The Stone in a Hat and the Miracle of Translation

“You find magic wherever you look. sit back and relax. all you need is a book”
– Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

“Oh, Man will fly all right – ho-ho-ho! – just like a rock.”
– Archimedes the Owl from Disney’s Sword in the Stone

seer-stone-joseph-smith-ensign-liahona-october-2015_1512979_inlWhat can I say? I was, apparently, lied to by whoever I can point a finger at as responsible. Artistic renderings, Sunday School lessons, General Conference talks, and of course Joseph Smith himself concealed the real history. The Urim and Thummim was supposed to be the principle means of The Book of Mormon translation, but it turns out a Seer Stone did most of the work. I mean, it was no secret that a stone in a hat was the means of production. What became lost and confusing is how much that became the tool used by Joseph Smith to translate by the Gift and Power of God.

This introduction is partly facetious, but there is some truth to the words. My own early knowledge was based on what critics consider misinformation, although more like simplifications. The article “Joseph the Seer” is not the first time the topic of The Book of Mormon translation tools have been published. During the first decade of correlated magazines, there was a Friend Magazine article and an in depth Ensign publication that might be superior to the most recent. The history is confusing even with the primary documents. All of them have points of convergence. But, taken all together there is no clear picture of the means or process. The only person who would know for sure, Joseph Smith, was vague to the point of near silence. He was far less concerned with how The Book of Mormon was produced and more focused on the fact it was written. The teachings in the book are to be read, pondered, and studied while translation devices are simply tools to be used and discarded.

To increase the problem is the concern expressed in my previous post about the Age of Reason. Despite stories of ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs, and the persistence of astrology still printed in newspapers, miracles of the religious kind are a bridge too far in Western society. Throw in a physical object where its existence, if not the miracle, cannot be refuted and skepticism becomes scorn. Even believers wince at a small, brown, and smooth stone once used to commune with the Divine. Throw in a funny old hat and there seems nowhere else to go but ridicule. What is that you say? Oh, don’t mind my rabbits foot keychain or lucky horseshoe. No one really believes in those kinds of things anyway.

In case you are not sure where this is all headed, sorry to disappoint by not knowing myself. The whole episode is beyond my personal experience. The closest parallel is owning a pet rock that sat there and did nothing. I doubt I am the only one who is at a loss, and I consider myself well read and knowledgeable on the subject. For this reason it might be hard for a coherent discussion of what it all has to do with everyday faith. After all, how can a believer respond to something that is more an historical curiosity than liturgy. Jesus said that nothing is impossible and faith can move mountains. He also said rich people cannot get to Heaven, although hedging the bet by hinting that God has the power to let them in anyway when questioned by the disciples. If a stick with a serpent stuck to it can heal the dying in the wilderness (and that was not the first snake miracle), surely a farm boy using a nice looking rock can produce a religious masterpiece. Even those in the days of Jesus had to decide if he was a miracle worker or devil inspired trickster; a question that persists to our time.

Getting back to the history of the Seer Stone and The Book of Mormon translation, what does the primary documents tell us? Depends on who you believe and read. Negative newspaper reports are rather consistent; that Joseph Smith found “spectacles” with the gold plates and placed the instruments in a hat to interpret ancient writings. The earliest telling, by those hostile to the work, rarely mention the Seer Stone and instead what is later described as Urim and Thummim. The assumption can be inferred that at the beginning of the process of translation that Joseph Smith did mostly use the ancient white rocks of revelation. More research presents the possibility that, despite tradition of Biblical origin, these were the rocks touched by the finger of God in the book of Ether to illuminate the inside of crafts crossing a large body of water to the promised land. Joseph Smith said there was no reason to explain how it happened except by the gift and power of God using the spectacles preserved for translating.

