Thursday, September 1, 2022

Analysis: The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation

One of the most fundamental truth claims of the Restoration is the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, including its origin as a translation of ancient Nephite records. That truth claim was challenged in the early days of the Church by critics (such as E.D. Howe in Mormonism Unvailed) who claimed Joseph Smith didn't really translate anything but instead 

    (i) read words that appeared on a "peep stone" (the "stone-in-the-hat" narrative, aka SITH) or 

    (ii) read a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding. 

Critics continue employ the same arguments against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. But recently, several faithful LDS scholars have embraced the SITH narrative; i.e., they agree with the critics that Joseph didn't actually translate the engravings on the plates. 

They differ from the critics only in asserting that the words on the stone were from a divine source instead of from a human or malevolent source, as claimed by critics. 

The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, as of 1 September 2022, accommodates the SITH narrative. I propose that it be revised or edited to provide Latter-day Saints and other interested readers an accurate resource with a range of alternative interpretations of the historical evidence.


The introduction to the Gospel Topics Essays quotes D&C 88:118 and explains that "Seeking ‘out of the best books’ does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources."

The essays were originally intended “to provide accurate and transparent information on church history and doctrine within the framework of faith…” Leaders were told that “When church members have questions regarding [LDS] history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.”

However, the essay as currently published does not provide accurate and transparent information because it deliberately omits what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim (U&T) that came with the plates.

Readers deserve to be informed about what Joseph and Oliver taught, even though their claims contradict the currently popular “stone-in-the-hat” (SITH) narrative.

The current version of the essay is also misleading in several respects because it is carefully worded to accommodate the SITH narrative. Rather than acknowledge the irreconcilable contradiction between the SITH narrative and what Joseph and Oliver taught, the essay simply

(i)                  omits what Joseph and Oliver taught and

(ii)                tries to dodge the conflict by redefining the term Urim and Thummim to include the seer stone, contrary to the plain meaning of what Joseph and Oliver taught. 

To fulfill the stated purpose of the essay, at a minimum the essay should

(i)                  quote what Joseph and Oliver taught

(ii)                acknowledge the conflict between the SITH and U&T narratives, and

(iii)               outline multiple alternative reconciliations. Among these are the redefinition of terms approach and the evidence that the seer stone accounts originated with a demonstration rather than the actual translation process.


The table below includes commentary on the essay.

Gospel Topics Essay


Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other Book.”1 The Book of Mormon came into the world through a series of miraculous events.

The footnote explains this quotation comes from Wilford Woodruff’s journal, so it would be better to explain that “Wilford Woodruff reported that Joseph Smith taught that the Book of Mormon was ‘the most correct…’.”

In the 1800s, Woodruff’s summary was converted into a first-person quotation attributed to Joseph Smith. Inexplicably, the fake quotation remains in the official Introduction to the Book of Mormon.


Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.

This is an ideal aspiration, but as we’ll see below, the essay doesn’t follow through because instead of offering “a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith” and his scribes, the essay omits those statements and focuses on others.

Joseph Smith reported that on the evening of September 21, 1823, while he prayed in the upper room of his parents’ small log home in Palmyra, New York, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared and told Joseph that “God had a work for [you] to do.”2

Readers should know that the first and most reliable and authoritative identification of the messenger as Moroni was in Cowdery’s Letter VI, written in 1835 when Cowdery was Assistant President of the Church and with the assistance of Joseph Smith.

The quotation is from what is now Joseph Smith—History 1:33. That verse identifies the angel as Moroni.

The original version was published in the Times and Seasons on 15 April 1842.  There, the angel who visited was identified as Nephi. Lucy Mack Smith’s history quoted the Times and Seasons, also identifying the angel as Nephi. 

Some have wondered why the compilers of this history would have identified the angel as “Nephi” and why Joseph, supposedly the active editor of the Times and Seasons when this account was published, would not have “corrected” the identification. One reason could be that Joseph was merely the nominal editor; i.e., someone else was the actual editor. (That’s what I think the evidence shows. ) Another could be that the compilers knew Joseph interacted with both Moroni and Nephi and weren’t sure which one appeared in 1823.

Brigham Young taught that Joseph had interactions with Nephi (one of the unnamed three Nephites from 3 Nephi 28) as well as with Moroni.

One such incident can be pieced together from the historical record. Before leaving Harmony in May/June 1829, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger he later identified as “one of the Nephites.” The same messenger later showed the Fayette plates to Mary Whitmer. She said he identified himself as Brother Nephi.

He informed Joseph that “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang.”



Readers should know that the earliest explanation was in Cowdery’s Letter IV, which states that the messenger “said this history was written and deposited not far from that place [the Smith farm near Palmyra], and that it was [Joseph’s] privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.”

