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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) 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.
However, faithful LDS historians have been aware 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. 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. MormonThink's response to Book of Mormon translation essay
Overview of Critics' position
LDS critics maintain that the Church has credibility issues as they have taught and still generally teach that Joseph translated the BOM using the Nephi Interpreters known as the Urim and Thummim 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.
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.
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:
Another depiction of the Urim and Thummim based on the description by Joseph Smith:
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:
Found on the online Video, Audio, and Images library is the following picture :
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):
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):
"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:
"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 canonized scripture is Oliver Cowdery's description of the translation and use of the Urim and Thummim:
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):
"Urim and Thummim," Gospel Topics. http://www.lds.org/topics/urim-and-thummim
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 as recounted to her son Joseph Smith III:
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 was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The majority of the translation work took place in the Whitmer home.
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, 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.
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:
(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:
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:
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:
(spelling preserved from original) Neal A Maxwell Institute
Seer Stone or Urim and Thummim?
Oliver Cowdery was Joseph's principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, and another of the Three Witnesses to 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:
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:
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.
Artist's depiction of the actual 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:
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."
Stephen D. Ricks, in "The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon," published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, said this (emphasis added):
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 caused 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.
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:
To help allay concerns members have when wondering about the "money-digging," they are often told this:
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:
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:
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.
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 from the Salt Lake Messenger #95):
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:
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,
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:
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:
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:
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.
Also website: Rethinking the 1826 Judicial Decision - Dan Vogel
More on treasure seeking
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.
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
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
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:
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:
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):
"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:
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:
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
Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, pp 163-170.
Upon Joseph returning from getting the plates, Lucy had this to say:
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?
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
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:"
"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.
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?
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):
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:
"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.
Editor Comment: Probably the most knowledgeable person on this subject is Mormon historian and award-winning author Dan Vogel. He made a video which does an excellent job unraveling what likely happened regarding the translation process and what medium was used. Joseph Smith's Magic Spectacles - Dan Vogel
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:
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.
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):
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.
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)
"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 :
"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.:
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, 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:
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:
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.
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?
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:
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:
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,
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:
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:
Their solution to the problem:
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.
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
"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:
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:
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:
The diary of James E. Talmage.
In 1900, Brigham Young's daughter Susa Young Gates said:
"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:
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:
Doctrines of Salvation vol.3 p 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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
Update: 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:
Then the essay introduces the seer stone:
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
MormonThink has put up a response to the essay but the following work by Dan Vogel addresses the translation process better than anything we have seen.
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.
Dan has given MormonThink permission to post the text from his video: The text is in MormonThink's response to the essay
Responses by believers
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:
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
The above was taken from the blog of a devout Latter-day Saint at Latter-day Commentary.
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?
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.
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 translation 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.
Update: Even with the publication of the Church essay Book of Mormon Translation in Dec 2013, very few members still don't know about the actual 'stone in hat' process as the essay is buried deep in the LDS.org website and not printed in the Ensign or in General Conference talks.
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:
Looking at the two times the word "hat" was actually used in the articles discussing the BOM translation, one was over 21 years ago and the other was over 38 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.
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:
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:
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:
Here Ash contradicts what the Church teaches. In the 2002 Church magazine for youth, New Era:
"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:
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'.
No doubt. But this only goes to show how superstitious people were at the time Joseph lived. Ash states:
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".
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?
The taking away the plates doesn't make that much sense when you think about it. It doesn't really seem like punishment to Joseph. After all, 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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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 Joseph'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:
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.
Update: The Church has since acknowledge the 'stone in the hat' translation method with the publication of the Church essay Book of Mormon Translation in Dec 2013. As alluded to by church historians, the reason the Church has done so is because of pro-truth sites like MormonThink that have made this information very readily available so the members are finding out regardless of whether the Church wants them to really know about it.
Both the critics and defenders of the faith have compelling points to make. The editors of this section give their own opinions:
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?
Update: Even with the publication of the Church essay Book of Mormon Translation in Dec 2013, very few members still don't know about the actual 'stone in hat' process as the essay is buried deep in the LDS.org website and not printed in the Ensign or in General Conference talks. It appears that the Church only wants members, that already know about the translation process, to read the essay.
The current practice 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.
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
LDS essay on the Book of Mormon Translation and MormonThink's response:
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.
Editor comment: On the PBS Special, LDS apologist Daniel Peterson states regarding the seer stone:
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.
Links 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.