There are 40 thoughts on “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation”.

  1. Pingback: Gospel Topic Essay: 003: Book of Mormon Translation - Mormon Discussions Podcasts - Full LineupMormon Discussions Podcasts – Full Lineup

  2. Pingback: Bill Reel Disciplinary Response to the Charges - Mormon Discussions Podcasts - Full LineupMormon Discussions Podcasts – Full Lineup

  3. Pingback: Did Joseph Smith Translate The Book Of Mormon With A Rock In A Hat? | Conflict of Justice

  4. Pingback: KnoWhy OTL06B — Was Noah Drunk or in a Vision? | The Interpreter Foundation

  5. Are there any first person accounts of the plates actually being present during translating, after the loss of the 116 pages? I was at a presentation a few years ago where that (no record) was asserted. I am not aware of any, but, thought that in your research on the interpreters and the seers stone you might have come across some.

  6. Dan Vogel:

    Thanks for your work on these subjects. Too bad it’s impossible to convince some of the likely truth when their careers, desires or wishes point in the opposite direction.

  7. Excerpts:

    It is possible that the reporter [of Martin Harris] conflated the story of the spectacles and Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone in a hat. Such confusion would be understandable. Since the spectacles were buried with the plates for the purpose of translating them, it would only be natural to assume that it was the instrument Joseph Smith put into his hat.

    Nicholson also quotes Martin Harris’s 1859 interview with spiritualist Joel Tiffany as evidence that Harris “told a consistent story” throughout his life (132). After recounting Harris’s description of the spectacles, Tiffany quoted Harris saying: “I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat.” This account is obviously garbled since Harris was never allowed to handle either the plates or spectacles uncovered or to view them in a casual non-visionary manner. Rather than showing that Harris “told a consistent story,” as Nicholson argues, it shows quite clearly that it was easy to misunderstand Harris’s account of an inherently confusing story. Moreover, despite Nicholson’s assertion, these accounts are inconsistent with more reliable sources, to be discussed, where Harris describes Smith using a seer stone in his hat. … William Smith and Joseph Knight were not eyewitnesses and do not reveal the source of their information, so it is possible that they could have also conflated stories in an attempt to harmonize the story of the spectacles in Joseph Smith’s history and eyewitness accounts of his putting the seer stone in his hat.

    To overcome this obvious problem, Nicholson refers to Martin Harris’s description of the spectacles in his 1859 interview with Joel Tiffany, which says the stones in the spectacles were “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” He then observes, “This does not necessarily imply that they were transparent.” The argument he apparently tries to make is that the Nephite Interpreters did not operate by looking “through” them like spectacles but onto them like Smith did with his brown stone. Never mind the numerous more reliable sources that say otherwise, some of which come from Harris. Martin told the Reverend Clark in 1828 and Edward Stevenson in 1870 that the stones of the spectacles were “clear” and “transparent.” (Episcopal Recorder, 5 Sept. 1840; Deseret Evening News, 13 Dec. 1881). Oliver Cowdery testified at Smith’s 1830 trial in South Bainbridge that “Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows.” (Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, 9 April 1831).

    Nicholson has interpreted this [Emma Smith’s statement to Emma Pilgrim] as meaning the spectacles were used for the entire lost 116-page manuscript except for occasional use of the seer stone, that the “timeframe for the transition from the Nephite interpreters to the seer stone … occurred after the loss of the 116 pages and upon the resumption of translation”—but clearly this was not the case (141). Given her own descriptions of the stone in hat during her work as scribe, she more likely meant that the occasional parts that were translated with the spectacles were among the manuscript pages that Harris lost. However, the important part of what Emma said was that the spectacles were not used after the loss of the 116 pages, which as we shall see Nicholson disputes.

    In regard to Nicholson’s theory, a question presents itself at this point: If Nicholson wants to believe Smith used the spectacles with the hat, why does he assume it was out in the open and not also behind the curtain? The reason is: he wants the spectacles to be used throughout the entire translation and he knows after the loss of the 116 pages “Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.” (168) This is necessary to harmonize the accounts of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery with the other eyewitnesses. … However, one should not assume the alternation was between putting the spectacles or seer stone in the hat, but rather more likely between the hat and the curtain. Thus Palmyra newspaperman Abner Cole reported in 1831: “Harris declares, 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.” (Palmyra Reflector, 19 March 1831)

    The idea that Emma Smith and David Whitmer, both of whom said Joseph Smith did not use the spectacles after the loss of the 116 pages, were mistaken because they couldn’t see what was in the hat is pure apologetic fiction. If such were the case, the witnesses would have observed Smith taking precautions to prevent them from viewing the instrument. Since Smith would have had no reason to keep his use of the spectacles from Emma and the Whitmers, Nicholson’s theory has no credibility and is an obvious invention to avoid troubling evidence of Smith and Cowdery’s misrepresentation.

