained the circumstances under which several revelations were received by Joseph the Prophet, and the manner in which he received them, he being present on several occasions of the kind. Declared that sometimes Joseph used a seer stone when enquiring of the Lord, and receiving revelation…he oftener received them without any instrument.'"

"Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith," Deseret Evening News, [23 Nov. 1878], 1; Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star 40 [16 Dec. 1878]: 787). Quoted in H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism. (1994)

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." (The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star, 40:787)

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. The :

The following blessing was given by president Joseph Smith, Jr. through the Urim and Thummim, according to the spirit of prophecy and revelation, on Wednesday, the 7th of October, 1835, and written by president Frederick G. Williams, who acted as Clerk. [the blessing is then recorded]

"Blessing for Newel K. Whitney, 7 October 1835," Patriarchal Blessing Book, pp. 33-34, Joseph Smith Papers.

This "through the Urim and Thummim," was 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 Palmyra and Pennsylvania neighbors that Smith first used a stone in the 1820s for what they described as "fortune-telling."

Joseph apparently was also able to use the Urim and Thummim for receiving other types of revelations, such as when people wanted to get the gold plates and breastplate from him.:

That of which I spoke, which Joseph termed a key, was indeed, nothing more nor less than the Urim and Thummim, and it was by this that the angel showed him many things which he saw in vision; by which he could also ascertain, at any time, the approach of danger, either to himself or the Record, and on account of which he always kept the Urim and Thummim about his person.

Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), p. 389.

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

Newel Knight was a friend of Joseph Smith's and Bishop of the Colesville Branch in Colesville, New York, Kirtland, Ohio and Jackson County, Missouri. He had this to say about the Hiram Page affair:

After arranging my affairs at home, I again set out for Fayette, to attend our second conference, which had been appointed to be held at Father Whitmer's where Joseph then resided. On my arrival I found Brother Joseph in great distress of mind on account of Hyrum Page, who had managed to get up some dissension of feeling among the brethren by giving revelations concerning the government of the Church and other matters, which he claimed to have received through the medium of a stone he possessed. He had quite a roll of papers full of these revelations, and many in the Church were led astray by them. Even Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmer family had given heed to them, although they were in contradiction to the New Testament and the revelations of these last days.

Newel Knight in Journal History, 26 Sept. 1830. Quoted in Section 28 "Thou Shalt Not Command Him Who Is at Thy Head," Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, (2002), 57-59.

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 the people were at that time, including the Book of Mormon witnesses who were willing to believe in the magical/revelatory powers of random stones.

Seer stone today

Joseph gave the seer stone 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]." (Interview with David Whitmer, Des Moines Daily News, Oct. 16, 1886.) 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." (Samuel Bateman diary, 17 Aug, 1887, Lee library )

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 Journal, 18 May, 1888).

After Woodruff's 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." (Fredrick Kesler diary, 1 Feb, 1899, Marriott Library )

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 descendant 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: Why doesn't the Church openly talk about this stone today? How many members know about it? This is the stone Joseph put in a hat and looked at 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 had a mock-up of the gold plates but 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. There is no prohibition known to not show these stones. In fact, several authors and historians have seen the stones in the Church's vaults. Is there something embarrassing about having the Book of Mormon translated through the use of this stone?

References

Translation time-line problems

The time-line for the translation of the Book of Mormon presents some problems that are hard to rectify. As with other historical events, not a lot of eyewitness accounts have been left—there are no records that were written at the time the events were taking place. There records left behind, but they were written well after the fact. Some of the problems mentioned below are exacerbated because some of the accounts disagree, and it's hard to determine the more reliable account.

September 1827 - April 1828

Joseph received the plates in September of 1827, but he didn't begin translating until nearly seven months later. What was done with the plates during that time? What was he supposed to do with them? He received no instructions as to what he should do with the plates other than keep them safe. Lucy records it this way:

When Joseph first got the plates, the angel of the Lord stood by, and said:-"Now you have got the Record into your own hands, and you are but a man, therefore you will have to be watchful and faithful to your trust, or you will be overpowered by wicked men, for they will lay every plan and scheme that is possible to get it away from you, and if you do not take heed continually, they will succeed. While it was in my hands, I could keep it, and no man had power to take it away; but now I give it up to you. Beware, and look well to your ways, and you shall have power to retain it, until the time for it to be translated."

Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), p. 389.

