Paul A. Douglas
12. We now know Joseph never used the Plates to translate the Book of Mormon. Rather he used a rock; he found while digging a well. What then was the point of the golden plates and the Urim and Thummim being preserved for 1,400 years, if never to be used in translation?
When I was growing up in the Mormon church, it was my understanding and firm belief that the Prophet Joseph Smith by earnestly examining each character on the gold plates, with the use of the Urim and Thummim, would, by the gift and power of God, be given its English word equivalent.
I don’t know why I held that view, but it was no doubt, something that I picked it up in Sunday school, Mutual, or maybe it was the pictures that in the Improvement Era or the Priesthood manuals that depicted it exactly that way. There are many things in the Mormon Church that one seems to acquire through a kind of comprehensive osmosis. It is assumed that you must know and accept certain things, which rather than exposing your doctrinal ignorance by seeking clarification you accept.
Like many members, it was much later that I learned the truth about the translation methodology, but not in church, the Era, or a Priesthood manual.
As absurd as it sounds, it was while watching an episode of South Park and it was hilarious!
Not only did Joseph NOT use the Urim and Thummim for the clear majority of the translation, but the gold plates themselves were not required. Just the magic stone and a hat.
I wonder if the prophets and other Book of Mormon characters would find the South Park episode quite so funny; after all the pains they allegedly went to in fashioning rare gold into plates, meticulously engraving ‘reformed Egyptian’ characters on them one at a time, abridging them, preserving them and finally transporting and burying them?
The following testify to the true method Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon:
“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness, the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus, the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.
I, as well as all of my father’s family, Smith’s wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation… He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation.” 1
“Sometime around 1822, before his first visit from the angel Moroni, Joseph was digging a well with Willard Chase, not far from the Smith home, and he discovered a smooth, dark-colored stone, about the size of an egg, that he called a seerstone. He later used it to help in the translation of the Book of Mormon and also in receiving certain revelations.” 2
“The process of translating the “reformed Egyptian” plates was simple though peculiar. It was all done with the Urim and Thummim spectacles, but it was instant death for any one but Joe to use them. Even when he put them on, the light became so dazzling that he was obliged to look through his hat. Moreover, when so engaged, no profane eyes were allowed to see him or the hat. Alone, behind a blanket stretched across the room, Joe looked into his hat and read the mystic words.” 3
“The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods.” 4
“A fellow by the name of Joseph Smith, who resides in the upper part of Susquehanna county, (sic) has been, for the last two years we are told, employed in dedicating as he says, by inspiration, a new bible. He pretended that he had been entrusted by God with a golden bible which had been always hidden from the world. Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed.” 5
A neighbor of the Smith’s, Lorenzo Saunders provided a statement in 1885 in which he alleged a conspiracy between Cowdery, Rigdon and, Smith in the creation of the Book of Mormon.
His statement reads:
“As respecting Oliver Cowdery, he came from Kirtland in the summer of 1826 and was about there [i.e. the Smith’s farm] until fall and took a school in the district where the Smiths lived and the next summer he was missing and I didn’t see him until fall and he came back and took our school in the district where we lived and taught about a week and went to the schoolboard and wanted the board to let him off and they did and he went to Smith and went to writing the Book of Mormon and wrote all winter. The Mormons say it wasn’t wrote there but I say it was because I was there. I saw Sidney Rigdon in the spring of 1827, about the middle of March. I went to Smiths to eat maple sugar, and I saw five or six men standing in a group and there was one among them better dressed than the rest and I asked Harrison Smith who he was and he said his name was Sidney Rigdon, a friend of Joseph’s from Pennsylvania.
I saw him in the Fall of 1827 on the road between where I lived and Palmyra, with Joseph. I was with a man by the name of Ingersol. They talked together and when he went on I asked Ingersol who he was and he said it was Rigdon. Then in the summer of 1828 I saw him at Samuel Lawrence’s just before harvest. I was cutting corn for Lawrence and went to dinner and he took dinner with us and when dinner was over they went into another room and I didn’t see him again till he came to Palmyra to preach. You wanted to know how Smith acted about it. The next morning after he claimed to have got plates he came to our house and said he had got the plates and what a struggle he had in getting home with them. Two men tackled him and he fought and knocked them both down and made his escape and secured the plates and had them safe and secure. He showed his thumb where he bruised it in fighting those men.
After [he] went from the house, my mother says ‘What a liar Joseph Smith is; he lies every word he says; I know he lies because he looks so guilty; he can’t see out of his eyes; how dare [he] tell such a lie as that.’ The time he claimed to have taken the plates from the hill was on the 22 day of September, in 1827, and I went on the next Sunday following with five or six other ones and we hunted the side hill by course [i.e. “in a search pattern”] and could not find no place where the ground had been broke. There was a large hole where the money diggers had dug a year or two before, but no fresh dirt. There never was such a hole; there never was any plates taken out of that hill nor any other hill in country, was in Wayne county. It is all a lie. No, sir, I never saw the plates nor no one else. He had an old glass box [i.e. a box used for holding plates or panes of glass] with a tile in it, about 7×8 inches, and that was the gold plates[;] and Martin Harris didn’t know a gold plate from a brick at this time.
Smith and Rigdon had an intimacy but it was very secret and still and there was a mediator between them and that was Cowdery. The manuscript was stolen by Rigdon and modelled over by him and then handed over to Cowdery and he copied them and Smith sat behind the curtain and handed them out to Cowdery and as fast as Cowdery copied them, they was handed over to Martin Harris and he took them to Egbert Granden [sic], the one who printed them, and Gilbert set the type.”
Lorenzo Saunders, Letter to Thomas Gregg, 28 January 1885, in
Charles A. Shook, The True Origins of the Book of Mormon,
(Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Co., 1914, p. 132-33).
It should be noted that the term “Urim and Thummim” is not found in the Book of Mormon and was the words were never used by Joseph Smith regarding the production the Book of Mormon until after 1833.
Ancient prophets went through all that effort of making, engraving, compiling, abridging, preserving, hiding, and transporting gold plates so that the gold plates would serve as a “maturing” and “build character” exercise for Joseph Smith. Or, was it to “provide as solid evidence” to Joseph’s 19th century New England treasure hunting magical thinking family and friends, and for Martin Harris to copy characters for Charles Anthon.
In other words, FAIR acknowledges and admits that the gold plates were not used for translating the Book of Mormon.
FairMormon’s Comments on the Method of Translation
Comment No. 1
Response to claim: Joseph Smith “used a rock; he found while digging a well” to translate the Book of Mormon
Question: Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
Many eyewitness accounts confirm that Joseph employed his seer stone during part of the translation process
Joseph was given a set of Nephite interpreters along with the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was produced. In addition, Joseph already possessed and utilized several seer stones. Although Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon using the Nephite interpreters, he later switched to using one of his seer stones to complete the translation. Critics (typically those who reject Mormonism but still believe in God) reject the idea that God would approve the use of an instrument for translation that had previously been used for “money digging.”
If one stops assuming that Joseph was a liar and deceiver, we can consider the matter from Joseph’s point of view:
He’s being called upon to reveal things that are hidden and to translate an ancient record.
Joseph is painfully aware that he cannot do these things.
How could Joseph know that he wasn’t going crazy or being delusional? Tying his early prophetic work to something with which he had already had objective success (the use of the seer stone) allowed Joseph to trust both God and himself.
The Lord seems to have used Joseph’s preexisting beliefs about how the world worked (The point is not necessarily that the stone had the same ability, but that it provided a means for Joseph to exercise his spiritual abilities.including seer stones to reveal hidden things) to help Joseph gain confidence in his own abilities.
With time, Joseph was able to translate with his “original” stone—thus, his own ability had increased, because he no longer needed the “stronger” Nephite stones.
Eventually, he did not require the “prop” or “crutch” of the stone at all—his faith and experience had grown.
FairMormon says, “If one stops assuming that Joseph was a liar and deceiver, we can consider the matter from Joseph’s point of view.”
That is a little silly if we are required just to accept Smith’s view of things this whole exercise becomes moot.
The ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ is an important element of the search for truth. It is only by reading texts between the lines, cataloging their omissions and laying bare their contradictions, that we can discover what is true.
Is it not be more reasonable to allow the reader to objectively look at the information I have provided and your comments on it and allow them to decide.
As well, your following statements seem to be saying that Joseph’s ‘treasure hunting rock’ is like a ‘security blanket?’
“He’s being called upon to reveal things that are hidden, and to translate an ancient record.”
“Joseph is painfully aware that he cannot do these things.”
“How could Joseph know that he wasn’t going crazy or being delusional? Tying his early prophetic work to something with which he had already had objective success (the use of the seer stone) allowed Joseph to trust both God and himself.”
“The Lord seems to have used Joseph’s preexisting beliefs about how the world worked (The point is not necessarily that the stone had the same ability, but that it provided a means for Joseph to exercise his spiritual abilities including seer stones to reveal hidden things) to help Joseph gain confidence in his own abilities.”
Ok, I now hear you now as saying that, the seer stone wasn’t that important to the translation process, just like the ‘gold plates’ themselves were not essential, nor the Urim and Thummim.
FairMormon now accepts the reality of the ‘rock in the hat’ methodology and moves the discussion to whether Smith was provided with the exact wording of every sentence in the Book of Mormon or simply given impressions which he then dictated within the context of his understanding?
Then in a statement reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s infamous, “What difference does it make!” response when pressed in the Benghazi hearing, those champions of truth at FairMormon reveal their frustration:
“Scholars have examined and debated the issue of a ‘tight’ versus ‘loose’ translation method for many years. Although it is an interesting intellectual exercise, the exact process by which words and sentences were formed has no bearing upon the fact that the book was dictated by the ‘gift and power of God.’ 6
I think that seeking to know what is true is more than just an interesting intellectual exercise. I think these things are important.