  8. Eyewitness testimony confirms that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the same manner that he once hunted for buried treasure: that is, with his brown-colored seer stone placed in the crown of his white top hat and his face snug to its brim. Rather than seeing treasures in the bowels of the earth, Smith claimed he saw luminous words on the stone, which he read to a scribe. In this manner the entire Book of Mormon as we have it came into existence. This fact conflicts with Joseph Smith’s official history, which claims that he used magic spectacles—which he euphemistically called Urim and Thummim—attached to a breastplate. [external link removed]

  9. Danny,

    You said, “To be a good Mormon is measured by the level of compliance. It makes human behavior the basis of salvation. Temple marriage and other privileges are clearly tied to the conduct of the person, not to the finished work of Jesus. The reservation of blessing for those who comply with the Church’s rules and teachings is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.”

    I find this astonishing, especially from someone who claims that Jesus should be the center. Have you ever seen the “compliance” or questions given to members to enter the temple? They are administered by a bishop, a New Testament office, and provide the individual the opportunity for inner reflection. Those questions are the culmination of the individual seeking and learning of the “finished work of Jesus.” Jesus said, “Come follow me.” I do not see any “human behavior” or “Church’s rules and teachings” in the LDS Church that is so uniquely Mormon, that it takes away or adds to what Christ did. It all comes down to living and learning our way back to God, based on Biblical principles and modern revelation that is rooted in the Bible, nothing more and nothing less.

  10. I would like to thank Roger Nicholson for this article. I have not read all the comments and it’s been several days since I’ve read the article so forgive me for any repeats, but what strikes me as odd is the fact that everybody seems oblivious to the obvious. The comments of those who witnessed the translation process do not conflict with one another but show that the whole translation process evolved. With each witness we get a snapshot of the process at that point in time. It is only natural that Joseph Smith would have been experimenting with various processes from the beginning to find out what works best and that his methodologies would change over time until he found something that was most comfortable to him. I don’t remember reading anywhere that he ever really used the breastplate to hold the interpreters. From the sounds of it, he actually tried to use the interpreters as glasses and that they were too wide. What I envision is that the breastplate would hold the interpreters somewhat away from the eyes and the plates would then be places at a location to be viewed comfortably through the interpreters like a view scope. I envision the interpreters slightly closer to the plates than to the user’s eyes.
    So thank you Roger, your article brought forth many insights and ideas to my mind.

  11. Emma noted that when she translated, she and Joseph spent “hour after hour with nothing between us.”

    The author asks “Where was the curtain?”

    Emma’s comment is one more proof of the Restoration (or two, if you want to be more accurate). There is no way that she wouldn’t know of the accounts of the translation, in which curtains and dividers were common — in fact, she specifically address them, by noting that they were not there.

    If Emma were spinning tales, she would have mentioned the curtain, rather than going out of her way to disagree with decades’ worth of testimony by others.

    OF COURSE Joseph and Emma had nothing between them. She was his HELPMEET, his Eternal Companion, not someone selected from outside the home as a scribe. There was no need for a barrier, because of this simple fact. We see several other times throughout their life together where she seems to be inspired by the Lord to the same extent, but in a different way.

    One example is the Word of Wisdom. She complained to Joseph, who went to the Lord and was given the actual commandment. Joseph was too busy to consider the problem that Emma identified (tobacco juice mess), but it was this inspiration which led to one of the most important commandments that we’ve been given, one which sets us apart and makes us stronger. The Lord could, of course, have simply given the word to Joseph, but the way that this was done takes it from being a sermon from the pulpit, and instead provides a personal understanding which can be taken into the heart of every member who has ever known a mother or wife.

    So it was with Emma’s working with Joseph to translate the Book of Mormon. In this one statement of hers, we see the will of the Lord that, even in the most important calling that a man can be given, there must be nothing to separate husband and wife.

  12. Just a comment to some who have asked me privately why I didn’t talk very much about Joseph Smith’s use of the seer stone prior to the translation of the Book of Mormon. The focus of this essay was the Book of Mormon translation, and represents an attempt to place the use of the Nephite interpreters and seer stone into an understandable context for believing members. Joseph’s acquisition and use of his seer stones is an interesting subject and deserves much more than a passing mention, however, to do it justice within this article would not have been possible, particularly since the article had already reached 70 pages.