Critic's comment: If the plates and other objects had been safe in the hill for 1200 years, why weren't they left there until Joseph was ready to translate? It seems that for something so valuable, the plan to ensure their safety wasn't well-thought out. Joseph and the angel had several years to plan what should be done for the protection of the plates once they were retrieved; was that the best plan they could come up with? In fact, centuries previously, a plan was made to make sure that when the Book of Lehi was lost, the material within it would be preserved. Why not a little fore-thought with keeping the sacred relics safe?

Joseph at least had a method to determine if someone was after the plates through the use of the Urim and Thummim. Lucy informs us:

That of which I spoke, which Joseph termed a key, was indeed, nothing more nor less than the Urim and Thummim, and it was by this that the angel showed him many things which he saw in vision; by which he could also ascertain, at any time, the approach of danger, either to himself or the Record, and on account of which he always kept the Urim and Thummim about his person.

Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), p. 389.

After the initial excitement things were quiet at the Smith's and Joseph went back to work on the farm. Some time later (we are unsure of exactly how long after getting the plates, days or weeks it would seem, since it was autumn there couldn't have been too many weeks worth of farming left) Joseph went back to the hill and retrieved the breastplate. Immediately upon receiving the breastplate people tried to get Joseph's "treasure." In fact, he spent considerable time trying to hide the plates and breastplate from them. He hid them under the hearth, in the cooper's shop floor and then in the cooper's shop loft. Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), pp. 391-93.

The mob trying to get at the gold plates was led by Willard and Mason Chase's sister, Sally. It was on Willard and Mason Chase's property that Joseph's seer stone was found (another source says that Hyrum was sent by Joseph to borrow a stone from Willard Chase, and then never returned it). According to Lucy,

A young woman by the name of Chase, sister to Willard Chase, found a green glass, through which she could see many very wonderful things, and among her great discoveries she said that she saw the precise place where "Joe Smith kept his gold bible hid," and obedient to her directions, the mob gathered their forces and laid siege to the cooper's shop.

Lucy's Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith's Family Memoir, Edited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, Signature Books, (online), p393.

Critic's comments: There seems to be a lot of superstitious belief surrounding the plates, their retrieval and the hiding, especially between the Chase family and Joseph. If Sally had the ability to find the hiding place of the plates and breastplate, why didn't she use that ability to continue to seek them? Why didn't she use her stone earlier and find them in the hill?

Speaking of special powers, if Joseph's Urim and Thummim gave him special powers to determine if someone was coming, why couldn't some other types of special powers be used instead to hide the items safely so he didn't have to run around all the time and put his family in danger?

Newspapers of the time were fairly current with the goings on about town, however, there is no mention of this excitement over seeking the breastplate and plates. Even the earliest affidavits skip these incidences entirely. It would seem that they would be mentioned somewhere, but they only appear in later reminiscences.

September 1828 - April 1829

After the 116 pages are lost, in September 1828, Joseph begins translating where he left off, in Mosiah. Why didn't he start in 1 Nephi?

Apologist's comment: LDS apologist Richard Bushman said this about the order in which the Book of Mormon was translated after the 116 pages were lost:

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.

Critic's comment: 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. 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 past 1 Nephi as well, so if Joseph Smith had already translated 1 Nephi, the revelation would have been pointless. 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.

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.

May 1829 - D&C 10

In May 1829 the troublesome D&C 10 is received, telling Joseph that the gift of translating has been restored to him and to start the translation process again. This is long after the pages were lost and the Urim and Thummim was returned in September of the previous year, although Joseph has been translating anyhow. It's at this time Joseph is told to translate 1st and 2nd Nephi.

In both the original Book of Commandments of 1833 (Chapter 9) and the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 (Section 10) , and the historical records show, that this revelation was given in May 1829. To remedy the situation, the current theory put out by the Church, as found in the heading for Section 10 is that the revelation was given "likely around April 1829, though portions may have been received as early as the summer of 1828."

The Church's official website, The Joseph Smith Papers, gives greater detail on this problem:

Assigning a date to this revelation is problematic, both because the earliest extant versions of the text are dated inconsistently and because the content fits multiple historical contexts. In Revelation Book 1, which contains the earliest extant copy of this revelation, the page or pages containing the revelation heading are missing, so the date presumably listed by John Whitmer has been lost. The index to the revelation book locates this text between two April 1829 revelations, suggesting that Whitmer assigned an April date, but the editors of the 1833 Book of Commandments gave it a date of May 1829, a date retained in later publications. JS and James Mulholland, the clerk assisting him with his history in 1839, created additional confusion by dating this revelation to "a few days" after the July 1828 revelation. Yet Mulholland also preserved the heading (with its May 1829 date) from the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants when he copied it into JS's history.

