Book of Mormon Translation

Book of Mormon Translation

Part of my Response to The LDS Gospel Topics Essays: A Scholarly Engagement

Intro

We’re not going to be reviewing these essays in any significant order. It’s just in the order of what I am most interested in researching right now. The Book of Mormon translation is the topic that got me into this whole thing so we’re starting here. The pattern that we will be following is

  1. I will give my recollection of events to the best of my knowledge and try to give my perspective on how I felt as these things were revealed to me.

  2. I will read through the Gospel Topics Essay and respond to it, and

  3. I will read through the corresponding essay in The LDS Gospel Topics Series and respond to it.

My Prior Knowledge on the Subject

When I was a young boy, I was taught what everyone else was taught about the translation of the Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon. Did I know any other details? I presumed that he used the Urim and Thummim as glasses while looking at the plates; I’m also pretty sure I knew that there was a screen or curtain between Joseph and the scribe du jour.[1]

Consequently, I understood that the most common artistic rendering (where Joseph is sitting across from Oliver Cowdery and Joseph is looking directly at the plates and there is nothing between them and no Urmim and Thummim or seer stone at all) were simplified. It is my understanding that for many people, those images are exactly how they imagined it and any variation, whether with the Urim and Thummim or with the seer stone, were surprising to them. I don’t relate to that, but I acknowledge it, and I can appreciate if that’s what you grew up thinking then it would be surprising to find out there was much more involved.

I am trying to remember exactly when I first learned about the seer stone. I’m guessing it was after my mission. I think it must have been when the church first published the article with the picture of the stone that everyone is pretty sure was Joseph’s seer stone.

The whole thing was confusing to me.

Obviously, there was everyone that was saying “Oh my goodness, the church was hiding this from us whole time! The scandal!” But I never really connected with that. I just didn’t think that this was a detail worthy of hiding. Like why would they? At the end of the day, the Urim and Thummim, or interpreters as the Nephites would call them, were also usually described as stones. A stone is a stone.[2] God can do what he wants, so if Joseph claimed that he used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon, why would that be more embarrassing, or hide worthy than the Urim and Thummim which are also rocks. In the case where Joseph is making this whole thing up and church leadership knows it, why is one rock claim more outlandish than another? Why suppress one and not the other?

One thing I didn’t understand was why it was taking so long for the church members to learn or remember about the seer stone. I guess this is where the “the church was trying to hide it” claim would come in, but as stated above that made even less sense to me. My best guess was it just didn’t come up a lot and was forgotten until some intrepid young historian dug up some lost record about it.

The biggest thing that troubled me though was I didn’t understand why the Book of Mormon prophets would make such a big deal about the interpreters and go through such a big effort to pass them down from generation to generation if Joseph Smith was just going to use them interchangeably with another stone that he had found. That didn’t sit right with me, but my ways are not the Lord’s ways and just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it can’t be so.

The whole thing was a little odd, but it wasn’t a shelf breaker for me.

Fast forward to March of this year (2023). At this point I had thoroughly accepted the fallibility of prophets. I had come to acknowledge that at the end of the day they are mortal men just like you and me, and they make mistakes. Some or many or all of them have had some sort of theophany, but I was learning to assume that those things are few and far between and that most of the time they are relying on a similar stream of revelation as the rest of the lay people are, albeit they are much more well practiced and have keys to receive revelation for the whole church.

With that in mind, I had developed this concept of Joseph Smith as a sort of eccentric young man that was into folk magic, was far less skeptical than I am, is much more willing to believe outlandish things, is hasty to jump to conclusions, gets really excited when he sees ancient papyrus and his mind goes wild with tales of Abraham and ancient pharaohs, and the Lord is excited because Joseph is so full of faith and ready to receive revelation about anything, even if it’s not actually directly related to items that has excited Joseph. It’s fine, it’s not the noble version of Joseph Smith I grew up with, but it makes sense that as a child you get an idealized version of historical church figures just like you get idealized versions of other historical figures.[3]

Then one day in late March, I found myself skimming through YouTube – I had probably just finished watching a Saints Unscripted video – when I got recommended a video from the Cwic Show. The thumbnail said “Where is Cumorah? Mesoamerican model w/ Brant Gardner” I had remembered seeing earlier a thumbnail for s similar video with some guy I had never heard of before, but I had heard of Brant Gardner, I had started reading his book, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History, I had really enjoyed what I had read so far, but hadn’t finished it because it’s a pretty dense, scholarly book. Figuring a video might be more digestible I decided to give it a watch. It was interesting. It was about what I would expect given what I had come to accept about Joseph Smith. There was a lot of “Oh yeah, Zelph’s mound, Joseph was just so excited about everything. That was probably just his opinion and not a prophetic statement.” There was also a lot of interesting things like “If you consider what we know about the Mesoamerican culture and history it actually sheds some light on some of the things that happened in the Book or Mormon”

I enjoyed the interview well enough, so when I saw that Brant Gardner had another interview on Cwic Show I decided to give it a listen, this thumbnail read “Urim & Thummim or Seer Stone? Seer Stone Approach – Brant Gardner” I wasn’t really interested in learning more about the Book of Mormon translation at the time, but I had liked a lot of what Brant Gardner had said and I thought maybe it would answer some of the questions that I had about the seer stone.

What happened next absolutely blew me away.

They were talking about the historical evidence of Joseph Smith using the seer stone, and they started talking about how, after the translation, Joseph gave Oliver the seer stone. Brant Gardner said something to the effect of “why would Joseph give the stone to Oliver and say, ‘I don’t need it anymore,’ if Joseph and Oliver never used the seer stone for the translation.” I was completely flabbergasted. You mean to tell me that this entire thing is based off that one incident, [4] you mean to tell me that of all the evidence you could pull out to convince someone that the seer stone was used, that’s the best one you can come up with?! Does that mean there is room for debate on this issue? Is there a possibility that Joseph Smith actually used the Urim and Thummim the whole time?!

I went back to the previous set of interviews. It was with some guy named Jonathan Neville. I watched it and just soaked in every minute of it. I’ve come to really love Jonathan Neville’s work. I feel like he has restored a lot of dignity to dear Brother Jospeh. Watching that episode was like breathing fresh air. There seemed to be a reasonable path to believing that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim exclusively. I started consuming as much of Jonathan Neville as I could, mostly through his interviews on Mormon Book Review. As a result, I decided that I was going to really dig into this subject and see if there was any sort of legs for the Urim-and-Thummim-only theory to stand on, or if it was just wishful thinking on my part.

I’m not quite at the end of that journey yet, but I feel like I’m close. As of right now I am fairly confident that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim exclusively for the translation of the Book of Mormon. All the evidence of the seer stone being used has a plausible explanation for why it can be discounted or understood in a different light. Right now, I think the most compelling argument for the stone-in-the-hat narrative comes from Edward Stevenson’s account of what Martin Harris had told him on a train ride to Utah, and even that one has some things that might give you pause.

Ultimately, I stand with Joseph Fielding Smith who said

“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 where given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes.[5]

So, it may be so that Joseph used the seer stone, and ultimately it doesn’t make a difference for my testimony of the Book of Mormon, but in my mind, it makes way more sense that Joseph would have used the Urim and Thummim.[6]

After all of that, I now have the answer to both of my questions.

First, why was this so long in coming to light? Because the historical evidence is unclear, and until recently the church leaders favored the Urim and Thummim side of the debate, often to the extreme of dismissing evidence of the stone in the hat as deceitful propaganda devised by David Whitmer or Joseph Smith III to convince people that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young respectively were fallen prophets. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way and scholars are cautious about completely dismissing what critics say because they might have some truth to them.

Second, why go through all the trouble to have the interpreters and the plates if Joseph was just going to look at a stone in a hat? Easy, because Joseph, in my opinion, didn’t use a stone in a hat. The epic saga of guarding and maintaining the plates and interpreter from one generation of Nephite prophet/king/chief judge to another so that Moroni could finally deliver them to Joseph Smith did mean something because he used both of them in the translation.

And now after all of that. Do I believe the church tried to hide this?

No.

It frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

It seems clear to me, based on the Joseph Fielding Smith quote from Doctrines of Salvation published in 1956[7], that at least he, and likely many other church leaders, felt that the seer stone existed but wasn’t used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. If that’s what you think (which based on my research is a very defensible position to take) then there is absolutely no reason to teach people that Joseph used the seer stone at all. If he didn’t use it in translation, then his folk magic and treasure seeking hobbies are no more than interesting footnotes.[8] It frankly doesn’t make sense to publicize it, much less make a big deal about defending it.

Next up, let’s get into the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay on the subject and see what they have to say about it.