The book could be found in a hill not far from the Smith family farm.

This is an uncredited paraphrase of President Cowdery’s 1835 Letter IV, in which Moroni tells Joseph “this history was written and deposited not far from that place [the Smith family farm near Palmyra].” Letter IV gives additional details from this visit that relate to the translation, but these details are omitted in this essay. The angel “proceeded and gave a general account of the promises made to the fathers, and also gave a history of the aborigenes of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham…. He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place, and that it was our brother’s privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.



Readers deserve to know that during his first visit, Moroni told Joseph “the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place.”

Oliver declared it was a fact that the hill Cumorah in New York is the same as the hill Cumorah in Mormon 6:6.

This was no ordinary history, for it contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel as delivered by the Savior.”3

This is another quotation from Joseph Smith—History 1:34.

Inexplicably, the next verse, 35, is never quoted or cited in the essay. That verse explains what accompanied the plates: “Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”

The angel charged Joseph Smith to translate the book from the ancient language in which it was written.

This is an inaccurate, misleading paraphrase of what Moroni said because it omits Moroni’s explanation that Joseph would translate the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. The Urim and Thummim was specifically prepared for a seer to translate the unknown language.

The essay should quote, or at least cite, the actual source.

“Moroni said] that it was [Joseph’s] privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.”


The young man, however, had very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language, known in the Book of Mormon as “reformed Egyptian.”4

Joseph’s formal education was limited to three years, but he knew the many Biblical passages Moroni quoted well enough to discern that Moroni had quoted some exactly and changed the wording in other passages. Joseph was also “intimately familiar” with Christian doctrines and writings.

Joseph’s wife Emma insisted that, at the time of translation, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”5

Actually, Joseph wrote a letter to his uncle Jesse before he translated the Book of Mormon. Jesse said it looked like it had been written by a prophet. A letter Joseph wrote to Oliver shortly after the translation was complete is both coherent and well worded, and it does not merely repeat Book of Mormon language.

Emma purportedly related this statement to her son, Joseph Smith III, shortly before she died in 1879 (50 years after Joseph translated the plates). The account was published after her death. Emma never publicly acknowledged the statement. Plus, her statement doesn’t make sense because Joseph did dictate the book.

Joseph received the plates in September 1827 and the following spring, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, began translating them in earnest, with Emma and his friend Martin Harris serving as his main scribes.

Good as is, except it is misleading because he didn’t receive the plates by themselves. Readers should know about two key scriptural passages: “At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate.” (Joseph Smith—History 1:59)

“immediately after my arrival [in Pennsylvania] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following. (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

The resulting English transcription, known as the Book of Lehi and referred to by Joseph Smith as written on 116 pages, was subsequently lost or stolen. As a result, Joseph Smith was rebuked by the Lord and lost the ability to translate for a short time.6

The essay doesn’t explain what “lost the ability to translate” means, but Lucy Mack Smith explained that Joseph had to give up the Urim and Thummim after losing the 116 pages.

Later, Joseph told her that “on the 22d of September [1828], I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim; and have commenced translating again, and Emma writes for me; but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified. He also seemed pleased with me, when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim; and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.

“Soon after I received them I inquired of the Lord, and obtained the following revelation”:

“Now, behold I say unto you, that, because <you> delivered up those writings, which you had power given you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them; and you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened;”  

Notice how the Urim and Thummim was directly linked to Joseph’s ability to translate throughout this incident. The essay explains none of this; it merely says Joseph “lost the ability to translate for a short time.”

Joseph began translating again in 1829, and almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June of that year.

David Whitmer said it took 8 months. Joseph said he started translating in the fall of 1828 after he received the record and the Urim and Thummim back. Some portion or all of the Book of Mosiah was translated before Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony in April.

His chief scribe during these months was Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher from Vermont who learned about the Book of Mormon while boarding with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra. Called by God in a vision, Cowdery traveled to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and investigate further.


Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.”7

This truncated quotation omits a key teaching relevant to the topic.

Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’

(Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

The manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives.8 This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript.9 In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.10


Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph Smith to be, in substance, a final product.


To assist in the publication of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript. Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods, commas, or question marks, as he dictated, such marks are not in the original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks when he prepared the text for the printer.11 With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed edition of the book.12


Translation Instruments


Many accounts in the Bible show that God transmitted revelations to His prophets in a variety of ways. Elijah learned that God spoke not to him through the wind or fire or earthquake but through a “still small voice.”13 Paul and other early Apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ.14 At other times, revelation came in the form of dreams or visions, such as the revelation to Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, or through sacred objects like the Urim and Thummim.15


Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people. For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments.


Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon.

This is a deliberately misleading sentence. Joseph never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim.

Oliver Cowdery, his main scribe for all but a few pages of the Book of Mormon we have today, never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim.

Another scribe, John Whitmer, also spoke only of the Urim and Thummim.

That leaves only Martin Harris and Emma Smith as scribes, but Martin never wrote about the translation, and Emma wrote only a brief letter in which she mentioned two instruments. Additional statements of varying reliability have been attributed to Martin and Emma but were not written by them.

According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.

This is by definition hearsay because the only person who looked into the instruments was Joseph Smith. We have no record of a direct statement by Joseph about what he saw or how he used the instruments, except that he used them to translate.

The witness statements reflect inference, assumption, and conjecture.

Furthermore, these witnesses could not have seen the actual translation because Joseph was forbidden to show them either the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, the evidence suggests they merely observed a demonstration. All of their statements are consistent with having observed a demonstration, not the actual translation of the plates

One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.16

This is another misleading statement, designed to imply that the term “Urim and Thummim” was an invented term.

The “interpreters” were “better known” during Joseph’s time as the “Urim and Thummim” because Joseph himself referred to the Nephite interpreters as the “Urim and Thummim,” as is plain throughout Joseph Smith—History and his other accounts of Moroni’s visit. The essay consistently evades that important point. Furthermore, they were not “buried.” They were “deposited” in a stone box. “Buried” implies a false connection with “buried treasure.”]

Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”17

Important: this is the only instrument that Oliver and Joseph ever said that Joseph used during the translation.

As indicated in the footnote, some scholars assume it was W.W. Phelps who coined the term “Urim and Thummim” for the interpreters because Phelps’ article in the 1833 Evening and Morning Star was thought to be the earliest extant published account that uses that term. However, Phelps’ article is also consistent with prior use of the term, whether verbal or printed; i.e., Phelps was providing an explanation of the term for readers who were familiar with the Bible.

However, the first known published use of the term “Urim and Thummim” that refers to the Nephite interpreters was reported on August 5, 1832, when Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith told an audience in Boston that the translation “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.”  Of course, Orson and Samuel undoubtedly heard that from someone else—presumably Joseph or Oliver.

Letter IV portrays Moroni telling Joseph that it was his privilege “to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.” When Oliver wrote these letters, he explained he was using original documents then in their possession. He could have referred to the notebook he kept during the translation process, in which he recorded the things Joseph told him. In other words, it could have been Moroni, not W.W. Phelps, who first identified the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim.

The footnote observes that Joseph “most often used the term “Urim and Thummim,” but does not explain that we have no record of Joseph ever using the term “seer stone” to explain his translation of the Book of Mormon.

The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”18

Here the essay thinks past the sale by describing the “seer stone” as an instrument used for the translation, contrary to what Joseph and Oliver expressly taught.

As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.19 

Joseph and Oliver both jokingly acknowledged the allegations, but neither stated, suggested, or implied it was anything as extensive as the critics claim.

As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.20

The last sentence is pure speculation, portrayed here as fact. There are no historical records in which Joseph says or implies anything like this.

Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.

This is also pure speculation, portrayed as fact. Neither Joseph nor Oliver ever said he used one seer stone to translate the text. Others claimed they observed Joseph dictating words, but none of them reported what the words were.  No one quoted Joseph saying he was translating the plates during these occasions. These accounts are consistent with people who observed a demonstration and inferred it was the actual translation. But they also said Joseph did not use the Urim and Thummim or the plates, so by their own admission, they did not observe what Joseph and Oliver claimed about the actual translation.

These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.21

Although the essay claims Joseph and his associates “often” used the term to refer to a seer stone, the footnote gives only one example, and that example doesn’t support the claim.

Over a decade after the translation, on December 27, 1841, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal “The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the seer + he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God the privileges + blessings of the priesthood + I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.” 


Woodruff does not describe the object, leaving historians to surmise he was referring to the seer stone so many people reported seeing Joseph use years previously. But Joseph had given that stone to Oliver Cowdery. Besides, if Woodruff was referring to the seer stone that many people had already seen, he doesn’t explain why it was such a privilege.


Brigham Young recorded the same occasion differently.


“I met with the Twelve at brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone. “


This quotation contradicts the main thesis of SITH. Brigham Young made an explicit distinction between "the Urim and Thummim which he [Joseph] found with the plates," and the "seer stone" Joseph had, which Joseph displayed to explain that "every man who lived on earth was entitled to" such a seer stone. Every man on earth was not entitled to the Urim and Thummim that Joseph found with the plates.


Woodruff didn’t mention two separate objects. His statement can be interpreted several ways, including the possibility that he didn’t care much about the seer stone but was impressed because Joseph still had the actual Urim and Thummim.

On February 19, 1842, Woodruff recorded in his journal that “the Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim Ancient records.”


Lucy Mack Smith wrote that “Joseph kept the Urim and Thummim constantly about his person.” She was writing about an event that occurred in 1827, but Joseph Smith—History 1:60, he says nothing about him delivering the Urim and Thummim to the messenger.


Years later, Heber C. Kimball declared in General Conference that Brigham Young had the Urim and Thummim. Some say this referred to a seer stone, which is possible. But it is also congruent with Woodruff’s journal entry to infer that what Woodruff saw and what Brigham Young possessed was the Urim and Thummim that Joseph obtained with the plates.


All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors in Church leadership, including Brigham and Wilford, taught that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. None said or implied that he used a seer stone instead

In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined.22 Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters.

Joseph’s contemporaries and successors all understood the term this way, but Joseph’s history shows it was Moroni who identified the interpreters as Urim and Thummim. JS-H 1:52.

Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.

“Seem to have understood” is mindreading—and unsupportable historical revisionism. By 1843, usage had developed this way (D&C 130:8-10), but not before Nauvoo.


In 1834, there was no confusion about the two terms. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed spelled out the two distinct and alternative explanations for the translation: SITH and U&T.

In response to Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith declared unequivocally that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. They published Letter I (now the footnote to Joseph Smith—History 1:71 that we discussed above). Thereafter, Joseph and Oliver consistently taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors did likewise. There are no known instances in which Joseph or Oliver used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to anything Joseph used for the translation of the Book of Mormon except the instrument Moroni put in the stone box.

Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpentholy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.23

These examples of divinely prepared instruments demonstrate that the Urim and Thummim was not a generic term applying to ordinary rocks, but instead referred to a specially prepare instrument, carefully preserved along with the plates.

The Mechanics of Translation


In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.”

This excerpt is misleading because it falsely portrays Joseph as saying merely that he “translated” “by the gift and power of God.”

However, in the balance of his statement, which the essay omits, Joseph explains the source: “the which I took from the Book of Lehi,” referring to the plates.

He did not say “the which I read on a stone.”

When read in context, Joseph unambiguously explained that he translated the plates.

When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”24 and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”25

This is another misleading rephrasing of the original source.

The record does not show that Joseph was “pressed for specifics about the process of translation.” He was asked about “the coming forth of the book of Mormon” which involved more than the translation, such as Joseph being tutored by divine messengers (including Moroni and Nephi), details about the plates, the breastplate, and the interpreters, information about the repository in the hill Cumorah, whether there was only one or more sets of plates, or even where the Title Page was published.


While this 1831 statement could have also referred to the manner of translation, those present at the meeting did not apparently understand it that way. David Whitmer and Martin Harris were both present, and both later discussed details about the translation. If Joseph meant “it is not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the translation of the Book of Mormon,” then these two men violated Joseph’s instructions. There is no record of anyone stating that Joseph told them not to talk about the mechanics of the translation.


For that matter, after 1831 both Joseph and Oliver provided more details about the process of translation when they testified that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process.

This statement simply assumes these non-scribe witnesses saw the actual translation, even though their testimony directly contradicts what Joseph, Oliver, and John Whitmer said.


If we accept what Joseph and Oliver said, then whatever the witnesses observed regarding SITH was not the translation.

Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone.

This analysis conflates the accounts and redefines “Urim and Thummim” to include the seer stone.


Joseph said he studied the characters (JS-H 1:62). Joseph and Oliver consistently said that Joseph translated the plates with the U&T that Moroni put in the stone box. Neither of them ever said or implied that Joseph used a seer stone.


Other observers who described SITH may or may not have observed the translation. They did not record what words they heard Joseph dictate, so we can’t tell what parts, if any, of the text they thought they witnessed being translated.


Dan Vogel, a critic of Joseph Smith, agrees with the anonymous authors of this essay.


“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.”


I agree with Vogel that SITH conflicts with the official history, as well as every other statement Joseph and Oliver made.


But I disagree with Vogel—and this Gospel Topics Essay—when they claim the other witnesses observed Joseph translating the Book of Mormon.

According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.26

Here again, the essay simply assumes the witnesses were describing the actual translation of the Book of Mormon instead of a demonstration.

The essay’s footnote claims two Apostles have written accounts of the translation process, but each involve isolated quotations from the historical record, not rejections of what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Urim and Thummim.


Elder Maxwell wrote, “The Prophet Joseph alone knew the full process, and he was deliberately reluctant to describe details. We take passing notice of the words of David Whitmer, Joseph Knight, and Martin Harris, who were observers, not translators…. