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.

Even those who ended up believing in the stone in a hat started out accepting the Urim and Thummim as the translation device. The former member of the Twelve and ex-Mormon William E. McLellin is an example of the switch. Years after he was no longer a member of the LDS Church, in March 1847 he wrote in a newspaper The Ensign of Liberty of the Church of Christ that the record was translated, “by the ‘inspiration of the Almighty,’ by the use of the means that the Lord had caused to be provided viz. Interpreters, Directors, or more anciently called the Urim and Thummim.” In an 1872 letter to Joseph Smith III he argued the Interpreters were for translation, but not the Urim and Thummim as they could not be the same thing. He went on to say in the same letter that “by means of a small stone” the entire Book of Mormon was translated. It is unclear why he accepts there were Interpreters, but that they were not used. Perhaps he means that portion of the translation that was published were entirely a stone in a hat production. There theory goes that because of the loss of the 116 pages, the Urim and Thummim was taken away and never given back. They were replaced with the stone in a hat as a secondary device.

David Whitmer picked up the same stone in a hat after losing the 116 pages theory in his interviews, but not the second scribe Oliver Cowdery. Also one of the Three Witnesses, he always testified only of the Urim and Thummim found with the plates. There is a single report indicating he mentioned a hat used with the Interpreters in the translation; although never before or after. Around 1830 an interviewer has him describing Joseph Smith looking on the gold plates engravings with transparent stones in the spectacles, “and afterwords put his face into a hat, and the interpretation flowed into his mind.” (quoted in The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Vol. 1, xxxi-xxxii). It is hard to determine if this was all Oliver Cowdery or a mix from other stories attributed to him. Nothing apparently is put in the hat other than Joseph Smith’s head, and the words come into his mind. There is no other report like this from any other source, even if many of the elements are present. Regardless, there is no dark colored seer stone, with the inclusion of a hat out of the ordinary for all other reported Cowdery statements.

Another of the Three Witnesses and the first scribe, Martin Harris, might be the first person interviewed besides Joseph Smith. It is hard to say early on how much of the very first reports actually came from Martin Harris or Joseph Smith, or the newspaper editorial opinions. They rewrote articles based on the Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829 report, with strong hostile slants. The Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph August 31, 1829 article said, “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!’,” that is less than an actual quotation. Another newspaper, Rochester Gem, September 1829, claims to paraphrase Martin Harris. The supposed interview statement reads, “He states that after the third visit from the same spirit in a dream he proceeded to the spot, removed earth, and there found the bible, together with a large pair of spectacles. He had also been directed to let no mortal see them under the penalty of immediate death, which injunction he steadfastly adheres to . . .” The second statement seems the closest to an actual quote, although still qualified by the writer to be an approximation. Both of them, and others that also use the same report, describe the gold plates’ dimensions, engraved hieroglyphics, and placing spectacles in a hat. Considering the large size of the spectacles whenever described, it seems impossible that a hat could be used. At best it would have to be taken apart so that only one stone was available for use.

Present in early narratives about Martin Harris and the translation is a curtain separating him and the work. A newspaper more local to the events claimed to have talked with a few of the Witnesses, including Martin Harris. It writes he stated, “that when he acted as amanuenses, and wrote the translation, as Smith dictated, such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself.” (The Reflector, Palmyra, 19 March 1831). Perhaps it is only a very short quote from a longer explanation Martin Harris gave, but there is no “seer stone” or “hat” present. He couldn’t even see what Joseph Smith was doing because there had to be some kind of cover. In this case, the sheet or screen. The same warnings, although including a hat and not a curtain, would be repeated in other accounts.

The very hostile 1843 Mormonism Unveiled paraphrases Martin Harris describing the Urim and Thummim and the sheet hiding the translation. E.D. Howe claims he was told that, “the presence of the Lord was so great, that a screen was hung up between him and the Prophet,” while at other times Joseph Smith went upstairs leaving Martin Harris in another room. The home where Martin Harris was scribe did have an upstairs, but this sounds more like a parallel to the Whitmer period. The most famous apparent quote of Martin Harris in the book comes from Dr. Charles Anthon who states he was told, “This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book.” Of course, how much was the actual words of Martin Harris, or personal paraphrasing is unclear. Regardless, at no time is Martin Harris quoted as mentioning a seer stone in a hat. The book goes out of its way to compare his version with the reports of a seer stone used to translate the Book of Mormon. Both in the views of the author were equally absurd.