  13. Nicholson wrote:

    “The primary issue that seems to concern some is the idea that Joseph translated in the open, in full view of others, by placing the instrument of translation in a hat and dictating text without looking directly at the plates.” (Page 188)

    While teaching the Doctrine and Covenants in Gospel Doctrine Class today I noticed that half of the class members were not reading from their printed scriptures but were peering into a smooth flat piece of molten rock through which they read the relevant passages. Then it struck me that we already have a first generation personal Urim & Thummim. One can see or learn almost anything on earth by peering into this clear piece of stone. Surely it is no longer a mystery that the Lord could show an “e” version of the Gold Plates to Joseph Smith for translation through his seer stone.

  14. Thank you for an excellent article. I commute about an hour or so each way each day and listen to podcasts on various subjects while I do. I listened to this podcast both on the way to work and back home again. I thought it was excellent. I was familiar with most of the basic concepts and some of the quotes, but this is the best treatment of the context and putting them together I have read (or heard).

  15. For what it’s worth, we should not forget that the Book of Mormon bears an undeniable testimony of Jesus. I know a few biblical scholars who believe in the bible, but somehow deny the divinity of the Savior. As I contemplate their arguments, there is a certain *shrug* I give in response as they cast doubt on Christianity’s interpretation of scripture and their understanding of the the Savior’s mission. Why don’t their arguments bother me? Because I have access to additional scripture in the Book of Mormon. And it is through this additional scripture that I can accept and believe in the divinity of Jesus as Christianity generally understands it in the Bible. Otherwise, I’d have extreme difficulty believing in Jesus being anything more than a great moral teacher.

  16. “While certainly its credibility has been attacked, the historic record is consistent on the life of Jesus, his words, and the accounts of his followers.”

    That’s a very debatable claim.

    One of the purposes for the rise of the “search for the historical Jesus” movement beginning in the 19th century, including the advent of modern New Testament historical and textual criticism, was to try and shift out the “Jesus of history” from the “Jesus of faith”, on the precise grounds that the Gospels were, according to this theory, a jumbled mess of pseudo-history interpolated with real, authentic history about Jesus. The Gospels as historical documents were viewed very skeptically by the “historical Jesus” schools, for the precise reasons Danny lists here: confused accounts, jumbled sources, contradictory claims, etc.

    It became the job of the exegete, in this school, to shift through and sort out exactly what happened to and what was said by the man from Nazareth, and strip away all that mythological stuff about virgin births, miracles, being raised from the dead, etc., that had been, allegedly, interpolated by wishful thinking Christian authors.

    This continues today in many academic circles. Try and take any college level course on the New Testament without eventually running into the “historical Jesus” school and its theories being taught.

    If I were a non-Mormon Christian, like Danny, I would be really careful in criticizing ambiguities in the Mormon historical record, since there exist many more ambiguities in the history of early Christianity and the authorship and composition of the New Testament books.

    (And this isn’t even going into the nightmare of tackling the question of the historicity and authorship of the Old Testament books in the light of modern Syro-Palestinian archaeology.)

    “There is no need to decode or explain anything.”

    Yes, there is. That’s the job of someone performing exegesis on the Bible: explain or “decode” the meaning of the Bible. Without some sort of exegesis on the part of the reader, the Bible becomes a meaningless text written 2000 years ago that’s impossible to understand. People can do either good exegesis or bad exegesis, but exegesis they must do, in order to get any meaning from the Bible.

    I see Nicholson doing “exegesis”, if you will, on the historical accounts surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon. It’s an attempt to understand and “decode” what these sources mean. This is an entirely appropriate undertaking, and I commend Nicholson for his fine work here.

    “Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.”

    What’s so funny is that Joseph Smith himself said this exact thing multiple times during his life. I am unaware of any statement by Joseph Smith saying we should worship him. The Prophet on multiple occasions admitted his own imperfections, as we all must do if we are to be humble before God, and consistently directed the Latter-day Saints’ attention of worship towards the Savior.

    But Joseph’s imperfections and mistakes doen’t negate his call as the Lord’s prophet in these days, nor diminish the marvelous things he did accomplish (the translation of the Book of Mormon being just one). Imperfections don’t make one ineligible to be called of God to perform great tasks. Otherwise, what could possibly be done by us fallible, imperfect humans?

  17. As a non-Mormon Christian I am struck by the great lengths required to explain and support the presumed legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s revelation and interpretation. I understand that the whole of Mormonism rests on this foundational belief and it is obvious that the Internet has made the disparate accounts and apparent inconsistencies that surround Mormon history and doctrine more visible to LDS members and the general public. After all, the questions surrounding the Book of Mormon do not stop with their origination.

    I admire the detailed work that went into this article but as a non-Mormon they come off as vain attempts to reconcile statements and accounts that, on their face, are contradictory and at best confusing. The examination of the details requires considerable “gymnastics” and contortions to make a case that should not be difficult to make.

    Contrast this with the Bible. While certainly its credibility has been attacked, the historic record is consistent on the life of Jesus, his words, and the accounts of his followers. There is no need to decode or explain anything. In fact, there is no reason to add anything to His gospel. This is what is overlooked by so many Mormons. The obvious fact that there was and is no need for a “restoration”. The historic gospel message of salvation that preceded Joseph Smith’s earthly existence is sufficient. It is the hope of the world, not Mormonism. Mormonism is riddled with things that must be explained away, as this article illustrates. The New Testament gospel is consistent. Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.

    This leads to my greatest issue with Mormonism. It is the same issue I have with non-Mormon religions, Catholicism, Christian denominations, & non denominational movements. Here it is:

    Whenever salvation is in any way tied to a specific church or movement, its message, its practices, its ceremonies, its rules and your fidelity to them, Jesus is diminished. He said of Himself “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no man comes to the Father but by Me.” Mormonism teaching and history may be the subject of debate. Those in the church will understandably feel a need to defend them. However, what cannot be defended is the emphasis on an attachment to the “Church” as conditional to salvation. Whether it is stated overtly, as with the LDS, or implied, as with certain evangelical churches, anything that leads people to believe that they are saved as a result of their faithfulness to a particular organization rather than to the person of Jesus Christ is heresy.

    Mormonism is full of rules and obligations that must be adhered to to maintain good standing by its members. To be a good Mormon is measured by the level of compliance. It makes human behavior the basis of salvation. Temple marriage and other privileges are clearly tied to the conduct of the person, not to the finished work of Jesus. The reservation of blessing for those who comply with the Church’s rules and teachings is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. This is also the case if a Charismatic Pentecostal church similarly teaches its followers that you are “in” if you do what the church leaders say and “out” if you don’t.

    The definition of the term “Christian” is Christ follower, not Joseph Smith follower, Jimmy Swaggart follower, or Pope follower.

    Any church that makes itself central to salvation is flawed. Jesus is sufficient and church should be a gathering of believers as we see in the early church where behavior barriers such as food laws and other behavioral standards were abandoned. Resurrecting behavior-based religion stands in complete contrast to the liberating message of Jesus Christ that needs no window dressing or additives from Joseph Smith or any other modern “prophet”.

    • Danny:

      As for your issues with the Mormon Church, I suspect that most of us who believe in the restoration would disagree with the way you have characterized our beliefs. I think you would find that we would agree that we follow Christ and not a church. However, just as with Christ, the way to follow him has been clarified and made relevant through his Apostles and through revelation to continue to make his way available to all who wish to follow it.

      As for the “great lengths required to explain” the translation process, I think you are misunderstanding the difference between explaining the process and looking at the historical record of those who have described the process. Joseph Smith simply indicated that it was through the gift and power of God. That is really quite simple and no description of the process provides anything that can substantially change that very simple declaration.

    • Danny,

      Regarding your statement: “Joseph Smith was deeply flawed and unworthy of worship or veneration. Jesus Christ is the perfect spotless Lamb of God. He alone should be the exclusive object of our devotion and our faith.”

      I find nothing to disagree with in your statement. I have not yet read of a Biblical prophet that was not “deeply flawed” in some way, yet God seems to chose to work through those with weaknesses. As great a prophet as Moses was, he was still not permitted to enter the promised land. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on the article.

      • I certainly concede your point regarding Biblical prophets. They too were ‘deeply flawed’, as am I. The point was not to suggest that Joseph Smith was somehow more flawed than others. It has been my observation however that the Mormon church views him as unique among the prophets. Most modern “religions” tend to place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on their founder. Mormons are not alone in claiming subsequent revelation in the modern era despite the scriptural warnings against adding to the “book”. Each group tends to venerate a man or a woman and do not see it as a diversion from Jesus. Similarly, as I stated earlier, the organization he/she founded itself becomes central, authoritative, and the only path to God, or in the case of Mormonism, godhood. This in my opinion is error. The Gospel as found in the New Testament is complete and utterly sufficient. What more do we need than a Savior whose sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God, atoned for our sins, and sits at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us? What more do we need? He said “It is finished”. Only arrogance would suggest otherwise, regardless of who it comes from.