Certain parts of the text seem to fit an 1828 setting, others 1829, and some both. The beginning of the featured text, for example, reprimands JS, saying, "You delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man"-language strikingly similar to the July 1828 admonition to JS that "thou deliveredst up…that which God had given thee right to Translate…into the hands of a wicked man." At the same time, another verse from the first part of [D&C 10] instructs JS not to "translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands [the lost manuscript]," a commandment that applied to both JS and Harris in 1828 and to JS and Cowdery in 1829. Several phrases in the featured text are common to 1829 documents. For example, the text alludes to an earlier manifestation to JS: "And for this cause have I said, if this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them." The only identifiable antecedents to this statement appear in a March 1829 revelation-"if the People of this Generation harden not their hearts…I will establish my Church"-and in a Book of Mormon passage likely dictated in May 1829-"if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them." Moreover, a series of close textual parallels between the featured text and Christ's teachings in the Book of Mormon also support a spring 1829 date. These texts share lengthy phrases, including some not found in the Bible, and suggest a relationship between this revelation and the third book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, likely dictated in May 1829.

Their solution to the problem:

A potential solution to these complexities is to consider [D&C 10] a composite of two revelations, one from 1828 and the other 1829. The stylistic features of this revelation, however, strongly suggest that although JS may have received the first portion of the revelation in the summer of 1828, it was not actually written down until April or May 1829, along with the rest of the text. This revelation, written in the first-person voice of Jesus Christ, more closely resembles JS's April 1829 texts, which include such proclamations as "behold I am God," than it does the July 1828 revelation, which speaks of God in the second person. [D&C 10] also lacks the typical signs of a composite revelation, such as an amen marking the end of a particular revelation within a larger text.

Revelation, Spring 1829 [D&C 10], The Joseph Smith Papers. Online http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-spring-1829-dc-10#!/paperSummary/revelation-spring-1829-dc-10&p=1

Critic's comment: It appears that Joseph Smith noticed the discrepancy and made up dates to fit a chronology that didn't actually exist to explain it. Most critics contend that the chronology was being formed through the writing of the Revelation Books, several years after the actual events occurred. Joseph was making up revelations to shape the Church into what he wanted it to be. As he was doing so, he confused a few events.

Prophets & seer stones

Joseph Smith's move 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." "Reminiscences of Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney," in Carol Cornwall Madsen, In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994). Cited in D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, (Salt Lake City:Signature Books, 1998) 248.

Descendants of Elias Pulsipher said 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.

"Statement by Elaine Mullins, descendant of Elias Pulsipher," in Kraut, Seers and Seer Stones, 55. Cited in D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, 1998) 249.

While Brigham Young, as succeeding Church president had no desire to use seer stones himself, he didn't seem to disparage their use:

Oliver sent me Joseph's first seer stone; Oliver always kept it until he sent it to me - the second seer stone Dr. Williams had - the third one was a very large - and Joseph found two small ones on the beach in Nauvoo - a little larger than a black walnut without the shock on - Joseph said there is a stone for every person on the earth - I don't know that I have ever had a desire to have one.

Salt Lake City, Council Meeting, LJA 9-13-4, 149-150; BYC, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, 2010, Vol. 2, Pg. 1004.

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." (Deseret News, No. 43, Vol. X (December 26, 1860) )

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." (Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5:549-550 )

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 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 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. They who say so, seek to play upon your fears, they seek to take advantage of superstitious fears, and seek to use them for their own advantage and bring those who will listen to them in bondage to an influence and spirit that is as foreign to the spirit of God as hell is foreign to heaven.…All who take these methods and encourage these practices I say that the anger of Almighty God will descend upon them unless they repent, and they will find that their hidden works of darkness will not avail them when the Lord feels after them, and when His condemnation rests upon them; they will find this out to their everlasting sorrow. Men who are guilty of these practices, and who seek to lead away the unwary. and to prey upon the ignorant and unsophisticated, and to take advantage of their fears, and instil superstition into the mind, cannot escape condemnation. These methods are not of God, and beware of them, all of you, and tell all your friends that it is sinful in the sight of God to yield to such influences.