“The Lord provided a set of seer stones (which were formerly used by Nephite prophets) along with the plates. The term Nephite interpreters can alternatively refer to the stones themselves of the stones in conjunction with their associated paraphernalia (holding rim and breastplate). Sometime after the translation, early saints noticed similarities with the seer stones and related paraphernalia used by High Priests in the Old Testament and began to use the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreter sand Joseph’s other seer stones as well. The now popular use of the term Urim and Thummim has unfortunately obscured the fact that all such devices belong in the same class of consecrated revelatory aids and that more than one were used in the translation.”
“The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn’t take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest’s breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel), the Nephite breastplate was apparently non-essential to the revelatory process.”
Certainly, there was a change related to the use of the Urim and Thummim after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph rarely used the Urim and Thummim, opting for his magic seer stone.
Which begs the important question, that I don’t feel the apologists have dealt with; why was this wonderful apparatus preserved for 1,500 years to serve such a limited purpose?
Comment No. 2
The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. This is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name “Urim and Thummim.” In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.
That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone’s use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention than the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children’s magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):
OK, we need a reality check here. I am seventy years old, I grew up in the Church, and I believe that like many, perhaps most members I did not hear of the Magic stone in the hat method of translation until quite recently, certainly within the last decade.
It is a little silly for FairMormon to explain this away by saying, “no look we donated a line to it in the Children’s Friend in 1974.”
It should also be noted that Joseph would often correct his own translation on the fly. For example, Mosiah 7:8.
“…they were again brought before the king.. and were permitted or rather commanded that they should answer the questions.”
Are we to believe that this error came across Joseph’s magic rock? Remember he tells us words or sentences would appear, he would speak them to the scribe (usually Oliver Cowdery) who would read it back and only when verified would it disappear and another word or line appears.
Another example is Alma 10:”
“Nevertheless, after all this, I never have known much of the ways of the Lord, and his mysteries and marvelous power. I said I never had known much of these things; but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power; yea, even in the preservation of the lives of this people.”
Or, Alma 24:19
“And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth, they were firm, and would suffer even unto death rather than commit sin; and thus we see that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.”
A suspicious person would say that Joseph was working from an outline behind the curtain and simply misspoke.
I think you can see a pattern here in the way the Church approaches embarrassing issues in their past. It is their modus operandi. The formula being:
- Deny that the controversial or unsavory thing ever happened or was ever said
- Acknowledge the thing, but deny that it is relevant or any kind of big deal
- Acknowledge its relevance, but say it’s just old news that’s been around forever
When rumors of Smith rock in the hat stories started to make the rounds we witness:
- The Denial
In 2000, Joseph Fielding McConkie (son of Bruce R. McConkie) and Craig J. Ostler, both employed by BYU wrote an essay titled, “The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon in which they wrote:
“Thus, everything we have in the Book of Mormon, according to Mr. Whitmer, was translated by placing the chocolate-colored stone in a hat into which Joseph would bury his head so as to close out the light. While doing so he could see ‘an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear,’ and below the ancient writing, the translation would be given in English. Joseph would then read this to Oliver Cowdery, who in turn would write it. If he did so correctly, the characters and the interpretation would disappear and be replaced by other characters with their interpretation.”
“…the testimony of David Whitmer simply does not accord with the divine pattern. If Joseph Smith translated everything that is now in the Book of Mormon without using the gold plates, we are left to wonder why the plates were necessary in the first place. It will be remembered that possession of the plates placed the Smith family in considerable danger, causing them a host of difficulties. If the plates were not part of the translation process, this would not have been the case. It also leaves us wondering why the Lord directed the writers of the Book of Mormon to take a duplicate record of the plates of Lehi. This provision which compensated for the loss of the 116 pages would have served no purpose either.
Further, we would be left to wonder why it was necessary for Moroni to instruct Joseph each year for four years before he was entrusted with the plates. We would also wonder why it was so important for Moroni to show the plates to the three witnesses, including David Whitmer. And why did the Lord have the Prophet show the plates to the eight witnesses? Why all this flap and fuss if the Prophet didn’t really have the plates and if they were not used in the process of translation?
What David Whitmer is asking us to believe is that the Lord had Moroni seal up the plates and the means by which they were to be translated hundreds of years before they would come into Joseph Smith’s possession and then decided to have the Prophet use a seer stone found while digging a well so that none of these things would be necessary after all. Is this, we would ask, really a credible explanation of the way the heavens operate?”
2. Acknowledge the thing, but deny that it is relevant or any kind of big deal.
Once it was blatantly clear the ‘Rock in the Hat’ could no longer be denied, the next step was to discount its importance, as this statement by FairMormon illustrated:
“The conclusion that Joseph used a “magical” or “occult” stone to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon is entirely dependent upon one’s own preconception that the use of such an instrument would not be acceptable by God. Believers, on the other hand, ought not to take issue with a distinction between one set of seer stones versus another. As Brant Gardner notes: “Regardless of the perspective from which we tell the story, the essential fact of the translation is unchanged. How was the Book of Mormon translated? As Joseph continually insisted, the only real answer, from any perspective, is that it was translated by the gift and power of God.”
And then the gaslighting.
3. Acknowledge its relevance, but say it’s just old news that’s been around forever
“The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. This is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name “Urim and Thummim.” In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.
That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone’s use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention than the process.” Again it was mentioned in the Children’s Friend.