The familiar early Martin Harris description of the translation events continue to come up from those who claim to have interacted with him. A pastor with Palmyra connections reports he was told:

The way that Smith made his transcripts and transcriptions for Harrris was the following. Although in the same room, a thick curtain or blanket was suspended between them, and Smith concealed behind, pretended to look through his spectacles, or transparent stones, and would then write down or repeat what he saw, which when repeated aloud, was written down by Harris, who sat on the other side of the suspended blanket. (Gleanings By the Way, John A. Clark, 1842, pg. 230-31)

Many years later, despite some of the strange seer stone stories that were quoted by reporter Joel Tiffany in an interview, Martin Harris states:

Joseph did not dig for these plates. They were placed in this way: four stones were set up and covered with a flat stone, oval on the upper side and flat on the bottom. Beneath this was a little platform upon which the plates were laid; and the two stones set in a bow of silver by means of which the plates were translated, were found underneath the plates. . . . The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish.” ( Tiffany’s Monthly, Mormonims II, 1859)

Descriptions of the Interpreters or “Urim and Thummim” are very exact, although slightly discolored. He could not know any of this information unless Joseph Smith told him or shown by the angel as one of the Three Witnesses. Most importantly, despite all the stone in a hat stories, only the two stones or “Urim and Thummim” set in “a bow of silver” is listed as used in the translation. There is also the familiar warning not to see, or in this case look into, the Interpreters or end up dead. Included are some discrepancies about a seer stone and finding the plates. He first said by the seer stone the plates were found. This of course goes against the Angel Moroni telling Joseph Smith where to find them. Later he says Joseph didn’t dig for the plates. The implication here is that a seer stone was not used to find them. A constant theme in the interview is Martin Harris testing to make sure he wasn’t deceived. Most of the seer stone stories are a mix of folk tales about Joseph Smith, mistreatment of the Josiah Stowell dig, and adding himself into the history. Once again, the seer stone is not the same item as the two stones set in the spectacles.

Where the idea of Joseph Smith losing the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon and never getting the plates or the Urim and Thummim back comes from is hard to determine. By the 1870s Joseph Smith was no longer living and the missing Spaulding Manuscript came back into resurgence. The “Mormons” had split into a large “Utah Church” and smaller Eastern U.S. claimants to the Restoration. The largest of these Eastern offshoots was The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who sent missionaries to Utah to gain converts. They were relatively successful, making Brigham Young not happy about their presence. He warned the Saints about them with some back and forth verbal hostilities. Two of the most pressing disagreements were polygamy and the related prophetic status of Joseph Smith in the middle of or after the Book of Mormon was translated. The LDS Church in Utah continued to preach Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim by the Power of God. Some who participated in the early events of the Restoration, but didn’t go west with the main body of the Saints, pushed the stone in a hat narrative.

The most powerful voice of the stone in a hat supporters was the widow of Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, who was present almost from the beginning. Considering the “Mormon sect wars” and the Spaulding Manuscript theory, Emma Smith’s 1870 letter to Emma S. Pilgram should be understood in historical context. It reads:

Now the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost. After that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color.

Whatever the letter said that she is responding to is no longer available. Speculation of its contents can only be speculated from the context of Emma Smith’s words. Certainly the letter asked about how the Book of Mormon was translated, with Emma relating what she knew. If this was all she said in the letter, then it would be a strong witness. However, there is a second part to this that should be scrutinized:

I cannot tell whether that account in the Times and Seasons is correct or not because some one stole all my books and I have none to refer to at present, if I can find one that has that account I will tell you what is true and what is not.(quoted from A Man That Can Translate, Johnathan Neville, pg. 147-148)

Together, both parts in the letter largely implies there is an uncertainty . She wants to compare the version of what she described and an unknown newspaper article. The most logical would be the often reprinted Oliver Cowdery history, although that might not be correct. Her own recitation could be from memories or what narrative is available to her at the time. Due to her missing notes she has no way of cross examining the information. It seems in her letter she is ambivalent about her own or the article’s accuracy.