        • Danny,

          We place Joseph Smith in the class of prophets who dispensed, or re-dispensed (restored), the fullness of the Gospel to the world, directly from God, at various times as required throughout the history of man. These prophets include Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Moses (Jesus Christ personally restored the fullness of His Gospel when He was on the earth). You are correct in that we do put more emphasis on Joseph Smith than on other prophets. We do this because he is the prophet who restored the fullness of the Gospel in our day. He is the prophet of our “dispensation” of the Gospel.

          As to your reference of scriptural warnings about adding to the “book,” surely you are aware that John in Revelation (Revelation 22:18-19), and Moses in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4:2), were referring to adding to or taking away from the words of their respective books. These books were not compiled into the Bible at the time they were written and do not warn against recording further revelations from God. There is nothing in the Bible which precludes further revelation or further scripture. Jesus himself stated that, “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Surely whoever those “other sheep” were they recorded His teachings. Also, these records must surely be revealed if there is to be “one fold.” As John wrote, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).

          Jesus was killed because the religionists of His day were convinced that their scriptures were “complete and utterly sufficient.” Joseph Smith was killed for the same reason.

          • I believe the Biblical warnings are not only about not adding to nor taking away from specific books but a divine Principle that men are not to add to nor take way from any words of the Word of God. God know that if people do this then others can be influenced falsely by a faulty record, just as Joseph Smith has accused the ancient scribes of doing. However, Joseph Smith did, himself, “add to and take away from” many specific books of the Bible. He did so in his so-called “Inspired Version” of the Bible. He did so without reference to any ancient manuscripts whatsoever, but supposedly, by pure revelation. No matter that the modern church does not hold this up as a Standard Work. Joseph Smith said it was True and modern Prophet, Apostle, Seer and Revelator Bruce R McConkie said it should be considered as much Scripture as True as any other LDS Standard Work. Joseph Smith did indeed add to and take away from the Word of God. The Question is, was He authorized to do so. If so, he had the approval of God and was justified. If not, he is facing the penalties which the Bible attributes to those who tamper with the Word of God. If Joseph was authorized and his Revelation of the “JST” and it was from God, why do LDS not really use it? If it is truly what Joseph claimed it to be, it is a priceless treasure to be shouted from the roof tops. Thoughts…

          • Sam,

            (I think we’ve reached a limit for embedded replies, so I apologize if this comment is in the wrong spot).

            We actually do have quite a bit of material from the “Inspired Version” of the Bible within the current set of Latter-day Saint Scriptures. Not only are passages included in the footnotes of the LDS King James Version of the Bible, but the entire Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price was the result of the “Joseph Smith Translation.” It is actually more interesting and educational for us to compare what Joseph Smith modified against the KJV, yet it does not diminish the value of the KJV for us.

            I understand the “shouting from the rooftops” is hyperbole, but I would say that we definitely acknowledge the value of the JST and use it substantially.

          • I am replying to comment – “Roger Nicholson on June 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm” : Yes, portions of the JST are used in the LDS Bible but the whole work has never been nor is not OFFICIALLY acknowledged as a “Standard Work” nor as Bruce R McConkie declared it, “…a thousand times over, the best Bible now in existence…” So my assertion is not hyperbole but absolutely sincere that, if the so-called “Inspired Version” is really what McConkie claimed it to be, it should be very touted as being that, and at very least, an LDS Standard Work. But, for some reason, it is not. Nonetheless, my most important point: Joseph did indeed “add to and take from the words of this book” and many other of the books contained in the Bible and, as such, he either WAS indeed authorized to give this dispensation one of the greatest, most priceless treasures, his “Inspired Version of the Bible”, OR he was not authorized to do so and will be subject to the penalties therein described in the Biblical passages for presumptuously adding to God’s Word. If Joseph was authorized, and it is a True document and it is the best Bible in existence, a thousand times over, why is it not a Standard Work? If the Inspired Version is really Inspired, as the other Standard Works are believed to be, then I do not agree that the JST has been sufficiently acknowledged nor used in the LDS church.

          • Sam,

            I agree with your position that if the scriptures brought forth by Joseph Smith were not authorized by God then Joseph Smith is in deep trouble with God. The first time I read the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon, the Spirit of God bore a personal witness to me that they were from God and were authorized by Him. After fifty years of studying and comparing these scriptures to the Holy Bible I am even more convinced that they were not only authorized by God but that it would have been impossible for anyone to produce them without the help of God.

            Your question is valid as to why the Joseph Smith Translation has not been published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in its entirety. I am probably the least qualified on this blog to answer that question, but I believe that it has much to do with the possession and rights to the original manuscripts. To be as brief as possible, Joseph Smith was martyred before the full bible translation was published and the manuscript ended up in the hands of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (recently renamed the Community of Christ). They did publish the entire translation and retained the copyright. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as “the Church”) was somewhat wary of what had been published because they did not have access to the original manuscripts. As scholars of the Church gained access to these manuscripts the Church became more confident in the accuracy of what had been published and began to use and refer to many excerpts. As the Church does not have the copyright I don’t know the legalities that may be holding them back from publishing the full version. What you have suggested is a great idea and I would like to see the Church do just that if they could. Perhaps someone else could shed more light on this subject.

    • Comparing the historical record of early Mormon events to that of the 4 gospels is like comparing apples to oranges. Christ lived 2000 years ago, while Joseph Smith lived just less than 200 years ago. The difference that makes in the amount of contemporary documentation, and the preservation/survival of that documentation is enormous. With the life of Christ, we have four documents preserved, which contain ONLY the stories told by believers, and only survived because the believers kept making copies for centuries. But with Joseph Smith, we the stories as he told them, as his followers told them, and as his enemies told them. We have first, second, and third had sources. We have eyewitness reports, and we have hearsay and rumor. So, is it messy and at times contradictory? You bet. But so is any and all well-documented history. (If I had a nickel for every time this last semester my history professor said something like, “Well, we aren’t really sure what happened because there are conflicting reports, but we think…”!) That is the nature of the game. Do you really think that there were no conflicting reports of Jesus’s miracles from believers and skeptics alike? No rumors flying around Jerusalem at the time, which were uncritically accepted as fact?

      If we Mormons had been given 2000 years to tell our story, and to be the only ones preserving it, etc. then you could bet by now the only available sources would be the ones that tell the narrative the way the LDS Church tells it now – By the Gift and Power of God, through the instrumentality of the Urim and Thummim (assumed to be the Interpreters). A lot of details would have been lost, the rumors would have faded away, and with them much of the controversy would also disappear. That is what happened with mainstream Christianity and the Bible. The controversy has faded (of course, many scholars continue to dispute the origins of the 4 gospels and what not, but that is for another day, I suppose), but a lot of details have been lost in the process as well. (The ending of the Gospel of John assures us as much.)

      But, since we don’t have that luxury, we must parse through a complicated historical record, and I commend Mr. Nicholson for doing just that, and doing a fine job of it, too. Ultimately, the historical record won’t settle the question of where the Book of Mormon came from. Seer stone or spetacles, we still have this long, detailed, and complex text with ties to the ancient Near East and to Mesoamerica. Where the heck did this text come from? Well, Joseph said it was translation from a set of gold plates, which he dictated by the power of God. None of the historical sources either prove or disprove that, and none of them ever will. A commitment for or against the Book of Mormon will always require faith, with assurance coming from something beyond historical records.

    • Danny, I realize that it is a current theme among many Christians that they don’t need organized religion, a church, to fully worship Jesus Christ. I don’t know on what this concept is based because it is certainly not found in the New Testament. Jesus taught that we did need to be organized into a church and the early Christians followed this teaching. There are over a hundred references to the church in the New Testament, including the following.

      “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

      “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)

      “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:” (Ephesians 2: 19-21)

      “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)

      The Church of Jesus Christ is His Church, and is organized in accordance with His commandments, in ancient times as well as in modern times.

      • To this end, we mustn’t forget that the compilation and preservation of the New Testament came about because of an organized church. Otherwise, Jesus would be nothing more than a footnote in Josephus and what not.

  18. It is unusual, actually impossible, that an illiterate man could write the Book of Mormon without the guidance of God.

  19. Compare the above description of the ancient process of using the Urim and Thummim with Moroni the general sending men to Alma the High Priest (who possessed the Nephite intepreters) with an inquiry about where to engage the Lamanites in battle:

    Alma 43
    23 But it came to pass, as soon as they had departed into the wilderness Moroni sent spies into the wilderness to watch their camp; and Moroni, also, knowing of the prophecies of Alma, sent certain men unto him, desiring him that he should inquire of the Lord whither the armies of the Nephites should go to defend themselves against the Lamanites.

    24 And it came to pass that the word of the Lord came unto Alma, and Alma informed the messengers of Moroni, that the armies of the Lamanites were marching round about in the wilderness, that they might come over into the land of Manti, that they might commence an attack upon the weaker part of the people. And those messengers went and delivered the message unto Moroni.

