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.

The incongruity of the Urim and Thummim and stone in a hat can be seen by comparing two versions capturing the same time period. Both are references to when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were at the Whitmer home during translation. Utah based Mormon Oliver B. Huntington in 1897 interviewed an 88 year old woman who lived with the Whitmers as a hired servant. Sarah “Sally” Conrad was a young woman at the time and recalled:

She, only a girl, saw them come down from the translating room several times, when they looked so exceedingly white and strange that she inquired of Mrs. Whitmer the cause of their unusual appearance, but Mr. Whitmer was unwilling to tell the hired girl, the true cause as it was a sacred holy event connected with a holy sacred work which was opposed and persecuted by nearly every one who heard of it. The girl felt so strange and unusual [about] the appearance, she finally told Mrs. Whitmer that she would not stay with her until she knew the cause of the strange looks of these men. Sister Whitmer then told her what the men were doing in the room above and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly endure it; at times angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them. This satisfied the girl and opened the way to embrace the gospel. (quoted in the Improvement Era, April 1970, pg. 21)

On the other hand, William E. McLellen said the widow of Oliver Cowdery, Elizabeth Anne Whitmer Cowdery, in 1870 gave him an affidavit. It reads:

I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read?] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him. (cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, pgs. 233-34)

The differences are not hard to recognize. Sally’s version is filled with a spiritual majesty and holy imagery. There is a Moses like glow to those who went upstairs to do the work of the Lord in the translation. She was told the spirit of the work was so great that angels were present. Other than seeing the men “exceedingly white and strange,” she didn’t claim to be an actual witness to the translation. There was no reason she would be considering the Urim and Thummim and the gold plates were not allowed to be shown. The version of Elizabeth, on the other hand, has no spiritual or supernatural qualities other than the stone or “director” in a hat translation. Spectators could come and go as they please without any holy presence. Either source can be used as evidence, but it takes a lot of creativity to have them conform to each other.

The two women’s pasts were also divergent. Sally, as mentioned, gained a testimony and eventually left with the Saints to Utah. Elizabeth married Oliver and went wherever he did. Eventually Oliver was re-baptized and in the process of moving to Utah when he died. His widow remarried and moved to Missouri where she joined the Reorganized LDS Church. Whether she actually wrote the affidavit or not, William E. McLellen used it to bolster his own claims that the Utah based LDS Church was false. He included it in his arguments, saying:

Now all L.D.Sism claims that Joseph Smith translated the Book with Urim and Thummim, when he did not even have or retain the Nephite or Jaredite Interpreters, but translated the entire Book of M. by means of a small stone. I have certified to that effect from E.A. Cowdery (Oliver’s widow), Martin Harris, and Emma Bidamon. And I have the testimony of John and David Whitmer. The Urim was never on the Continent. (Larson and Passey, Editors, The William E. McLellin Papers: 1854-1880, pgs. 492-493)

He goes on to say that the Urim and Thummim was the instrument in the Bible for receiving revelation and nothing else. Joseph Smith never had them. The Interpreters were specifically for interpretation, and Joseph Smith lost those. In other words, the stone in a hat represented the fallen status of the Prophet Joseph Smith after losing the 116 pages. It is never explained by any of those who believe this why Joseph was allowed to continue until finished with the Book of Mormon. Once completed with translation, the prophetic leadership was supposed to shift to someone else. Usually to the claimant of this theory, like David Whitmer who sought the leadership in Kirtland during the late 1830s apostasy. Because of this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was following the teachings of a fallen prophet, according to them, who lost authority. By continually preaching about the Urim and Thummim as the translation tool, those in Utah were proving they were liars. Also, it is clear that the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone in a hat were not considered the same items; but competing priesthood doctrines.

At no time in most of the LDS Church history was the stone confused with the Urim and Thummim, even when the hat was mentioned. Only much later when it became clear that the two could not be correlated did historians and some Saints decide there was an overlap. An example of what could be confused as an overlap comes from the recollection of Joseph Knight, a dear friend to Joseph Smith who was a witness to the earliest of events. He tells about the time the plates and Interpreters were delivered to the Prophet:

After breakfast Joseph called me into the other room and he set his foot on the bed, and leaned his head on his hand and said, “Well I am disappointed.” “Well,” say I, “I am sorry.” “Well,” says he, “I am greatful disappointed; it is ten times better than I expected.” Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and said he, “they appear to be gold.” But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates, for, says he, “I can see anything; they are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated.

Here is Joseph Knight claiming a direct quote from Joseph Smith about what he was given by the Lord for translation. He writes about “the glasses” and then explains with adding “or” that he means the Urim and Thummim. The recollection goes on to say Joseph Smith was told to show no one “those things” unless granted by God to be a witness. Later in the document Joseph Knight explains the translation process as he understands it:

Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummmim into his hat and darkened his eyes. Then he would take a sentence and it would appear in bright Roman letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. (Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History, Dean Jesse, 1976)

How he knows this was the translation process is unclear. Joseph Knight goes on to say when the words are written down, the next words would appear until satisfied. It could be that Joseph Smith told him, but he isn’t quoted. Joseph Smith is never directly quoted when similar explanations are rehearsed. At best they are paraphrases. No retelling of how the letters appeared are the same. It can be one word or up to twenty seven, depending on the source. Assuming Joseph Smith did tell people this is how the translation worked, it had to be in confidence.

It is also important to note that Joseph Knight was not, and no one could be if both the Urim and Thummim and plates were used, a direct witness of the translation. It does seem out of character for Joseph Smith to describe the translation in this way. At no time does he so much as mention a hat or the appearance of words in his official statements. In other words, this is all heresy. What we can know is that when Joseph Knight says Urim and Thummim, he doesn’t mean seer stone. It was established earlier that the Urim and Thummim was the glasses with the plates. Joseph Smith was very excited about them. It would be hard to imagine him replacing them to use an inferior product.

And yet, replacing the Urim and Thummim or Interpreters if preferred, is exactly what the stone in a hat proponents argue. None so strenuously as the inconsistent David Whitmer who was the most prolific interviewer of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and Spectacles. He never denied his witness, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about other things. His testimony is fixed with Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris to the published translation of the Book of Mormon. During the Kirtland years he had a serious disagreement with Joseph Smith and the Church, leading to his ex-communication. Long after Joseph Smith died he began interviewing with news reporters. His most famous quoted version of the translation comes from An Address to All Believers in Christ, an 1887 pamphlet critical of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church in Utah. Part of his argument for the stone in a hat is that it allowed him to see for certain no book was pre-written for Joseph Smith to copy. A few years after the Book of Mormon was published the lost Spaulding Manuscript theory became popular with critics. They claimed Joseph Smith plagiarized the book after it was stolen. Whitmer argues there was no Spaulding Manuscript to copy, and then explains:

I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.

It must be pointed out that in the same pamphlet, early on, he says:

We do not indorse the teachings of any of the so-called Mormons or Latter Day Saints, which are in conflict with the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as taught in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. They have departed in a great measure from the faith of the CHURCH OF CHRIST as it was first established, by heeding revelations given through Joseph Smith, who, after being called of God to translate his sacred word — the Book of Mormon — drifted into many errors and gave many revelations to introduce doctrines, ordinances and offices in the church, which are in conflict with Christ’s teachings . . . On account of God giving to Joseph Smith the gift to translate the plates on which was engraven the Nephite scriptures, the people of the church put too much trust in him — in the man — and believed his words as if they were from God’s own mouth . . . They looked to Joseph Smith as lawgiver; we look to Christ alone, and believe only in the religion of Jesus Christ and not in the religion of any man.

He is basically a “fundamentalist” if that word can be used in this context. The stone in a hat direct communication from God, verses Joseph Smith doing some of the work, fits with his ideas of perfect and unchanging Words of God. He saw the role of the Book of Mormon as a calling back to Christ’s teachings, and not a call for new revelation or organization. In the same pamphlet he writes that the Doctrine and Covenants are false scripture (again because they are the words, to him, of Joseph Smith), and polygamy in particular a gross evil. His love and testimony of the Book of Mormon is not in denial. His views about the translation are questionable.

This is far from the first time he described how the translation of the Book of Mormon took place. One of the very first interviews seems to be a traditional description. The interviewer is “I” and “He” is David Whitmer in a question and answer format:

I–Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim when he translated? He–The Urim and Thummim were two white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find it in spectacles. Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Emma and my brother John each at different times wrote for Joseph as he translated. ( P. Wilhelm Poulson, Deseret Evening News, August 16, 1878)

inaccuracies. Sometimes he would claim it was a seer stone and other times the two white stones attached to spectacles. Perhaps it could be blamed on a misunderstanding of the reporters, but there were times the discrepancies happened within the same interview, such as this 1885 example:

In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portière, was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides. The work of translating the tablets consumed about eight months, Smith acting as the seer and Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s wife, and Christian Whitmer, brother of David, performing the duties of amanuenses, in whose handwriting the original manuscript now is. Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer Smith would sit on one side of a table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English.

There are several problems with this, if not realized already. It seems a mismatch of historical narrations about the Book of Mormon translation. The blanket was not used to hide the gold plates, but from outsiders. This is in direct conflict with the command not to show the plates unless God gives permission; and that eventually to three and eight witnesses. At the same time the “glasses” were used to translate according to what can be described as a “traditional” manner. Later on in the interview it reads:

. . . Smith’s offense of tattling the secrets of the work among his neighbors was less readily condoned [than Harris losing the 116 pages], and for a long time the work was suspended, the angel being in possession of the plates and spectacles. Finally, when Smith had fully repented of his rash conduct, he was forgiven. The plates, however, were not returned, but instead Smith was given by the angel a Urim and Thummim of another pattern, it being shaped in oval or kidney form. This seer’s stone he was instructed to place in his hat, and on covering his face with the hat the character and translation would appear on the stone.(“The Book of Mormon,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3).

This reads more like an editorial synopsis than the actual words of David Whtimer, but it generally follows his beliefs. According to this, if understood correctly, Joseph Smith was punished for having a public display. Indeed, everyone should be dead according to several other people’s accounts of the sacred objects. Still, David Whitmer did state in other interviews that the Urim and Thummim and gold plates were taken from Joseph Smith after losing the 116 pages. In their place was given a stone in a hat by an angel to finish the work. This contradicts other accounts where he found at least two stones digging wells and a third in the water (Joseph Smith would end up with no less than 15 seer stones if every account was accepted). Only one of the three academically accepted accounts comes from a non anti-Mormon source; Martin Harris in an interview that in the end mostly sticks with the traditional translation narrative.

Perhaps recognizing the historical problems with some interviews, David Whitmer wrote a letter insisting he didn’t see Joseph Smith translate with the Urim and Thummim. It could be blamed on misunderstandings by reporters, but perhaps not. A debate started about what David Whitmer claimed he had seen with the translation. Whitmer would say he didn’t actually see Joseph Smith use the Urim and Thummim (fair enough), with other interviewers arguing they clearly heard him say he did.

A defender of David Whitmer, J.L. Traughber, wrote in the Nov. 15, 1879 Saints Herald newspaper operated by the RLDS Church:

I, too, have heard Father [David] Whitmer say that he was present many times while Joseph was translating; but I never heard him say that the translation was made by aid of Urim and Thummim; but in every case, and his testimony is always the same, he declared that Joseph first offered prayer, then took a dark colored, opaque stone, called a “seer-stone,” and placed it in the crown of his hat, then put his face into the hat, and read the translation as it appeared before him.

One of the interviewers, Thomas Wood, responded with a letter in the Jan. 1, 1880 Saints’ Herald newspaper:

I personally heard him state, in Jan. 1876 in his own house in Richmond, Ray Co. Mo. . . . that he saw Joseph translate, by the aid of the Urim and Thummim, time and again, and he [David] then produced a large pile of foolscap paper closely written in a very fair hand, which he declared was the manuscript written mainly by Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, as the translation was being read by the aid of the Urim and Thummim of the characters on the plates by Joseph Smith, which work of translation and transcription he frequently saw.

The more he interviewed over the years, the more the stone in a hat became the primary translation device. In at least one reported interview David Whitmer seemed frustrated over the question of what Joseph Smith used in translation:

Joseph was separated from the scribe by a blanket, as I remember; that he had the Urim and Thummim, and a chocolate colored stone, which he used alternately, as suited his convenience, and he said he believed Joseph could as well accomplish the translation by looking into a hat, or any other stone, as by the use of the Urim and Thummim or the chocolate colored stone. David expressed absolute faith in the Prophet’s power to get any information he desired, and by any means he should adopt for the purpose. I mean he appeared to have absolute faith in the Prophet’s power with God, to get any information he wished for. And he did not think that either the Urim and Thummim or the stone he had were essential, or absolutely essential, to the obtaining of the information. (Nathan A. Tanner Jr. to Nathan A. Tanner, February 17, 1909, photocopy of typescript, 5, Church Archives. May 1886 intervew)

If this can be assumed a reasonably accurate interview, it goes against David Whitmer’s other versions where Joseph Smith translated in front of other people and the Urim and Thummim never given back. He goes on to say Joseph Smith would look at a “manuscript” through the Urim and Thummim or a stone to translate into English a word at a time. The impression is that his interviews are speculations about the process, and not actual first hand experiences. They are probably a mix of distant memory, rumors, misunderstandings, and motivated stories.

In an article titled “David Whitmer: Man of Contradictions,” a believing Latter-day Saint “traditionalist” group called Josephsmithfoundation.org makes the case he was not a good translation witness. They are not sure of his motives, but point out the many discrepancies in his accounts. They have one table showing his back and forth between Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone and another table the descriptions of translation. The article is not perfect because they miss a few minor retractions, such as he meant “seer stone” when written “sun stone,” and don’t give enough credit to garbled reporting. Overall, a good case is made that he is not the best source for translation information. He was never a scribe. He was present in the Whitmer home during part of the Book of Mormon translation and is one of the Three Witnesses who were shown the gold plates by an Angel. That is all that can be substantiated.

Another speculative possibility is David Whitmer along with others were witnesses to a demonstration. Because no one other than Joseph Smith were allowed to see the gold plates, or other items used in the translation, Joseph Smith took the familiar “seer stone in a hat” of his time and approximated the translation experience. Some who took part in this either mistook it as the actual translation or years later superimposed it onto arguments for their agendas. It wouldn’t be the first time the Prophet used a known object to demonstrate a gospel principle. The most famous prop was his ring as an example of the one eternal round with no beginning or end.

At least one of the interviewers of David Whitmer, Zenus H. Gurley, might have implied this idea. He reviewed the history of the Urim and Thummim anciently, the loss and return of it to Joseph Smith for use in translation, and remarks of David Whitmer to himself and others. He recalls from his own David Whitmer interview:

In January 1885, the writer visited Elder David Whitmer at Richmond, Missouri, and among other questions asked: “Were the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated in Joseph Smith’s possession while translating, and seen and handled by several different persons? If not, where were they? Answer: “I do not know.” Question: Did you see the Urim and Thummim? Answer: “I saw the Interpreters in the holy vision; they looked like whitish stones put in the rim of a bow; looked like spectacles only much larger.” Question: Had you seen the plates at any time before the angel showed them to you? Answer: “No.”

Answers to the questions are vague, but it seems historically accurate. By the Lord’s very command no one was allowed to see the plates, or any other item deposited with them, unless given permission. Revelations to Joseph Smith, and early interview reports with Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, corroborate this fact. In the extended interview of David Whitmer by Z.H. Gurley, Mr. Whitmer once again expressed the belief that the seer stone replaced the Urim and Thummim. Z.H. Gurley goes on to explain:

Joseph Smith declares that he soon found out why he had received such strict charges from the angel, as “every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to,” to get the plates and Urim and Thummim away from him, even endangering his life, for that reason on the one hand, and still greater on the other–that no person except permitted by command of God should view them. That Joseph had another stone called seers’ stone, and “peep stone,” is quite certain. This stone was frequently exhibited to different ones and helped to assuage their awful curiosity; but the Urim and Thummim never, unless possibly to Oliver Cowdery . . . (Zenas H. Gurley, “The Book of Mormon,” Autumn Leaves 5, 1892)

He doesn’t come out and state the theory that Joseph Smith used a seer stone as a demonstration object. However, in the context of the rest of his article such a use of them can be considered. He spends the entire time talking about and explaining the Urim and Thummim, never more than once mentioning the seer stone. When it is named, the seer stone is used as an exhibit to help “assuage their awful curiosity” because the real items couldn’t be displayed. This is a theory mostly for those who don’t want to completely dismiss David Whitmer as untruthful. Questionable, considering the many times and ways that David’s story changed.

Conflicts between the stone in a hat and Urim and Thummim were enough for one RLDS writer to publish a warning. He went over the history of the translation of the Book of Mormon and how David Whitmer was only a partial participant. He then wrote:

The statements of David Whitmer in his pamphlet are palpable and plain contradictions of the accepted facts of history. . . . I feel impressed to admonish those who are boosting the “Seer Stone” theory, that one sure way of destroying the value of testimony is to have the witness cross himself, thereby impeaching his own evidence, and thus have their testimony thrown out of court as not reliable. (M. Elvin,The Saints’ Herald, May 12, 1888)

Martin Harris, one of the Book of Mormon scribes, and Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, can be counter sources to dismissing David Whitmer’s accounts. Their version of translation methods are often used to bolster the stone in a hat narrative. Despite some of what they said, the Utah based LDS Church continued to teach the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates by the Power of God were used to translate the Book of Mormon. The history written by Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of Joseph Smith, and to a lesser degree brother William Smith, didn’t seem to agree with them either. Perhaps it is time to reconsider some of what Martin Harris and Emma Smith had to say.

2 thoughts on “Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part II: Motives and Trust

  1. The paragraph that starts with “inaccuracies” should read:

    “On the surface it seems a direct statement, but there is some hesitation. He describes the Urim and Thummim and who participated in writing for Joseph Smith as a scribe. However, he doesn’t give a yes or no answer. The reader is left inferring from his words the answer to the question. Interview responses by David Whitmer over the 1870s and 1880s were full of discrepancies and historical inaccuracies. Sometimes he would claim it was a seer stone and other times the two white stones attached to spectacles. Perhaps it could be blamed on a misunderstanding of the reporters, but there were times the discrepancies happened within the same interview, such as this 1885 example”

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