Later and more friendly tellings become “clouded” in personal opinion and time lapse memory. The most influential to historians was the now famous anti-Mormon and anti-Joseph Smith Howe publication purported to contain interviews of early neighbors. Of significance is the story of a man named Chase who claims to have first possessed the Seer Stone before Joseph Smith used it as interpreters. Apparently, Chase and Joseph Smith found it at the bottom of a well and used it to find buried treasure. According to Chase, at first Joseph Smith borrowed it from him and then later stole it without returning to the rightful owner. The more friendly and first person witnesses are not likely to mention the Seer Stone until later years. That includes Emma Smith’s claim that the Seer Stone in a hat was the main tool for the translation of the plates into the English version. In fact, she comes right out and says that the Urim and Thummim was used at first until the 116 pages loss when they were taken away. That left the Seer Stone (or a few) to finish the work. Martin Harris stated the Urim and Thummim was the means of translation, and so does early recollections of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer who both should have known more than others. Only later did David Whitmer in interviews seem to corroborate Emma Smith’s version of the Seer Stone usage when it became “more convenient” for Joseph Smith than the supposedly awkward white stones. He often corrected reports of interviews who interpret him as saying Joseph Smith only used the Seer Stone, although still holding to the belief that the Urim and Thummim was of temporary function. The sometimes challenged assertion of later prophet Joseph Fielding Smith that the Urim and Thummim had to be the main tool rather than a brown Seer Stone in the translation is not without foundation. Despite statements of Emma Smith and David Whitmer in later interviews, the more consistent reports even in hostile newspapers point more toward the Urim and Thummim as the interpreters. There is a he said she said quality to it all. Those who are curious can read witness evidence and decide for themselves.

Exactly how the interpretation worked is even more confusing. Some witnesses say it was a tight translation, others loose, and yet others a combination while looking at a stone in a hat to help with illumination. Linguistic and textual evidence doesn’t give a clear answer. It seems to mostly be a loose translation with punctuated tight moments for particular words or phrases. Even this is too easy a description of the process since the writing style seems to have a Hebrew root, with an English form earlier than the King James Bible that interacts with Joseph Smith’s own idioms. At times the KJV Bible chapters or verses are referenced, especially with Isaiah passages, although not slavishly as there are both slight and huge differences. There is no doubt either in the witness testimonies or the present textual studies that proper names were tightly controlled. This all keeps the mystery and miracle of translation alive. Believers and detractors can find whatever evidence they want since the findings are so mixed.

With so many witnesses and evidence, where did the traditional version of the translation where Joseph Smith hovers over the plates without tools come from? It is tempting to assert that artists created the “clean” version, and perhaps in a way they did. My own theory is that this started with Dr. Charles Anthon, famous as the person who accepted and then rejected the “gold Bible” translation, in the Howe anti-Mormon book. Probably from both hearsay and actual discussion with Martin Harris, he describes how a curtain was used between Joseph Smith and the scribe while sometimes the two were not even in the same room. He is consistent in the claim that white spectacles (and not the Seer Stone) was the translation method. This was coupled with other reports by both friendly and unfriendly sources that either mention a similar curtain configuration or a cloth covering over the plates. This was probably conflated with the witness testimony that Joseph Smith copied by hand the words on the plates to deliver to Dr. Charles Anthon for analysis mixed in with the interpretation method of tight control. The biggest mystery is leaving out the stone in the hat that shows up in almost every description; the most contentious critical concern about artistic renderings. To think that traditional “orthodox” images probably had genesis in hostile literature.

Where does that leave the now celebrated Seer Stone that everyone points as The Book of Mormon’s chief interpretation device? Not at center stage as many are want to believe. The Urim and Thummim are still in the running as top tool, despite the Emma Smith interview or David Whitmer back and forth several years after Joseph Smith’s death. The preponderance of evidence, in my estimation, leaves the brown stone as a translation supporting player in both friendly and hostile reports. The true lost part of the story is the hat (and sometimes box) where the Urim and Thummim and occasional Seer Stone were placed. No matter if white and brown Seer Stones become part of Mormon religious lexicon or liturgy, hat gazing is still the most uncomfortable image. The faithful are promised to someday have their own stone in the next life as part of the work in Exaltation. Where the hat fits is something I haven’t been able to fully digest without some spiritual heartburn. The snicker factor is strong.

25 thoughts on “The Stone in a Hat and the Miracle of Translation

  1. One of the better smartwatches out there, gateway to the vastness of the human Internet, is called the Pebble.

    What is still used in some of the world’s best timepieces? Quartz.

    Crystals are used for focus and meditation and healing in some cultures.

    Millions of people wear faith-activated vampire repellent around their necks, or as tattoos.

    As you say, nearly everyone is credulous about much while selectively mocking the chosen credulity of others. Joseph’s “gift and power of God” response gives the glory to the Source, not the tools. Like nephi, who noted the key to the ball or director working was faith and obedience. It had no magic of its own; it was a small and simple thing that was special because God made it so, under God’s terms and conditions.

