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.
As taught in LDS Church Sunday School, the Book of Mormon only lists one set of instruments set aside to translate the ancient language on the sacred gold plates. It is explained in detail by prophecy where the Interpreters came from and why they exist. During the time of the Tower of Babel, a family was concerned that they would lose the ability to speak with each other. They were faithful to the Lord and a mighty man prayed to the Lord, “that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.”(Ether 1:34). The brother of Jared’s prayer was answered and he was warned by the Lord to take his people out of Babylon where they would be brought to a promised land. Coming to a large body of water, they built eight boats to travel inside. No light would be visible because they were airtight so they wouldn’t sink. Worried that there wouldn’t be any light, the brother of Jared went into a high mountain and prayed for a solution. When asked by God how he wanted to resolve the problem, the Brother of Jared suggested The Divine touch white stones and make them glow in the dark. Impressed with his faith, God showed Himself as the pre-mortal Jesus Christ. Along with this amazing vision, The Lord fashioned two stones, “For behold, the language which ye shall write I have confounded; wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write.” (Ether 3:23-24). Several generations later these blessed stones were used to translate 24 gold plates found during an expedition. No one was given the authority to use the Interpreters unless commanded by God. If a person did look without permission then the consequence was death. It was thought, “these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men.” (Mosiah 8:19). These same stones were the ones touched by the Hand of the Lord specially to help in translations. Each generation handed them down from one to another, “And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he should discover to every creature who should possess the land the iniquities and abominations of his people . . .” (Mosiah 28:15). These are the same stones hid up with the gold plates in order for Joseph Smith to use them for translation.
No other instruments are mentioned as the means of bringing the Book of Mormon out of obscurity. Alma gave his son Helaman strict commandments that he should keep the 24 gold plates, and other records, as a warning to other generations. To assist with the translation for others in the future, the Interpreters were also to be preserved. Some have speculated that “Gazelem” (Alma 37:23) is Joseph Smith and the singular stone the seer stone. Perhaps the name is correctly attributed, but the stone doesn’t fit the one in a hat. It was prepared for the very purpose of translation. The verse is placed between “Interpreters” comments and given the same mission to, “bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works . . .” (Alma 37:25). Placed in the center of a Chiasmis, it is more probable to be another descriptive of both the Interpreter stones. The switch of the two stones to one is to match the singular of the name designated as the possessor. Assigning the name Gazelem to Joseph Smith itself is a speculation based on his using it as a code name in early revelations. It could just as easily be the name of the Interpreters together acting as one stone.
With the amount of Scriptural evidence pointing to the Lord preparing Interpreters for the Book of Mormon translation, there is no reason to have another instrument. For a thousand years they were used and preserved to translate ancient lost languages by the Power of God. Another thousand years later an angel delivered them with the gold plates to help in translation of those records. There is no reason the Lord would accept the use of any old rock found in a well, or stream, or any other place after so much effort to hide up and deliver God touched instruments. No matter what kind of “mistakes” were made when losing some of the translation pages, it is unreasonable to think anything else would take their place. The Interpreters and gold plates would either be returned as they were after repentance, or given to another more worthy.
Claims of a regular smooth dark brown stone thrown into a hat becoming a translation device with the permission of God is near blasphemy. The belief that two white stones touched by the Lord’s hand and used for translating the Book of Mormon is strange enough. At least they have that sense of awe and the designation of holy objects. The latter is a high religious concept while the first no better than a common magic trick similar to spiritualist automatic writing. Those who try to reconcile the two are forcing a square peg into a round hole. They do not fit together like a puzzle, but repel like two poles of a magnet.
Admittedly the “hat” part of the translation theories was present from the very first reports. The brown seer stone was an addition brought up years later. The first known secular account from Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829 sounds close to LDS Church teachings:
. . . and after penetrating “mother earth” a short distance, the [Golden] Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles! He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, “under no less penalty” than instant death! They were therefore nicely wrapped up and excluded from the “vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals!” It was said that the leaves of the bible were plates of gold, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hyeroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.
Almost all the reports read like this throughout the first few years, with minor differences. Some weren’t sure if a hat or a box was present, with others simply mentioning a dark place. Others tell about a sheet draped between the translator and the scribe. Whenever the sheet was mentioned, the Spectacles were part of the description. Any stones used for the translation were described as white or clear. Even if only one stone stood out, it was a white stone. The point is that, even with the hat, there is no brown colored seer stone appearing in the records.