Journal of Discourses 26: 65-66. Online https://archive.org/stream/JoDV26/JoD_v26#page/n72/mode/1up

Less than ten years later, scientist James E. Talmage examined a Bro. Rushton's stone:

Being at the President's Office early this morning I had a conversation with President Woodruff concerning the Seer Stones spoken of yesterday, and particularly of the stone owned by Bro. Rushton, which latter I showed to the President. He attributes no importance at all to the stone; and he sustains me in my opinion concerning Mrs. Russel and her divinations. Later in the day Bro. Rushton called upon me and gave me a history of the stone. He found it in Nauvoo, associated with a valuable record, and with a store of gold; but neither the record nor the gold could he obtain. He claims that the location of the stone was revealed to him in a day vision thrice repeated; and at first it was under a seal, the nature of which he declined to explain. He says the stone possesses a celestial and a terrestrial side, and is capable of revealing matters connected with this world and the spirit land. One surface of the stone is devoted to the Ten Tribes, and in that the Seer can perceive the place and circumstances of that people beyond the ice.

Bro. Rushton says the stone served him to locate the burial places of several of Joseph Smith s kindred, the prophet having placed several of the brethren under covenant to bury his dead together.

Since that work was accomplished, Rushton has lost his gift, but lives in hope that it will be restored to him. The stone he believes will be of service in the vicarious work of the Temples by revealing the condition and desires of those behind the vail. Bro. Rushton and I met Pres. Woodruff, but Rushton declined to explain to the President the nature of the seal under which the stone was laid. Pres. Woodruff says he has but little encouragement to offer for the use of Seer Stones.

The diary of James E. Talmage.

In 1900, Brigham Young's daughter Susa Young Gates said:

We have spiritualism, which boldly proclaims itself for what it it; then follow the subtler forms of the same apostate teachings; Christian Science, Mind Healers, Buddhism, Theosophy-with its sinuously fascinating doctrine of reincarnation-and the train of attendant impish beliefs with not enough coherence to have recognized leaders, but with sufficient evil in them to be very dangerous, and misleading. As fortune-telling by cards, tea cups, and the lines in hand through the medium of gypsies and other sources; and peep-stones, in the hands of silly and irresponsible people; such is a partial list of the dangers that beset our young people and that lead some of them astray. Add to these the foolish and vain superstitions that come to us by tradition and inheritance, and the vicious dream books that sometimes are surreptitiously scattered among our boys and girls, and mothers may well shudder as they draw their loved children about them, protecting them with enfolding arms from the contamination. (p. 396)

Then come the peep-stones. These occupy the same place exactly as other forms of witchcraft and fortune-telling. A righteous man or woman, who had discovered in himself a gift and the accompanying stone for its exercise, would so instantly place the stone and the gift under the hands of the proper authority that no harm would accrue to himself or others through its use. A very good test to put to such a matter would be for the young man who hears that such a man or woman has a peep-stone, to inquire at once: Does he or she use it under the direction and sanction and with the full knowledge and approval of the President of the Church? (p. 401)

"Witchcraft,"Susa Young Gates, The Young Women's Journal 11:396 (1900). Online http://books.google.com/books?id=Y00dTzE8UuAC&pg=PA396&lpg=PA396&dq=%22peep-stones,+in+the+hands+of+silly+and+irresponsible+people%22

The next year John A. Widtsoe (president of a Utah college and later an apostle) published in the Church's official periodical the following stark condemnation:

There would be no need to burden the pages of the Era, whose readers regard truth as the end of their existence, with a discussion of one of the pseudo-sciences, were it not that untruth, clad in the pilfered garments of verity, and with the authority of respected men, is insinuating itself into the lives of some Latter-day Saints. Insidious and insinuating doctrines are leading even some of the young men astray, temporarily, from that unyielding faith in the Gospel which is our strength and our glory. 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. There are persons among us who, after receiving the ordinances of The Church, will place more confidence in the fortune teller with his deck of cards, than in the promises given them as children by the Priesthood. Others, in the direction of their affairs, will give greater heed to the twaddle of a phrenologist, than to the earnest council of an Apostle of the Lord. And, I grieve to say, there are men holding the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, whose books on astrology are worn with much use, while their patriarchal blessings, clean and bright, are mislaid with other antiquated documents. True, the number of those who can harmonize such beliefs with their faith in the Gospel is small; and true, too, few of those who have been deceived are long led away. However, to forewarn is to forearm; hence, this article has been written for those who may be tempted.