The assumption from this letter, connecting it with the words of David Whitmer and others, is that Joseph Smith was never given back the Urim and Thummim or Interpreters. This is much like when Moses couldn’t give the Higher Priesthood to Israel because of their wickedness. Joseph Smith had to work with a less “divine” instrument commonly used by treasure hunters. How much this diminishes the Prophet Joseph Smith is for each to decide.

A history of Joseph Smith written by his mother Lucy Mack Smith seems to refute his never getting back the Urim and Thummim or gold plates. The two most important works of hers are the Preliminary Manuscript and the 1853 published addition. They both contain different insights that compliment each other, but with little hesitation as to what she remembers. Despite some minor mistakes with names and dates, she seems accurate. After the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph Smith went for at least two months without visiting his parents. They became worried and traveled to Harmony to see if Joseph and Emma were alright. In the published history, that doesn’t deviate from her Preliminary, she relates:

He met us with a countenance blazing with delight, and it was very evident that his joy did not arise wholly from seeing us. When I entered, the first thing which attracted my attention was a red Morocco trunk lying on Emma’s bureau, which Joseph shortly informed me contained the Urim and Thummim and the plates. He then related what had taken place . . .

She then describes what her son Joseph Smith told her concerning his recent history. He said an angel chastised him for giving in to the demands of Martin Harris who was a wicked man, having the plates and Urim and Thummim taken away. He is then told:

I would of necessity have to suffer the consequences of his [Martin Harris’]indiscretion; and must now give up the Urim and Thummim into his (the angels) hands. This I did as I was directed. As I handed them to him, he said, ‘If you are very humble and penitent, it may be you will receive them again; if so, it will be on the 22d. of next September.’

Lucy Smith then quotes Doctrine and Covenants section 10 as part of the story. The relevant portion of D&C 10 reads, “it is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.” Some have read into this verse that only the gift of translation was returned to him. Yet, Lucy Smith before quoting the section gives more background detail. Joseph Smith told her, talking about another visit by an angel, “I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim, with which I have again commenced translating, and Emma writes for me,” until he can get a reliable scribe (Proctor and Proctor, editors, History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, pgs. 173-176). There should be no doubt what is happening in this sequence of events. Joseph Smith received the Urim and Thummim or Interpreters with the gold plates that he used to translate part of the Book of Mormon. They are taken away when Martin Harris loses the 116 pages, with no translation takes place during this time. Instead of an angel giving back only the gift of translation using other instruments, the plates and Urim and Thummim are also returned. His wife Emma Smith helps the best she can until Oliver Cowdery arrives as a full time scribe. The only reason the Urim and Thummim would be returned is if they were going to be used.

It must be noted that Lucy Smith knew what the Urim and Thummim was, and wouldn’t confuse them with a standard stone. She might never have seen them, but she felt them and the gold plates under thin material. From her Preliminary Manuscript she said, after Joseph Smith first received the plates:

Joseph returned I was trembled so much with fear lest all might be lost aging [again?] by some small failure in keeping the commandments that I was under the necessity of l[e]aving the room to conceal my feelings Joseph saw this and followed me Mother said he do not be uneasy all is right see here Said he I have got the key I knew not what he meant but took the article in my hands and upon after examing it (with no covering but a silk handkerchief) <found> that it consisted of 2 smooth < 3 cornered diamonds set in glass and the glass was set in silver bows> stones con[n]ected with each other in the same way that old fashioned spectacles are made” (“Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page [1], bk. 5,” p. [7], bk. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/61)

Emma Smith’s Last Testimony is used the most as a major stone in a hat source. Her son Joseph Smith III interviewed her with set questions. The interview was published soon after she died. Famously, she wrote about how she would move the covered golden plates around the room when cleaning, often leafing them like a book. This is perhaps the most accurate statement in the testimony, because others like William Smith, claim to have done similar. Less believable is what she said about the translation:

. . . In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us . . . . . . And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, “a marvel and a wonder,” as much so as to anyone else.