  2. “nearly everyone is credulous about much while selectively mocking the chosen credulity of others. ”

    You put into one sentence a thought that I haven’t been able to express in my two posts. Thank you.

  3. I own a couple of crushable wool felt hats, which I take camping and traveling. One is rather beat up now and the other is rather stylish. (Google “crushable hat Stetson” for images.) Such a hat would be a safe place to keep a precious medium-sized stone from getting lost, scratched, or otherwise marred. I have used my hat as a safe place to put my glasses and binoculars when camping.

    If a stone glowed and letters appeared on it like the computer screen I am using to write this, using the hat to block out stray light during the daytime would be useful and natural. In short, the hat causes me no problem.

  4. I found Brant Gardner’s ‘The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon’ (Kofford 2011) an excellent source for providing possible answers to such questions. He sees the stone and similar instruments as having no particular qualities beyond providing a focus for one with the gift of being a seer. I feel that there might be some quality present in various objects, particularly minerals and glass that might work better for such focus. However the modern Church seems to focus on seeking the spirit without material assistance, although I know of many who consult the scriptures in an ‘accidental’ mode.
    We are a generation prone to swallow camels while choking on gnats.

  5. My view of the “translation” of the Book of Abraham spills over on to the “translation” of the Book of Mormon. I had a testimony of the Book of Abraham decades before I became aware of the Intricacies of how it was brought forth. Although these intricacies might be interesting, I don’t personally care if Joseph was reading a Marvel Comic at the time it was produced. My testimony of the Book of Abraham is not a light one. Likewise…the Book of Mormon. The more we attempt to get at the “translation” history, the more complicated the issues become; not issues of its veracity, but of the details of its bringing forth. Ultimately, Joseph made a conscious decision not to explain the roots and trunk of the whole matter, so we are left picking at the leaves. Likely, Joseph used several methods and objects in the outward “technique” just as he used several scribes. All of the artwork ever produced, including the more recent involving a hat, have problems with them. But, looked at as “symbols” every piece of art tells the same story: Joseph brought forth by divine means whatever had been inscribed on the plates intended for our instruction. We moderns just don’t do well with symbols. To me personally, I like the “hat symbol” the best because it just seems more interesting than anything else. I never had any problem with it. It also is the method most often used, but not to the exclusion of others. Ultimately, all study of the “bringing forth” boil down to one thing: what does the text of the book say to us?

  6. Hi jettboy,

    Did you not read my post in January 2015?

    The Beaver-skin Hat: How Joseph Interpreted the Plates

    I don’t know that I would agree that Joseph hid how the “translation” occurred. I suspect this is more an artifact of the premature death or estrangement of so many who had been privy to the Book of Mormon translation. Reading the recent biography of William Smith, William certainly recounts (with no apparent disdain) the way the plates were translated, with the stone in a hat and the plates under a cloth. Like Emma, William touched the cloth-covered plates. But there is no way the various leaders of the Church were going to consult William on anything. For very good reason, by the way.

    We need artists that will create portrayals of the historical method of ‘translation’ so it doesn’t look like a filthy frontier boy vomiting into a hat.

  7. Meg, I did read your post and thought of it every time I mentioned the hat. Interesting as your post was, that still doesn’t help my mental and therefore spiritual unease. The aesthetics of the thing makes me cringe. I will say Pat Chiu’s basic drawing is probably the best representation of what I understand of the scene. Sometimes the plates were covered by a cloth and at other times (maybe early on) a curtain was placed between Joseph and the scribe. Because the translation was done with revelation I don’t find it a problem he rarely opened the plates, since he couldn’t read them conventionally anyway.

    I do stand by my theory that the majority of the Book of Mormon was translated by the white stones of the Urim and Thummim, no matter what Emma and David Whitmer (who was inconsistent) claim in interviews. The Seer Stone was a back up when they became too spiritually draining, or as “convenience” as Martin Harris said. I am guessing nearly 80 percent of hostile and friendly reports mention spectacles as the main interpretative device. Regardless of what I wish to have found, the hat is a prominent feature in most descriptions no matter if using the white U and M or the brown Seer Stone to block out ambient light. Good luck with an artist rendering where it doesn’t look like he is puking unless depicting a before or after setting the hat down.