John A. Widtsoe, "The Folly of Astrology," Improvement Era (February 1901), p. 290. Online https://archive.org/stream/improvementera0404unse#page/290/mode/1up

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 most people 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 and Thummim, which was kept and preserved with the plates for some 2,000 years, for the very purpose of translating the plates.

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.

Seer stones in heaven

Many LDS defenders say that the Urim and Thummim, or seer stone, was used by Joseph Smith to primarily translate the Book of Mormon and for a few revelations, but that it was not needed later on. In fact, that was the view given by Orson Pratt.

Elder Orson Pratt said he was present when this revelation [Section 42] was given. …[Pratt] noticed a change in his [Joseph's] countenance that he had never noticed before, when a revelation was given to him. Joseph's face was exceedingly white, and seemed to shine. The speaker [Pratt] had been present many times when he was translating the New Testament, and wondered why he didn't use the Urim and Thummim, as in translating the Book of Mormon. While this thought passed through the speaker's mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advance so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit, and did not need the assistance of that instrument.

Orson Pratt, "Two Days' Meeting at Brigham City," Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498-499. Online http://books.google.com/books?id=xp9JAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA498&lpg=PA498&dq=%22elder+pratt+said+he+was+present+when+this+revelation+was+given%22 Also available as a PDF: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/printview/collection/MStar/id/14224/type/compoundobject/show/13516

The New Testament revision Pratt was referring to above took place mostly from 1831-33, so it would have been during that time that he witnessed Joseph translating. However, in 1843 Joseph Smith had the conversation that became D&C 130 which seems to refute Pratt's assertion since D&C 130 mentions the eternal importance of the Urim and Thummim and seer stones for everyone:

9 This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ's.

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.

D&C 130: 10-12

Section 130 was added by Orson Pratt in 1876. He used William Clayton's journal to write Section 130. It is an interesting side note, Section 130 isn't a revelation. The verses under consideration is an answer to a question posed by William Clayton.

In answer to a question which I [William Clayton] proposed to him as follows, 'Is not the recokoning of Gods time, Angels time, prophets time & mans time according to the planet on which they reside he answered Yes "But there is no Angel ministers to this earth only what either does belong or has belonged to this earth And the Angels do not reside on a planet like our earth but they dwell with God and the planet where he swells is like crystal, and like a sea of glass before the throne. This is the great Urim & Thummim whereon all things are manifest both things past, present & future and are continually before the Lord. The Urim & Thummim is a small representation of this globe. The earth when it is purified will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim & Thummim whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order will be manifest to those who dwell on it. And this earth will be with Christ Then the white stone mentioned in Rev. c 2 v 17 is the Urim and Thummim whereby all things pertaining to an higher order of kingdoms even all kingdoms will be made known and the a {or "a the"} white stone is given to each of those who come into this 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.

The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841-April 1843. Appendix 2: William Clayton, Journal Excerpt, 1-4 April 1843. Entry for 2 April 1843, pp 67-69.

The Urim and Thummim and seer stones weren't just temporary devices Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, but rather something of eternal significance—so important that everyone who makes it to the Celestial Kingdom will receive one.

Critic's comments: If seer stones, whether in the form of the Urim and Thummim or a peepstone, are so important that perfect, celestial beings would receive one, why did Joseph say they were only for beginners? Traditionally, do verses 10 and 11 mention two separate white stones, one that becomes a personal Urim and Thummim and one that has a new name written on it? Or is it just one stone? Why is something so important as personal Urim and Thummims and seer stones so rarely talked about openly at church when it's plainly in our modern-day scriptures?

Response by the Church

In 2013 the Church began releasing essays addressing troubling issues in its history. An essay on the mechanical process in which the Book of Mormon was translated was published 30 December 2013 and is now in the topical guide of the LDS.org website: Book of Mormon Translation.

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

…kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord…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 and 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"?

The Church's attempt to address the translation issues shows they are aware that it is a sticking point for many devout members. It has been argued by some that the Church did an acceptable job previous to the 2013 essay, however, 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 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.

 

MormonThink's response to the Church Essay

A MormonThink editor is working on a detailed response to the essay. It is found at MormonThink response to Book of Mormon Translation

 

Dan Vogel Video on the Book of Mormon Translation

This very-well done video by award-winning author and Mormon historian Dan Vogel addresses many of the issues from the Church essay as well as other apologetic arguments provided by the Mormon Interpreter.

