Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part III: Rescuing the Urim and Thummim

The history behind The Book of Mormon translation is based on written records. Who writes the history and what they have to say has a strong impact on how the events are understood. It is assumed that history comes fully formed in a textbook or what was written by an author who did the studies. For the modern historian, no history exists unless it is written down and somehow explained. Some physical evidence can be used to corroborate or refute the written record, but only words explain human thoughts and experience. People can only write from their perspective, and sometimes they lie or remember incorrectly. The Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates has a lot of evidence, while the stone in a hat a few strong statements. What can be known about the translation of the Book of Mormon depends on who and what to believe.

Remember that no one other than Joseph Smith was allowed to see, save perhaps Oliver Cowdery, the gold plates or Urim and Thummim before the translation was finished. The Lord had warned that anyone who saw them before given explicit permission would be destroyed. A warning of destruction applied to Joseph Smith if he showed them to anyone. To protect against this he always had the items covered or placed in a safe place, unless in use. After the translation the Lord gave permission to show the holy items to a select few. When the Book of Mormon was published, it contained the testimony of Three Witnesses that an angel showed them the gold plates. It also contained the testimony of eight other witnesses that they handled the plates. All official copies of the Book of Mormon through to the most recent contain the witness signed declarations. None of them ever denied the printed testimonies. On the contrary, the Three Witnesses later testified independently they saw the gold plates, the Interpreters, and other items.

How the translation was accomplished is a complete mystery known only to God, Joseph Smith, and possibly Oliver Cowdery when he was once given permission by revelation to try. Any statements about what Joseph Smith did or saw to translate the gold plates come second hand. None of them claim to be direct quotes from the Prophet, although they sometimes say that is where they got the information. Almost all of the descriptions are of a rigid reading. Mistakes found in the original manuscript pages that have survived refute such exact renderings; except for proper names and places. Whenever Joseph Smith does explain the translation in his own words, it is in the vaguest of terms. He does make it clear that the translation was from the plates using the Urim and Thummim that came with them by the Power of God. This implies having both together was essential to the translation work. Either he is absolutely truthful in his descriptions or he deliberately left out the stone in a hat portion of the process.

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Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part II: Motives and Trust

Challenging the stone in the hat translation story can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the documents. For every quote supporting the Urim and Thummim as the only instrument used to translate the golden plates, some other quote will be used to justify the stone as at least a companion tool. Anyone with access to the documents will, with time, realize how confusing the whole becomes. These aren’t complimentary recitations that can be reconciled. They are at odds with each other; sometimes within the same sources or interviews. Important evidence needs to be examined for who wrote it and why, comparing it to others.

Most of those who add the stone in a hat to the narrative selectively quote. They will grab something David Whitmer said out of context to the rest of the interview, and include it with little comment. The same goes with Martin Harris and Emma Smith who have interesting anecdotes that make for good story telling. Collectively they can be a powerful witness, but that is only when snippets of one or the other are joined. When the quotes are put into context of the documents, and then compared to each other, a different picture forms. It might be a little too much to say they are in collusion. Nonetheless, their reasoning for talking about the translation the way they do has similarities.

Considering all the early information (especially from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself) that puts the Urim and Thummim as the principle translation device, it might be surprising how prominent for modern Latter-day Saints the stone in a hat has become. Previously it was considered a peculiarity that might have some authentication, but not enough for anything more than passing comment. Articles specifically talking about the translation might include a section with supporting quotes. They are rare exceptions. A majority skip it altogether; General Conference perhaps most of all.

Artwork, the most powerful tool for popularization, was singled out as historically wrong. LDS Church wide depictions stuck with the Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery version of translation. It must be admitted they were far from perfect representations. Often Joseph Smith was shown, usually behind a curtain, reading directly off the gold plates with no translation device. Instead of correcting by including Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim, the images of him reading the plates at all are discarded. One version of the Urim and Thummim is routinely published, while a whole bundle of stone in a hat has taken over visuals. To wipe out those inaccurate versions of the translation and replace them with even more questionable versions is revisionist history; not sound doctrine. The same goes with the translation history.

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Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part I: Witness and Warning

For over a century leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taught the Book of Mormon was translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith using the gift and power of God through the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates. This is the same as taught, without deviation, by Joseph Smith throughout his life. His second scribe Oliver Cowdery who wrote for the Prophet, helping to produce almost all of the current text, taught this throughout his life as well. After the conclusion of the gold plates translation, three men (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the first scribe Martin Harris) were privileged to witness and testify of the gold plates, Urim and Thummim, and other holy objects. There names are attached to the Book of Mormon publication.

Recently this narrative has seen a challenge by none other than Mormon academics who think they know better. Instead of a divinely delivered Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates for their translation, it is now at least part of the time translated by a common rock found in a well put into a hat. Despite sophisticated words attached to research of primary sources, the new narrative is wrong. Taking Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery seriously, with a closer look at the primary sources, supports the traditional translation teachings. The ancient Interpreters placed with the gold plates was the only instrument that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.