  8. ‘filthy frontier boy vomiting into a hat’, is an interesting phrase. I would imagine that what we see in any representation depends to some extent on our own perceptions. For instance, one of the pictures that attempts to portray the first vision always jars me. I expect to see a 14 year old in the clothing a farm boy would wear. That clothing has varied over time but it is not the formal mode of dress worn by a young man in his twenties as is presented in the artwork that bothers me. As an artist I try to base my work on reality, but there are those who try to promote an agenda at the expense of truth and their work is little more than propaganda. This comes from both the cynical and the faithful.

  9. One of our family’s favorite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold. In her book A Civil Campaign, one of the main delights is a scientist who has developed a bug whose vomit is highly nutritious – bug vomit that offers all the nutrition of the most wonderful mascarpone, and more.

    The problem is that it is a bug. And the vomit is, well, vomit.

    Enter the artist (the love interest of the series’ protagonist). She works with the genetic scientist who developed the bug and designs several variations that absolutely stun the in-crowd. One of the questions at the unveiling is “How did you make them look… lovely?!?!?”

    By the end of the book, the confection with the bug vomit is highly sought after, and people are trying to steal the demonstration bugs because they are so desirable.

    I am not a artist when it comes to visual 2-D depictions. So though in my mind’s eye I can see an image that is awesome, I can’t convey that to others. In my version, Pat Chiu’s image is rendered in full color, as the traditional versions which persuaded so many of us that the never-documented version was somehow the only “proper” way to envisage the event.

    In this image, I would insert an inset depicting the activity on the other side of the veil, similar to the image of Isaiah writing, with the vision of Mary and Jesus in the cloud-limned inset depicting the vision. In my version of the inset, we see Mormon and Moroni, along with Tyndale and John Knox, each working from a spiritual version of their respective scriptural works (the great summary version of Nephite history, written on metal plates and the earliest English versions of the Bible).

    The only artists who have insisted on putting the hat into our collective psyche (other than Pat Chiu) have intended to make you recoil in discomfort, if not in downright revulsion. It is little wonder that, lacking a desirable mental image, you cringe at the idea of the hat. I might as well tell you I am serving you bug vomit.

  10. Three Cheers for Tante Lois. I think her Chalion series provides a marvelous examination of what being a prophet likely looks like from the inside.

  11. I know you don’t do links here but I just shared a link on my facebook page to a blogger who really sums up how I feel about the matter.

  12. I think the following scripture in Alma 37 is referring to this very subject of a seer stone been prepared for the prophet to translate, as I understand that Gazalem is Joseph Smith as was revealed afterwards.

    “23 And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.

    24 And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:

    25 I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land.”

  13. Imagine the Lord touching 16 small stones to give light for a long journey across the ocean. I don’t know why, of the many miracles wrought by small and simple things, a seer stone is giving some people so much consternation.

  14. All of the back and forth arguments about the stone devolve to a quote by Stewart Chase: “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” And for those who do believe, we know the operative force is not the stone but the power of God.
    I suspect any stone would have worked, so long as Joseph believed it would. We use crutches like that for our faith today: consider the use of consecrated oil, the “protective power” of Temple garments. There is no power in these items per se, the power is with God and our faith in His ability to help us through the use of these things.

  15. I suggest that you may be able to persuade more people if you don’t start out attacking those who feel lied to. Whether or not it is in reality true, it is what they are feeling. Compassion and empathy for those who really with no fault of their own came to think that the translation happened a certain way.

    “Perhaps it shouldn’t have, but it mildly surprised me, in the wake of publication on of a series of in-depth essays on various topics, that so many faithful members expressed surprise at discovering some things like multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision for the first time in their lifelong membership.” (Michael Otterson,

    Bro Otterson seems to have a better approach.

  16. I don’t know why, of the many miracles wrought by small and simple things, a seer stone is giving some people so much consternation.

    Gifts from the gods to heroes of legend? it’s far enough away that believing it or not doesn’t cost so much. But the kid down the block who can’t get the newspaper on the porch? You’re likely to have questions if he starts translating the Voynich manuscript with a little help from a broken laptop that connects to http://www.urimandthummim.god, and hinting that more gym time and handcart practice for the next 18 months might come in handy because “you never know.”