Nothing here seems legitimate when compared to other evidence. More likely this was used to help her son, and argue against the missing Spaulding Manuscript theory, than sticking to history. Her words “wrote day after day” is similar to what Oliver Cowdery wrote in the Times and Seasons history of the Restoration of the LDS Church. A large part of the Book of Mormon Original Manuscript is lost, but what remains doesn’t support she wrote day after day or hour after hour. Two windows of time exist for her as a scribe; pre-116 pages and right before Oliver Cowdery starts to assist. According to her own words the use of the stone in a hat couldn’t have occurred during the Martin Harris translation. What remains is after Joseph Smith had the gift of translation returned. As demonstrated above, Lucy Smith’s history mentioning Emma Smith indicates that the Urim and Thummim or Interpreters and plates were returned by an angel. In addition, Emma Smith was too busy taking care of the house and Joseph Smith his personal business to do much writing. He prayed for and was promised a proper scribe to help (History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, pg. 184). Oliver Cowdery came and took over to write the majority of the manuscript.

Probably the most glaring problem with the Last Testimony as a whole is her claim that, “There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives,” and, “He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have,” (Saints Herold, Oct. 1, 1879). These statements are certainly not true. They caused an uproar in Utah with Brigham Young condemning the interview as extremely suspect. Other women came forward to testify against the denials. No less than Eliza R.Snow questioned if these were her real words, and castigated the now deceased Emma if they were. Because Emma had passed on by this time it was not possible to receive a rebuttal or clarification if inclined. No one seemed to bring up the stone in a hat as suspect, but the polygamy issue was then far more pressing. The Utah based LDS Church continued preaching the Urim and Thummim translation, with no inclusion of Emma’s supposed description.

Rounding out the often quoted stone in a hat stories is the Utah sermons of Martin Harris after he was re-baptized on his return to the main body of Saints. They have become a staple of proof that Joseph Smith both used a seer stone and that it contributed to the Book of Mormon translation. His often repeated story is an amusing anecdote. More than once he is reported to have said in his later sermons:

. . . the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone . . . Martin said that after continued translation they would become weary and would go down to the river and exercise in throwing stones out on the river, etc. While doing so on one occasion, Martin found a stone very much resembling the one used for translating, and on resuming their labors of translation Martin put in place the stone that he had found. He said that the Prophet remained silent unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no trace of the usual sentences appearing. Much surprised Joseph exclaimed: “Martin, What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt.” Martin’s countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them, etc. (Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881)

Similar to Emma Smith’s purported last interview, there are historical problems. It contradicts his earliest newspaper accounts that only mention the Interpreters and a curtain keeping him from viewing the translation. Later reports go from Urim and Thummim, to seer stone, to the final inclusion of both while the lost translation was taking place. Having a seer stone in a hat as part of the process so early on goes against what Emma Smith and David Whtimer claim, but not far enough for the final opinion of William E. McLellen’s dismissals. It seems strange that Joseph Smith would use such a common stone in translation when he had the God provided Urim and Thummim, or by another name Nephite Interpreters. There would be nothing more convenient than a Holy Item. Anything less would have to be, by definition, not holy or sanctified.

Assuming there is some truth to his story, it shouldn’t be taken seriously. All there needs to be is a tonal shift in understanding. How much is memory and how much is embellishment cannot be fully known. It can be interpreted as a semi-joke Martin Harris pulled that Joseph Smith turned around to his humorous advantage. Possibly Martin Harris found a stone while skipping that he passed off to Joseph Smith as a type of seer stone. Recognizing his constant need to be assured of the work, Joseph Smith went along with the ruse. In his jovial way Joseph Smith became dramatic and animated until finally admitting to Martin Harris that he wasn’t serious, questioning the purpose of the attempted trick. None of this can be proven, but it makes sense in relation to all other evidence. Both supporters and enemies of the Prophet knew he was always making jokes and kidding around. This became a stumbling block to some and endearment to others. Even Joseph Smith said lack of seriousness was one of his weaknesses. The alternative, if one chooses to believe Emma Smith and David Whitmer’s stories about the stone in a hat, is to reject Martin Harris’ repeated sermon completely.