  20. I loved your willingness to consider all sources and then find their commonalities.
    The results boiled down to a very nice bibliography with information on how to “teach” people who might be shocked at the new information NOT from an anti point of view.
    A few years ago I read an article by Hugh Nibley on why Joseph didn’t need to have the actual scroll of Abraham in front of him to “translate” it. He used as a basis that sometimes Joseph left the plates under the bed as he dictated as if they were on the table. I can’t find the article now, but would be interested in where Hugh Nibley got his information.

    • I appreciate your comment. On Facebook someone had questioned why I didn’t try to qualify each of the sources that I used more than I did. I feel that the reader is quite capable of determining for themselves which sources they agree with and which they do not. Once I begin trying to tell the reader how they ought to view and interpret each source, the article becomes defensive – something I was trying to minimize here. I didn’t want the article to be a defense against criticism, but rather an exposure of much of the relevant data on the subject with an explanation of how one particular believer views it. It seems that believers and critics both each view a specific subset of sources and often miss the complete picture. I was attempting to present a more complete picture of the sources from a believer’s perspective. I am aware that a critic could take all of the exact same sources and write a completely different article around them.

  21. An excellent and comprehensive article. I couldn’t find anything in Nicholson’s conclusions and opinions that I could disagree with (which is unusual for me 😉 ).

    According to the quote from President Wilford Woodruff [Page 176] Joseph Smith found the seer stone “by Revelation,” that he used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. This implies that this was no ordinary stone but one that had been previously prepared, or consecrated, for the purpose of revelation. We may conclude from this that other prophets of God had anciently dwelt in the area where it was found.

  22. On reading words in stones using the Urim and Thummim:

    See The Temple Institute of Jerusalem

    From the Time of Moses
    The urim v’tummim is unlike any other aspect of the priestly garments, for it was not created by those skilled artisans who fashioned the other items, aided by their understanding and inspiration; and it was not created from the donations or contributions of Israel, as were all the other appointments of the Temple. The entire matter is one of those mysteries which was handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai by G-d Himself, and its secret was transmitted orally down through the generations.

    At the time of the original Tabernacle erected in the desert, Moses took the original urim v’tummim, written in sublime holiness, and placed it inside the breastplate of judgment, after Aaron donned the ephod. This is reflected by the verse (Lev. 8:7), “… and he put the ephod upon him, and he fastened him with the belt of the ephod… and he put the breastplate upon him, and into the breastplate he put the urim v’tummim.”

    Only Questions of Congregational Importance
    The process of questioning for Divine aid with the ÔUrim V’Tummim’ was done in the following manner: When a question arose whose implications were so consequential that the entire congregation of Israel would be effected-such as, for example, the question of whether or not to go out to war – then, the King of Israel (or the commanding officer of the army) would ask his question before the High Priest. An ordinary person, or someone not representing the entire community would not ask of the urim v’tummim.

    The High Priest stands facing the Ark of the Testimony, and the questioner stands behind him, facing the priest’s back. The questioner does not speak out loud, neither does he merely think the question in his heart; he poses his query quietly, to himself – like someone who prayers quietly before his Creator. For example, he will ask “Shall I go out to battle, or shall I not go out?”

    A Meditative Experience and a Prophetic Revelation
    The High Priest is immediately enveloped by the spirit of Divine inspiration. He gazes at the breastplate, and by meditating upon the holy names of G-d, the priest was able to receive the answer through a prophetic vision-the letters on the stones of the breastplate, which would shine forth in his eyes in a special manner, spelling out the answer to the question. The priest then informs the questioner of the answer.

    Flavius Josephus writes (Antiquities 3:8:9) that the stones also shone brilliantly when Israel went forth into battle. This was considered as an auspicious sign for their victory.

    Another midrashic passage indicates that when the tribes of Israel found favor in G-d’s eyes, each respective stone shone brilliantly. But when particular members of any one tribe were involved in a transgression, that tribe’s stone would appear tarnished and dimmed. The High Priest would see this phenomena and understand its cause. He would then cast lots within the rank of this tribe, until the guilty person was revealed and judged (Midrash HaGadol).