  1. Nowadays I’m less clear on the curtain. Some seem to hold that there was a curtain, the stone-in-the-hat model doesn’t seem to need a curtain because none of the sacred relics were in use and therefore, they did not need to be hidden. Or maybe there was still a curtain so the scribe couldn’t see Joseph looking into the hat? I have seen one interpretation where Joseph was using the Urim and Thummim attached to the breastplate to read from the plates but had a very wide brimmed hat to conceal the plates. Right now, I am not 100% sure which accounts include the curtain detail and which ones do not. The only account I am sure talks about the curtain is Mormonism Unveiled… but I wouldn’t call that a trustworthy source. ↩︎

  2. Is a stone a stone?

    1. According to Jonathan Neville, the Urim and Thummim is much more than just a stone, but that’s a conversation for another time. See any of his books addressing the translation of the Book of Mormon, especially his and James Lucas’s book, By Means of the Urim and Thummim.

    2. I also acknowledge that I now understand that part of the problem with the seer stone is not just that it differs from the traditional teachings but that it implies the use of folk magic the founding of the church. Did Joseph use the seer stone at all for any revelations or was it all part of his treasure seeking exploits? I don’t know. Let’s assume that he used it to receive revelations. Is it not possible that God could speak “unto [His] servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). Is it not possible that God communicated with Joseph through the stone, not because of the stones folk magic background, but despite it. Is it not possible that God used language or methods of communication with Joseph that Joseph connected with so that he could better understand and eventually realize that he could receive revelation without a seer stone such that he would feel confident passing the seer stone off to Oliver Cowdery because he knew he didn’t need it anymore? Is it not possible that God who made all of the rocks, decided He wanted to reclaim one of his creations from it’s folk magic origins and use it for higher, holier purposes unrelated to their origin.

    ↩︎
  3. I cried the day I learned that the George Washington and the cherry tree story probably wasn’t true. ↩︎

  4. No, it’s not all based off that one bit of evidence. But that’s the impression I got. ↩︎

  5. Doctrines of Salvation, volume III, page 225-226 ↩︎

  6. As for the accounts of the seer’s stone use in the translation. Since none of them, that I am aware of, come from Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery, they are all hearsay. Except for a short attempt where Oliver Cowdery tried to translate (D&C 9) Joseph was the only person to have firsthand experience with the translation. That is assuming that Joseph did have a screen or curtain up for the whole time. If we assume that he didn’t have the curtain up the whole time, then we could add scribes to the list of firsthand eyewitnesses. But Emma’s and Martin’s alleged stone-in-the-hat accounts are not told by them but are reported by third parties, after both of them had died. Furthermore, there are some compelling reasons (for Emma’s account in particular) to not accept them at face value (as I mentioned above Martin Harris’ account still holds some water potentially but is much easier to explain away if there was in fact a curtain between the Marin and Joseph while they translated). ↩︎

  7. At the time Mark Hofmann was only two years old, or in other words it was published decades before Hofmann forged the salamander letter and brought the idea of restoration era folk magic back into the public consciousness, or in other words decades before the gig was up and the church had to scramble to regain control of the narrative. ↩︎

  8. Am I too open minded about Joseph’s involvement in folk magic? I don’t know, maybe. All I know is that I have met a lot of different members of the church, and they have all believed a lot of different things about science or less mainstream science or medicine or alternative medicine, or if Coca-Cola is a sin or not a sin, aliens, cryptids, ghosts, global warming, climate deniers, evolution, or creationism. It seems to me like there is a lot of wiggle room on what you can believe when it comes to topics not related to the gospel.

    Frankly the idea that the church hides its past because people might think it’s weird, is itself weird. We have a lot of weird things that we don’t shy away from. I feel like we’re pretty good at rationalizing our weird beliefs to make ourselves think that they are perfectly normal. We have convinced ourselves that baptisms for the dead is normal, we have convinced ourselves that believing God lives on a planet that orbits a star called Kolob is normal, we have convinced ourselves that not drinking tea and coffee is normal, we have convinced ourselves that having a Godhead of three distinct individuals and believing that if we play our cards right we can become like God Himself is normal. And you’re telling me that for some reason we couldn’t figure out how to make folk magic inspired revelation from rocks look normal?! So even though Joseph Smith allegedly founded the church off of principles of folk magic we decided to hide it instead of embrace it? Nah, I’m much more inclined to believe that the whole folk magic thing was either an indulgent transgression that Joseph had to repent of (maybe multiple times), or a benign unrelated hobby that is fine to ignore because it had little or nothing to do with the founding of the Church. ↩︎

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