Another bit of information from the sermons is Martin Haris made sure to make clear that the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone were not the same. He states in the same article, “the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates . . .” The description he gives of the Urim and Thummim is two stones in a pair of spectacles. The seer stone was alone and apparently darker colored. With the exception of David Whitmer on occasion in his ongoing seer stone in a hat crusade, none of the more valid claimants intertwined the two kinds of instruments. It is equally likely no one of lesser consideration did either.

An important figure in Mormon history who met and talked with Martin Harris wrote a short article about his experience. The person who put the Book of Mormon together for printing, John H. Gilbert, many years after this sermon recalled what Martin Harris told him:

Martin was the main spoke in the wheel of Mormonism in its start in Palmyra, and I may say, the only spoke. In the fall of 1827, he told us what wonderful discoveries Jo [Joseph] Smith had made, and of his finding plates in a hill in the town of Manchester (three miles south of Palmyra), –also found with the plates a large pair of “spectacles,” by putting which on his nose and looking at the plates, the spectacles turned the hieroglyphics into good English. The question might be asked here whether Jo [Joseph] or the spectacles was the translator? (Recollections of John H. Gilbert, 8 September 1892, Palmyra, New York, typescript, BYU)

Despite more than 40 years after the events, John H. Gilbert’s recollection of the publication is considered remarkably accurate to what the Orignal Manuscript indicates. There is no reason to believe his recollection of Martin Harris’ statement is any less accurate, even with the inclusion of sarcasm. The year of 1827 is a little off, but could be referencing when the plates were found. At any rate, there is no mention of the seer stone in a hat for convenience. The non-manuscript details of this report are often ignored by those who like other explanations of the translation. By publication time Martin Harris was one of the Three Witnesses of the gold plates, and by later statements the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith possessing a “dark colored” seer stone is debatable. Any mention of a valid stone is related to the one found in Revelation 2:17 described as white in color. According to Doctrine and Covenants 130:10, it will become a Urim and Thummim to each person who receives one. Ex-Mormon Ezra Booth accuses the whole of the “Mormonites” in an 1831 letter of having a “dark glass” used for the translation to also search for treasure. In the same paragraph he says they did find the treasure and then that they were unsuccessful in finding the treasure (Ezra Booth to Rev. I. Eddy, Ohio Star, October 24, 1831). All other pre-1834 accounts describe one or two white stones or the spectacles that contained them. At no time has a Prophet or Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from its founding until today, authoritatively testified that Joseph Smith used any other instrument than the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon. Brigham Young’s comments about Joseph Smith’s having a seer stone are non-descriptive of form or usage. The biography of Joseph Smith written by George Q. Cannon uses previous records (anti-Mormon Pomeroy Tucker and of course Martin Harris) in his paragraph about the seer stone translation, and not personal interviews. Joseph Fielding Smith who became Prophet like his father Joseph F. Smith who was the son of Hyrum Smith, and served for 69 years as LDS Church historian, wrote:

While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, 1954, pgs. 225-26)

Remember that no one other than Joseph Smith, and perhaps very briefly Oliver Cowdery, ever translated the gold plates. He was familiar enough with them that he could confidently deny there was any Greek or Roman letters on any of the plates when he pointed out what the word “Mormon” meant. He might have shown a seer stone to help others understand the translation process, but it is highly unlikely one was used for actual translation. Certainly the two who should know the most mentioned only one instrument (the Urim and Thummim, or Nephite Interpreters), with the Scriptures backing this up. Joseph Smith’s testimonies, as there are several, explaining he was given the Urim and Thummim found with the plates to translate should be of top priority. Even Martin Harris was faithful, until his later years, to the Urim and Thummim as the only instrument in the translation.