    • Mark,
      I have read that the Nephite Interpreters were kept in a pocket in the breastplate (Largey, Book of Mormon Reference Companion, p. 773). Some say that they were made up of two triangular shaped (19th century “diamond”) stones prepared by the Lord and set in glass, one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David. See & states:
      Urim and Thummim: The Magen David is always shown as two triangles, interwoven. One possible explanation is that the two triangles represent a characterization of the Urim and Thummim. According to statements attributed to Joseph Smith, the Urim and Thummim were two triangular stones connected by a silver bow. One pointed up and the other pointed down. Superimposed they make a fascinating Magen David! Since the Urim and Thummin were revelatory tools, it is possible that they represent or operate on a simple principle of revelation. The answer is yes or no. “. . . study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right . . .” (Doctrine & Covenants 9:8)

      An Internet search indicates that Dr. Einar C. Erickson references “Dennis L. Largey, ed. Book of Mormon Reference Companion, Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, 2003, p. 773” on this but Largely doesn’t mention the stones as “one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David.” I looked it up in my copy of the Book of Mormon Reference Companion and that part isn’t there.

      Erickson quoted Largely at saying:

      The book by Lucy Mack Smith on the life of her outstanding son is a special source of things pertaining to the Urim and Thummim, as well as many other things. Lucy Mack Smith described the instrument as “consisting of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles’…David Whitmer also compared the Urim and Thummim to a pair of eyeglasses, but noted that ‘the bow between the stones was more heavy; and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find in spectacles’.” (Largey, p. 773) Lucy reported that the breastplate upon which this was fastened, “was concave on one side, and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of two of my fingers (for I measured them), and they had holes in the end of them, to be convenient in fastening.” (Lucy Smith p. 111; Largey, p. 773)
      “William Smith said the spectacles were attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened at the outer shoulder edge of the breastplate…this rod was just the right length so that when the Urim and Thummim was removed from before the eyes it would reach to a pocket on the left side of the breastplate where the instrument was kept when not in use.” (Largey, p. 773) William also described the bow as in the form of a figure 8. The breastplate was much too large for Joseph Smith who could only see through one stone at a time. (Largey, p. 774) Joseph was 200 pounds or more, and nearly six foot two inches tall. If the breastplate was too large for him, one can imagine the stature of the brother of Jared or even Shem or Methuselah if they had this particular instrument before. The subsequent history of the Jaredite instrument is unknown. The Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon is essentially about the life and descendants of Jared. If we had a similar record of Jared’s brother, much more may have become known about the instrument and how it was used and the great revelations it provided Mahonri Moriancumer. (Largey p. 463) Historically, others have also testified about the Urim and Thummim.

      Some understood the two triangle stones of celestial material, actually prepared by the Lord (Mosiah 28:13-14) ; Largey, p. 773) set in glass, one upright, the other on its tip, when superimposed one on the other to form the Star of David, an apt symbol of the Urim and Thummim. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris, were to testify that he had seen them. (D&C 17:2-5) attributes the idea to Daniel Rona. I have listened to him speak in the past so that’s probably where I’ve heard it.

      See also:

      Brant Gardner has indicated that the “Book of Mormon interpreters are distinct from the Old Testament urim and thummim, and both have undergone some elaborations in the telling/guessing. I suspect that some of the descriptions of the interpreters were informed by lore about the urim and thummim, just as the description urim and thummim became the name Urim and Thummim and applied indiscriminately to the seer stones and the interpreters.

      As for the traditions of the triangular shape, I would consider those later traditions. I don’t remember anything like that in Van Dam, Cornelis. The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997, which is an excellent source.

      I’m wondering if anyone has any more information on the Urim and Thummim – Magen David connection and where this came from?

      • As I was reading this fine article, I was thinking about Lucy Mack Smith’s description of the triangle diamonds and was expecting the information to be included in the article, but I am glad someone else brought it up. I know Lucy Mack Smith is not as highly regarded by some for having exactness in her account, but I have always found it useful.

  23. Very well done and informative. I have known about the stone for a while however this sheds much more light on the practice.

  24. An excellent article!

    The likelihood that Joseph did not refer to a KJV in translating those portions of the Book of Mormon that quote the Bible is very interesting in view of the similarities of many of those texts to the KJV. While Joseph may have been quite familiar with the Bible at the time, quoting Isaiah 11 word for word with no differences and with no reference materials might have been quite beyond him. That’d suggest the similarities with the KJV are not due to Joseph’s language alone – and likewise the more significant differences (aside from the likes of “or out of the waters of baptism”) were not at his initiative either.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

All comments are moderated to ensure respectful discourse. It is assumed that it is possible to disagree agreeably and intelligently and comments that intend to increase overall understanding are particularly encouraged. Individual authors are given the option to disallow commenting or end commenting after a certain period at their discretion.

Close this window

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This