Even those who mocked the translation were aware of what instrument was claimed to be used. The very hostile 1830 The Reflector articles included a satire called “The Book of Pukei” published before The Book of Mormon. A printer grabbed a few non-published actual Book of Mormon pages and printed them, forcing Joseph Smith to defend his copyright. Angry at this, the printer posted satire instead. Despite the grand opportunity, there is no mention of a hat or seer stone in the translation process, although Smith is accused in the introduction of using them as a money digger. Instead it tells how Joseph Smith, “obtained the ‘Gold Bible,’ Spectacles, and breast plate–will they not be faithfully recorded in the book of Pukei?” This could be the perfect time to push the stone in a hat because of the comedy (think of the South Park episode), but it is missing. According to sources several years later Joseph Smith didn’t look at the gold plates or have the Interpreters after Martin Harris. The satire doesn’t give any hints they were not used. Instead, Oliver Cowdery writes down what silly things were read from the plate’s translation.
Whenever Oliver Cowdery was quoted, he stuck with the Interpreters that are traditionally understood as the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates. According to Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate in an April 1831 article, he spoke under oath:
One of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the formed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.
This same article also seems to be one of the first to connect the translation of the Book of Mormon to magical arts, but by related powers and not the same materials. The evolution of Joseph Smith from translator of gold plates to common seer and magician can be traced through early news reports. The previously mentioned “Book of Pukei” told stories of Joseph Smith looking in a stone hat for treasure before becoming a prophet. Mockingly he turned the Angel Moroni into the spirit of a magician by the name of Morgan. News reports that talked about money digging and stone lookers speculated what powers were used by Joseph Smith. None of them made a direct link to the instruments or process of translation. They were seen as similar, not the same. Wicked use of magic was leveled against Jesus Christ in a similar fashion.
Descriptions by Oliver Cowdery of the Book of Mormon translation continued to remain consistent. A report by a non-member skeptical of the LDS Church wrote about a short interview he had with the former scribe. The date of the report is 1831, although reprinted in 1841 for the newspaper The Evangelist as a recollection of Kirtland events. Josiah Jones who wrote the report was antagonistic, accusing the Saints of self-deception and bad behavior. The stone in a hat would be a great opportunity to make an attack. Instead we read as part of the total:
A few days after these men [Mormon Missionaries] appeared again, a few of us went to see them and Cowdery was requested to state how the plates were found, which he did. He stated that Smith looked onto or through the transparent stones to translate what was on the plates. I then asked him if he had ever looked through the stones to see what he could see in them; his reply was that he was not permitted to look into them. I asked him who debarred him from looking into them; he remained sometime in silence, then said that he had so much confidence in his friend Smith, who told him that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead.
This is a straight forward “traditional” description of the translation of the Book of Mormon. It is very clear that the Interpreters were used for the process with Cowdery writing down what was read from the plates. Perhaps left out is if Oliver Cowdery was allowed to try and translate. There are some tantalizing hints he comes close to talking about the sacred opportunity. He doesn’t exactly give a “yes or no” answer, and was hesitant to answer the second question. This is assuming the interview report is accurate. There is, as usual, no dark or brown seer stone to be seen. There is only the two white, or in this case transparent, stones used to look on the plates and turn ancient words into English. Early reports also have Martin Harris responding that it was warned not to look or he would be struck dead.
If non-Mormon reports added a hat on occasion along with the white stones, believers were not hesitant how and with what the Book of Mormon was translated. An example is a report by W.W. Phelps in the 1833 The Evening and Morning Star newspaper:
The Book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.-It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles-(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) and while it unfolds the history of the first inhabitants that settled this continent, it, at the same time, brings a oneness to scripture, like the days of the apostles . .
No mention of a hat. No mention of a seer stone, especially of a dark color. There was not even a speculation of the use of those tools like recent Mormon academics. At most it first introduced the concept of calling the Interpreters “Urim and Thummim” that became their familiar name. Even that is in question because an earlier report from the Boston Investigator dated August 10, 1832 describes a sermon by Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith explaining the translation, “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.” They in the question and answer sermon verified, “The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows, something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.” There was never any hesitation about describing what can be considered as a traditional narrative.
A very anti-Mormon book recognized the two different theories on the Book of Mormon translation and used it as an advantage. A few years after the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a bitter ex-Mormon named Doctor P. Hulbert went to Palmyra to cause trouble for the growing church. In particular he interviewed a selection of neighbors who opposed Joseph Smith and came back with some wild stories to destroy his reputation. His interviews were published by E.B. Howe in his Mormonism Unveiled in 1834, and is the basis of all lies and distortions of the Prophet since. One of the few things we can learn from it is that the stone in the hat and the Urim and Thummim were not considered by Mormon or non-Mormon as the same instruments. A few early reports might have heard both and (like modern academics) tried to fit them together. The second chapter discusses how the Book of Mormon was translated, starting out with the traditional version of Joseph Smith with the help of an angel finding the gold plates and large spectacles. After that it reads:
The translation finally commenced. They were found to contain a language not now known upon the earth, which they termed ‘reformed Egyptian characters.’ The plates, therefore, which had been so much talked of, were found to be of no manner of use. After all, the Lord showed and communicated to him [Joseph] every word and letter of the Book. Instead of looking at the characters inscribed upon the plates, the prophet was obliged to resort to the old ”peep stone,” which he formerly used in money-digging.This he placed in a hat, or box, into which he also thrust his face. Through the stone he could then discover a single word at a time, which he repeated aloud to his amanuensis, who committed it to paper, when another word would immediately appear, and thus the performance continued to the end of the book . . .
The next paragraph after that reads:
Another account they give of the transaction, is, that it was performed with the big spectacles before mentioned, and which were in fact, the identical Urim and Thumim mentioned in Exodus 28 — 30, and were brought away from Jerusalem by the heroes of the book, handed down from one generation to another, and finally buried up in Ontario county, some fifteen centuries since, to enable Smith to translate the plates without looking at them ! (pgs. 18-19)
Despite the obvious distortions of facts, there is a clear distinction made between the seer stone and the Urim and Thummim. They were competing theories on what was used to dictate the Book of Mormon. The single similarity is that, according to the book, the plates were “no manner of use” because Joseph Smith didn’t translate them. Howe is trying to set up Mormonism for failure by not even giving a proper choice. Of course, the reason is that he believes Joseph Smith didn’t actually have any plates. It also contains the now famous Professor Charles Anthon description of what Martin Harris told him, complete with gold plates, ancient writing, large spectacles used for translation, and most important to E.B. Howe, a curtain placed between translator and scribe. Noting that neither Martin Harris or Professor Anthon were ever allowed to see any of those objects, it is curious that he quotes Mr. Harris as saying, “Whoever . . . examined the plates through the glasses were enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning.” (B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History, pg. 103) This contradicts that the plates were not used, but was an actual translation; even if that translation is by the Power of God and not earthly methods. Nevertheless, H.B. Howe preferred this because the use of a curtain supported his own now famous Spaulding Manuscript theory. He believed Joseph Smith read and copied from an already completed book. The weakness to this is the Three Witnesses that he ridicules if the gold plates never had any real purpose.
Of all the ridiculous stories found in the Mormonism Unveiled book, none has more lasting appeal than the one Willard Chase told. He said that Joseph Smith found a seer stone in a well and used it to translate the Book of Mormon. The subtext of the story is rather amusing, as he goes from not considering the stone more than a curiosity, and getting into a fight with Hyrum to get it back. Because the Willard Chase story is casually used to support the stone in the hat theory, one part is often ignored. Among the amusing main story is a recital about Joseph Smith and a friend finding the Interpreters using a seer stone:
Joseph believed that one Samuel T. Lawrence was the man alluded to by the spirit, and went with him to a singular looking hill, in Manchester, and shewed him where the treasure was. Lawrence asked him if he had ever discovered any thing with the plates of gold; he said no: he then asked him to look in his stone, to see if there was any thing with them. He looked, and said there was nothing; he told him to look again, and see if there was not a large pair of specks with the plates; he looked and soon saw a pair of spectacles, the same with which Joseph says he translated the Book of Mormon. (pg.?)
This isn’t a statement about what Joseph Smith told him, but the claim by Willard Chase of an actual event. What he is trying to argue is Joseph Smith didn’t translate the Book of Mormon using what became known as the Urim and Thummim. He did so using a strange stone stolen from him that was never returned. The question of the gold plates and Interpreters as real discoveries is left ambiguous in the story. More important is that Chase understood that Joseph Smith claimed the spectacles were used in the translation, and not a “singularly appearing stone” placed in a hat. He is making a joke that Joseph Smith found the gold plates using a seer stone, then had to be shown by a better seer that another instrument was buried with them, but ended up using the questionably acquired magic stone instead of the Holy Instrument with the divine plates. In other words, even those who insisted Joseph Smith used a brown seer stone for translation knew he told the Urim and Thummim version
Oliver Cowdery responded to these reports by expressing with absolute clarity that the “Nephite Interpreters” currently called the Urim and Thummim were used to translate the Book of Mormon by the Power of God. He never mentioned any other means or tools. A set of letters were written in 1834 addressed to W.W. Phelps and published in the Messenger and Advocate newspaper:
These were days never to be forgotten to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called “The book of Mormon.”
After the first letter was published, Joseph Smith responded to Oliver Cowdery, “I have been induced to give you the time and place of my birth; as I have learned that many . . . profess a personal acquaintance with me,” although they represent Joseph Smith as someone different, “in age, education, and stature,” from his true self (Messenger and Advocate, December 1834). He then helps Oliver Cowdery write the rest of the articles with no correction about the translation processes. Joseph Smith will go on to continue describing the translation in the same manner and instruments in his own explanations.
A few years later Joseph Smith explained in the 1838 Elder’s Journal how he was able to translate the Book of Mormon, after many people requested information:
I am answering these questions by publication for the reason they are asked me thousands of times. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom appeared unto me, and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.
When the Urim and Thummim are said to be found with the gold plates, it is not ambiguous what he is talking about. The Book of Mormon says the Interpreters would be buried with the plates. Other recitations by the Prophet Joseph Smith clearly connects the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim with the scriptural Jaredite and Nephite stones. A more detailed explanation was given in the 1842 “Wentworth Letter”, with a charge that nothing be changed or taken out. The account reads:
These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold: each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something over six inches in thickness, part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, and much skill in the art of engraving. With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.
Notice that the letter directly names the “curious instrument” contained with the gold plates as the Urim and Thummim he used for translation. He goes on in detail to explain what they looked like so there can be no confusion. No mention is ever made by Joseph Smith to a brown or black stone in the translation process. It is always the combined gold plates and the accompanied Urim and Thummim found with them. The idea that Joseph Smith used both the stone in the hat and the Urim and Thummim cannot be maintained without ignoring Joseph Smith’s and Oliver Cowdery’s words.
It is true that Joseph Smith told his brother Hyrum that he didn’t want to tell “all the particulars” about the Book of Mormon’s coming forth. That doesn’t mean he accepted or was letting the stone in a hat go unanswered. His descriptions were not downplaying a seer stone when talking about the Urim and Thummim. Joseph Smith was “owing to the many reports” downright repudiating the story. Why later witnesses such as Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, and others claim otherwise will be another discussion. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery never changed their version of how the translation was done, and with what. In his final recorded sermon Oct. 24, 1848, Oliver Cowdery had the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. It was claimed by others that he had the brown seer stone given him by Joseph Smith, and his wife later gave away. Instead of taking it out of his pocket (assuming he actually had one) he used much the same words as his original article:
My name is Cowdery – Oliver Cowdery. In the history of the Church I stood identified with him, and was in her councils not because I was better than other men was I called to fill the purpose of God. He called me to a high and holy calling. I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and he translated by the power and gift of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by the book, ‘Holy Interprter’ . . .
“. . . That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. (quoted in Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery: Second Elder and Scribe, pg. 203-204).
It seems inconceivable that a brown or dark seer stone, or any other tool for that matter, were used other than the Urim and Thummim as the “Nephite or Jaredite” white stone Interpreters were called. These were Scriptural, prophetic, traceable in the records, and specifically mentioned in detail by the Prophet and other early Mormons. Time to return the seer stone into the well, put down the hat, and go back to the original doctrine of the Book of Mormon translation. That is what Joseph Smith taught for a reason. That is what we should stick with for the same reason. Because it is the truth.