Those who want to continue believing the stone in a hat as a legitimate means of translating the Book of Mormon should be cautious. David Whitmer admits he didn’t see the Urim and Thummim or the gold plates until an angel showed them to him. The same goes for Martin Harris who talked about the Urim and Thummim as the instrument until his later years. Emma Smith, so far as is known, never saw the Urim Thummim or the gold plates. Her statements of the translation with a seer stone are historically suspect. They are ambiguous, deflecting, and loyal to her son in opposition to the Utah based LDS Church. Using them as evidence of a stone in a hat will always be available, but never as authorized sources of doctrine. It is best to stick with the canonized Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery accounts.

Joseph Smith, his mother Lucy Mack Smith, and Oliver Cowdery testified many times of the Urim and Thummim’s use in translating the Book of Mormon, but never a seer stone. Joseph Smith’s last surviving brother William can also be included because he always described the spectacles as the translation device, even if he brought up the hat. No other means were mentioned by these four, seeming to refute the seer stone theory. The second scribe Oliver Cowdery was said to have owned the seer stone and passed it on to his wife, who passed it on to the brother of Brigham Young. Cowdery never mentioned or displayed in his lifetime a seer stone, even when he had many chances. Authorized leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who personally knew Joseph Smith never preached about a stone in a hat, but the contrary. No evidence exists that they were confused or used “Urim and Thummim” as a name for more than the Interpreters found with the plates. Sometimes they were in opposition to those, like David Whitmer, who claimed a different method. It would be wise to once again celebrate the Urim and Thummim, and put the stone in a hat back where it belongs as a speculative footnote.

3 thoughts on “Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part III: Rescuing the Urim and Thummim

  1. I don’t see how seeing words appear in a seer stone is any less ‘the gift and power of God’ than seeing words appear in ancient urim and thummim. They are both miraculous. The text of the BoM is equally miraculous. My testimony is of Joseph Smith as a prophet and the BoM’s ability to reveal Jesus, not of the particular rock that was used as a translation aid.

  2. Stewart, for the record, I completely agree with you. What Jettboy is doing here is pointing out there is more evidence for the “Urim and Thummim” theory than the “stone in a hat” theory. I have no idea if this is true. At the end of the day, as you say, it does not really matter, but these are the types of things that historians (both amateur and professional) like to speculate about.

  3. The problem is that it does matter in deciding what kind of “miracle” we consider the translation of the Book of Mormon. Just as much it determines what kind of prophet we view Joseph Smith. The Urim and Thummim was made and prophesied as the tool for translating the Words of Scripture. The stone in a hat was an occultist object used in occult activities. Where the Urim and Thummim was specifically given to Joseph Smith for the translation, the stone is always some accidental discovery. Not one revelation states a random stone is an acceptable replacement. Only Oliver Cowdery (for whatever reason) was given permission to use such an item for personal revelatory purposes. Before and after it doesn’t show up in any records. The revelation that does mention a stone, although not directly challenging the use of a stone, rebukes the user for usurping priesthood authority.

    Those who most talk about the stone in a hat present Joseph Smith as an ignorant farm boy local magician. Eventually he becomes a semi-prophet by transforming himself. It is a way to downgrade how serious to take Joseph Smith’s God given authority, the history of the Book of Mormon, and tie Mormonism more easily into a “cult” religion. This view started with Obadiah Dogberry (1829) writing a scathing satire about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon where he makes the prophet out to be a high magician. The stone in a hat plays prominently into this view, where at least he didn’t confuse the stone in a hat with the Urim and Thummim. No matter if “respectable” citizens were also involved in such activities, it was an easy way to portray Joseph Smith as a humbug artist.

    Those like William E. McLellin, David Whitmer, and even Emma Smith resurrected it as a challenge both to refute the missing Spaulding Manuscript theory (noble reason), and dismiss the authority of Joseph Smith or the Salt Lake City based LDS Church or both (hardly noble). Modern intellectuals and historians have taken up the cause of Obadiah Dogberry in portraying Joseph Smith as a ner’er-do-well who stumbled onto prophethood. The stone in a hat is the totem object of that characterization. It challenges the very words of God in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants that testify repeatedly about what we know as the Urim and Thummim. To put it another way, it produces bad fruit while pushing away more authoritative and doctrinally sound history.

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