Placing the stone in a hat as a major translation tool wasn’t seriously considered by members of the LDS Church until the turn of the 20th Century. No less than B.H.Roberts included a discussion of the seer stone in his landmark A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (pg. 137-133) with very little said about the Urim and Thummim. There was no more discussion of the seer stone until the “New Mormon History” movement began by Leonard Arrington sought to take seriously all sources, at the expense of the “traditional” history. Joseph Smith went from a Prophet called of God to translate the Book of Mormon and restore the ancient Church, to the local magician who just happened to become a Prophet. They basically accepted the position of anti-Mormon critics, with the seer stone in a hat the connecting issue. This isn’t even a “liberal” against an “orthodox” Mormon debate. In the book From Darkness Unto Light by MacKay and Dirkmaat, and sold by LDS distributor Deseret Book, the seer stone in a hat is said to be a major part of the translation. The newest approved history Saints has the seer stone in a hat and the Urim and Thummim almost on equal ground. An article in the October 2015 Ensign has an extensive discussion of both the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone, although not the first time in the magazine. It seems the stone in a hat is now found everywhere, when it used to be a speculated side note.

Including the stone in a hat as part of the translation is more than academically questionable, but comes with spiritual problems. Consider that Richard Bushman in his Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling denies that Joseph Smith told the truth about his using the seer stone, trying to hide his occultic past. He isn’t the only one who questions Joseph Smith’s words, as pseudo-official apologists FARMS, FAIR, and the Interpreter contributors also keep the Prophet out of the process. They hold strongly to and defend the stone in a hat translation method; even insisting that was the primary tool. Some may wonder why it is important to establish that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery used the Urim and Thummin for the translation exactly as they always explained, and not a seer stone in a hat. Consider the scholar Royal Skousen in his preview book Volume III: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, pg. 22, where he writes Joseph Smith’s translation claims are “only partially true” and Oliver Cowdery “appear[s] to be intentionally misleading” even though they are the ones directly involved with the translation. Yet, that seems to be the only way a person can accept the stone in a hat narrative. Academics who hold to the stone in a hat seem to believe Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were untruthful, the Urim and Thummim were not very important, the gold plates had no practical use, and some mysterious entity actually wrote the English words. Descriptions of the gift and power of God to translate has changed into accusations against the Prophet Joseph Smith and his scribe. If one is to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) then the stone in a hat comes up short, along with its history.

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Lovecraft Revisited and Views on Wickedness

There has been in the past some discussion here about Lovecraft and his atheist and nihilistic beliefs, mirrored in his stories. It is stressed that the stories he writes are more nihilistic than the most pessimistic nihilists,

By comparison, Lovecraftianism assumes there is no hope at all, so knowing the truth can’t save you. Knowledge is only power if there is some realistic chance you can act upon it. Lovecraft’s stories often assumed there was not.


A key word in the quote is “often” as even his most popular stories have some moral criticisms that are overlooked. It might be true that once the truth of how inconsequential they are is found out humans will go completely insane. Putting that aside, there is almost always some human action that provokes the cosmic horror to be unleashed. Even when there is a case that the horror is not provoked into surfacing, past or current moral deficiencies tend to exacerbate the situation.

* Evil is not a natural part of the (neutral) physical world.
* Sins that are taught or ignored can become multi-generational
* Evil takes root where family, community, and eventually civilization are at odds.
* War and violence lead to awakening ancient evils.
* Humans can be as destructive as the forces they cannot detect or control.

Although the videos I made about some short stories of H.P. Lovecraft look at them as a whole, there are still a few moral lessons. Don’t expect any specific descriptions of morality and sin. Despite that, it is interesting to see how this atheist author used his work to point out social disorder.
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Martyrdom or Fighting Back

Civility is dead, many say, as each side points fingers at the other as to who is responsible. Words that condemn the incivility are often uncharitable themselves. No real solutions are put forward how it might be returned because the underlying reasons are ignored. Some push back with the argument that “civility” was a social nicety lie and the truth of American (even human) feelings are expressing themselves. One side says civility is for losers and the other for the privileged. The Gospel comes strongly on the side of civility, but at a cost and with a few exceptions.

The life of Jesus Christ was a series of giving the enemy the benefit of the doubt. His death might have been brutal and inhuman as was often the case anciently, but his response to it all is reported to have been mild. There was one instance when he called the Jewish ruler a name and only a few non-defensive statements to the rest of his accusers and judges. On the other hand, he did not completely ignore his antagonists. Sometimes he questioned the premise of the arguments with his own inquires. At other times he quoted and interpreted Scriptures that seemed to be more authoritative than the original quotes of those against him. His teachings, as he warned, had the seeds of social and family division as he sought to uproot the current social order. Of course, he refused to do this by fomenting rebellion and incivility; declaring them both antithetical to his purposes. And yet, offhandedly, he hinted that the traveling elders would need to defend themselves on the road against robbers. He was a man of peace who had a few complications often ignored because of the whole of his message.

Years later the followers of Jesus Christ often didn’t fare any better. They didn’t rise up with an army or rebel against local authority, but they were treated as criminals at times. Not one of his Apostles, if the recorded history is correct, survived to die of natural or accidental causes. A whole generation, again if the history is to be believed as more than overblown propaganda, became known as martyrs. None are recorded to have fought back against their deaths at the hand of the government or hateful people. Obviously it wasn’t a full religious extermination or no one of such a small group would have survived. Christianity, no matter what condition it is today, would have died with the other now extinct religions. If they had fought back maybe things could have been worse. Continue reading