    Even if you’re willing to believe, there are good questions to ask. Is this a seer stone, or more like Hiram Page’s peep stone? How can we tell? What’s it telling the neighbor kid? How has he been behaving lately? Is the stake president okay with it?

  17. “I suggest that you may be able to persuade more people”

    Who says I am trying to persuade anyone? I just don’t have that much compassion for them. I feel anyone thinks they were “lied to” on these subjects are spiritually and intellectually lazy. Looking for an excuse for their own lack of faith. There I said it.

  18. I meant to write: “I hear you!” . I hate this self correcting devices that correct wrong, lol

  19. How many of us, when first told about the mechanics of sex, were disturbed?

    And yet which of us would be here if it weren’t for those same mechanics?

    A parent or sibling who fails to describe the mechanics of sex at every possible opportunity isn’t lying. They are just being sane.

    In a similar manner, the mechanics of how the Book of Mormon came forth weren’t often discussed. This isn’t just because it was a sacred time, but because (I think) Joseph didn’t know that what he was doing was particularly unusual. He didn’t know any scholars involved in scholarly translation.

    His contemporaries honored the seer stone, as can be seen from the manner in which it eventually was given into the care of the Church.

    I can understand why some people feel they’ve been “lied” to, but if they would forgive all (D&C 66, I believe, makes this commandment most clear), then they might be able to see that at no point was anyone acting in bad faith.

    Mormons are a bit unique in their desire for unity. So if you have someone doing something that isn’t quite right in a non-dangerous way, most Mormons will be kind and gracious. In some ways, this lack of edgy critique is manifest in culture dominated by individuals who are Mormon. For example, this is why you might hear about William Law’s apostasy, because none of his family traveled west with the Saints. But you have likely never heard about Austin Cowles and how he co-led the conspiracy to kill Joseph Smith, because Mormons tend not to read the Expositor and some of Austin’s children traveled west and were highly honored.

    Regarding the stone, those who knew that the early pictures that mis-depicted the translation process were wrong would therefore not have gone up to the artist and told them the painting was a lie. They were nice paintings, if significantly lacking in accuracy. And so in search of unity and not wanting to be mean to someone who had put so much effort into a work of art, anyone who did know the depiction was wrong would have politely held their piece.

  20. Jettboy, some day you will be given a test of your faith, and you will have to sacrifice your Isaac or slay your Goliath. If your calling and election hasn’t been made sure yet (which I think includes all of us here) , that means there are more and harder tests to come, no matter what you’ve gone through so far.

    I have had, and I suppose I still do, a similar lack of compassion as you do towards those who “fail” the tests I was able to pass, or that weren’t really tests for me. It was only after failing my own tests, and had miserably failed/fallen, that I started having compassion for others who failed or were failing their tests.

    I was a member only two years (joined in my early 20’s) when I went on a mission. When I got to the MTC, I felt as though the GA’s had lied about what the missionary requirements were. No one had told me about the significant portion of elders who either didn’t want to be there, or didn’t qualify to be there, or had no intention of obeying mission rules. No one had told me the “dirty truths” about missionaries and missionary life that no one spoke of publicly.

    I still have ongoing tests/challenges that I’m not doing well at. And I see more/harder ones down the road.

    What looks like a lack of faith is often a misunderstanding of how God operates, or a misunderstanding of human nature. We often have expections of how God “should” operate, or how church leaders “should” operate that just aren’t correct.

    Faith is believing the _correct_ (“true”) thing, not just any or some thing. If people weren’t taught correctly to start with, we should be compassionate when the hard reality meets their false assumptions.

  21. Bookslinger on August 18, 2015 at 11:25 am said:

    No one had told me the “dirty truths” about missionaries and missionary life that no one spoke of publicly.

    The mind runs wild on what you might be meaning by that statement…

    We did have an elder in my mission who refused to take showers. I’m not sure why. I heard of other “boys being boys” silliness. There was a time in the MTC when I and my companion felt a need to cast out evil spirits. I wonder what God might have to say about that in the resurrection.

    If I think of “repent” as “re-think,” then I would say:

    [re-]Think of yourself as a glorious and eternal being. Think of yourself as a precious child of the Eternal God. Think of yourself as one who deeply loved everyone you come in contact with, albeit in a previous and forgotten sphere. Think of your mortal family as those whom your heart will embrace in eternity, those for whom you will someday find you would do anything to rejoin.

    No go and act accordingly.

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