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

VIDEO: Joseph Smith's Magic Spectacles - Dan Vogel

 

Dan has given MormonThink permission to post the text from his video: The text is in MormonThink's response to the essay

 

 

 

Devout believer #1

Many devout members question the validity of the numerous statements made concerning the stone in the hat method compared to what they have been taught in Sunday school. A typical comment from them, is, "How do I know the statements made by Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, etc., are to be believed over what I have been taught in Church?"

In fact, Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th president of the Church made the same point:

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 Urim and Thummim] 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 3:225-226

Critic's response to devout believer #1

Over the years, the Church has been low-key about the actual translation process as evidenced by what's left out of the Church's teaching manuals, publications, websites and material used in missionary discussions. Our best response, however, is to point the devout member who questions the validity of the stone in the hat method to the Church's Topics essay, Book of Mormon Translation.

Devout believer #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.

The above was taken from the blog of a devout Latter-day Saint at 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 and 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.

The above was taken from the Conclusion section of FAIRMormon Answers' Book of Mormon/Translation page.

Critic's response to devout believer #2

It's good to know that some devout members are aware of the actual translation method. We encourage you to help educate the rest of the members and investigators: When the opportunity arises in Sunday lessons, in missionary discussions, during family home evening lessons, when you give a talk or in any other conversation, share the correct information of the stone in the hat. You can also help the Church be more transparent when you have the opportunity to talk with ranking leaders.

Would you be comfortable if the current prophet of the Church was asked on national TV exactly how he received God's word, and he said he put a stone in a hat and put his face in the hat and received revelations?

Why would God preserve the Nephite interpreters and plates for centuries for Joseph's specific use (according to 2 Nephi 3:6, 12 &15 Joseph of Egypt even knew of Joseph Smith and his role in the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon, so plans for him were millennia in the making), only to have Joseph disregard them both and rely on a common stone dug from the ground and not even look at the plates? If this was all part of the plan, then why the preservation, especially of the interpreters?

Devout believe #3 - alternate theory

Perhaps the stone had no power in and of itself, Joseph simply used the stone as a prop to focus on. Maybe he preferred something tangible to concentrate on when he received revelations?

Critic's response to devout believer #3

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 use the imitation 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 W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988). Online https://www.lds.org/ensign/1988/01/a-new-prophet-and-a-new-scripture-the-coming-forth-of-the-book-of-mormon

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.

Joseph very much believed in the actual power of seer stones and thought that every man should have a seer stone. This 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 for focusing.

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. No treasure was ever found by Joseph but the 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.

Devout believer #4 - The Church does not hide this information

The rock-in-a-hat method is mentioned in essays by LDS historians (Bushman, Givens and so forth), and has been mentioned by authors published 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's teachings themselves and not on how it came to be.

Missionaries don't always teach the historically accurate method of translation because they are almost always young, inexperienced, and quite unfamiliar with the subtle details. They have not studied in depth the historical sources. They rely on what they were taught by people who simply did not know the details.

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.

The Church considers it a relatively minor point. Which 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.

Critic's response to devout believer #4

If you asked 10 random members of the Church if the plates were used in the translation of the BOM, we guess that the number of people who would correctly say "No" would be considerably less than 10. In our experience, only those who have 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. Artwork in the various official Church publications including The Ensign, and manuals, as well as 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, usually touching the plates. There has never been an official publication depicting the true trannslation method showing Joseph with a rock and a hat. Why?

The teaching manuals do not talk about it, so Church teachers do not teach it. Nor is it discussed in General Conference talks. It's no wonder that the vast majority of members don't know how the Book of Mormon was really translated.

Why has the Church disciplined 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. Why aren't missionaries informed of the correct translation, and then told 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 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 Gordon's 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.

However, three of the references do not use 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 is mentioned)
  • Friend, Sep 1974, 7 (no hat mentioned)

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 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 never have a single image showing Joseph with his face in the hat, is misleading by omission.

See our description of apologists, an example of their tactics, as well as have the opportunity to ask the apologists at FAIR a question.

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 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.

Here 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 Ash contradicts Church teachings. Also, it really wouldn't make much sense for God to carefully preserve the Urim and Thummim for 2000 years for the sole purpose of translating the plates and to have the angel give Joseph the plates with the Urim and 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).

Ash is forthright about divination. The particular type of divination Joseph Smith was involved with by using a peepstone is called scrying. However, Ash neglected to say that Joseph never found any treasure when people hired him to use his seer stones. Joseph may have believed he could find things and truly been perplexed when he didn't. Or, maybe Joseph claimed he could for a simple money-making enterprise, like Josiah Stowel. Ash also said the stones 'were thought to be special stones' but he didn't say that they were in fact 'special stones'.

Ash continues:

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 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 and Thummim into a hat, only this reference Ash used from William Smith, Joseph's brother.

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 and 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.

Let's assume that the spectacle version was meant to look through, and not at, like the peepstone (in scrying, the speculum was looked at, not through— it was claimed that Joseph would see English words appear on the seer stone while translating). If Joseph were looking through the spectacles, he was looking at something. Was he looking at the plates? If so, he wouldn't be able to see the plates if the spectacles were in a hat.

If the Urim and Thummim was made to be attached to a breast plate, then it doesn't sound like it was designed to be put into any type of hat, or work with a light-obscuring device. If it was, why wasn't that device included?

Many critics contend that there never was a spectacle-version of the Urim and 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 and 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 and 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 golden plates to be translated to a modern-day language. Why preserve the Urim and Thummim and only allow it to be used for translating the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, which God knew were going to be lost anyhow?

If the plates were given to the angel, why return the Urim and Thummim as well? It's clear from accounts that Joseph "translated" the plates without needing the plates, so maybe if Joseph returned the plates, but not the Urim and Thummim, he could have used the Urim and Thummim anyhow to continue translating. Therefore the angel needed him to return both. However, if this were the case, why wasn't the seer stone given to the angel along with the spectacle version?

Shouldn't Joseph have been thankful that the plates and the ability to translate were taken away? It doesn't really seem like punishment to Joseph— who needed the plates translated to help bring God's children to salvation. Joseph, or God?

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 Joseph didn't use the Urim and Thummim that was 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 "properties" as the original spectacle version of the Urim and Thummim used by the Nephites. This makes little sense. The Church still has Joseph's stone in its vault as testified above. If Ash is right that seer stone itself has special seering ability, it should be used by modern-day prophets instead of hidden away, never to be shown or talked about to members.

However, if the stone did not have any special ability, then how is this explained:

"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)

According to this event the seer stone must have had some special property and not merely an object to focus on or Joseph would have been able to translate from the stone Martin substituted.

Continuing, Ash says:

While such an image [of Joseph's face in a hat] may shock modern members, we have to remember that the Lord works through the culture of His children and speaks to them in language (words, symbols, and methods) through which they can understand. If one can accept that Nephite Interpreters could be used to translate an ancient document, is it really a wonder that God might have prepared Joseph with the cultural belief in seer stones so that he would be receptive to the workings of the Interpreters or that he believed that his seer stone was a Urim and Thummin like the Interpreters.

What does Ash mean by "prepared Joseph with a cultural belief,"? In what ways does he think God intervened to prepare Joseph? He caused Joseph to be born in a time and place in which peepstones were prevalent? He prepared Joseph by making him superstitious? Is that an infringement of Joseph's agency? If God was intervening in Joseph's life, why didn't He prepare him some other way? Why not prepare Him during the four years from the time he was told about the plates until he could get them by teaching him Reformed Egyptian? Or how to use a Urim and Thummim? Why didn't those who made the Nephite Interpreters (who knew about Joseph Smith as evidenced in 2 Nephi 3) make them so that they would comfortably fit Joseph?

Ash tries to make the 'hat' 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 Book of Mormon. 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 then they weren't even used in the translation process. The same with the Urim and 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 Book of Mormon, 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 and Thummim which were not even used in translating the Book of Mormon 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, (one instance in which the talk was originally given to Mission Presidents), the Friend, as well as other LDS-targeted publications.

Ash dismisses the critic's "cries" by using the words "for instance" and then citing three sources. (The use of the words "for instance" indicates that the items to follow are a subset of a larger set, when in reality, he listed all of the official LDS references. A more transparent approach would have been to say, "It has been mentioned a total of three times in the past 50 years.") Additionally, when you check his references you see that one of his sources does not mention the "hat." So only twice in the last 35 years was the stone in the hat mentioned in a Church magazine. Compare that to the dozens of images members have seen during that same time depicting an inaccurate translation method omitting a stone and hat. Besides the inaccurate images, the over those years the magazines have used of the words "Urim and Thummim" but not "seer stone in a hat". Does this sound like the Church hasn't been hiding the stone-in-the-hat method? If it hasn't been suppressing the information, why isn't it commonly known by the members and why isn't it taught to investigators?

Note how Ash carefully words that last phrase: "as well as other LDS-targeted publications." That means not owned by the Church but more scholarly journals like Sunstone, Dialogue, and BYU Studies: publications which are not read by the average member.

Ending summary by critics

Today's prophet, scryer and revelator?

In Joseph's day, 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 "second sight" where people would see things as a vision in their mind. Scrying was a type of second sight, a method of divination that allowed one to look into an object and see the unseen. Scrying is also called "seeing" or "peeping." Joseph was a scryer and his associates believed in it so strongly that they tried to dig for treasure that he said he saw—always to no avail. People practice scrying today. (see our entry on scrying for more information)

Imagine what would happen if the current prophet of the Church said he was a scryer, and that he looked in a crystal ball or put his face in a hat looking at a stone to receive revelation for the Church. Members would find this troubling, let alone how it would affect the missionary work. However, if it was acceptable for the founding prophet of Mormonism to receive revelations through scrying, why doesn't the current prophet use Joseph Smith's very stone (currently in the Church's vaults) to receive revelation today?

Time-line and Joseph's behavior

Joseph claims that in 1820 he saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. In 1822, Joseph finds a peepstone and begins his career as a treasure seeker using that peepstone. In 1823 he claims that he is visited by an angel named Moroni and told about some gold plates. Joseph is visited by that angel once a year until 1827. During this time period Joseph tries to get the plates, but is told he can't have them yet. He is also actively engaged in treasure seeking in which some of the adventures end with Joseph claiming that the treasure is near at hand, but that it slips out of reach so no one else can see it, let alone get to it. In 1826 he is taken to court for activities related to his peepstone treasure-hunting. In 1827 he says he receives the gold plates and the Nephite Interpreters from the angel and is told that people are not allowed to see them. The plates and interpreters are taken away, then returned. By 1829 he is finished with the Book of Mormon and the plates and Interpreters are returned to the angel. 11 witnesses claim they see the plates, but then many of them admit they didn't see them with their natural eyes. This timeline of events, if accurate, casts doubt on Joseph's motives and methods for producing the Book of Mormon and starting the LDS Church. In fact, it seems as if the gold plates and interpreters are just an extension of Joesph's treasure-hunting and peepstones.

The name "Urim and Thummim" is 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 and 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 1833. Historical accounts were rewritten to make it appear that from the moment Moroni appeared the interpreters were referred to as the Urim and Thummim, and then Joseph's peepstone was referred to as Urim and Thummim. How much less credible would it be if instead of the biblical sounding "Urim and Thummim", the translating object was referred to as "the peepstone Joseph found while digging a well?"

Plates not used

The fact that the plates were not used in the translation process is especially problematic. 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? God or Moroni could have simply revealed the history of the earliest Americans without the worry of protecting the plates that Joseph found. Apologists claim that the "proof" of the Book of Mormon is found in the reading of the book and gaining a spiritual testimony of it. No plates or witnesses are needed for such reading and spiritual confirmation.

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 and Thummim, the devil gives revelations to some of his followers through peepstones or crystal balls.

Does this mean that McConkie thought Joseph's peepstone use for treasure-hunting was from the Devil? How about when Joseph used that same peepstone for translating the Book of Mormon?

Did the seer stone have any special ability?

Was the seer stone just a stone or did it indeed have special ability to translate ancient writings? If it had special abilities, how is that possible since 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 it did not have special abilities and Joseph just used this stone to concentrate with, then why was Joseph 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 the Book of Mormon that Joseph used.

Why not tell the members openly?

The Church has not plainly taught the truth to its members, let alone investigators of the church. The hierarchy of the church knows the translation took place with a stone in a hat, as evidenced by Russell M. Nelson's talk to the mission presidents. Even devout members and missionaries who know how the translation occurred, 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. This is unethical.

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.

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 used a simple stone placed in a hat without using the gold plates. What we find most problematic isn't the translation process itself, rather, we are concerned that it is not plainly taught to the members even though Church leadership is well aware of the actual translation process and medium. If the process and medium are really not that important, as some LDS defenders claim, then why don't we, as a church, just acknowledge this openly and stop omitting it?

The current trend of showing pictures portraying Oliver Cowdery in full view of the plates while Joseph was translating needs to change. 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 Book of Mormon, 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 to an inaccurate 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 Book of Mormon 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 knew 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 less dodgy method of translation rather than what they know to be the actual method.

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 and Thummim - specifically regarding why the Urim and 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 states regarding the seer stone:

It seems to be a stone that was found in the vicinity

This appears to be 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 24 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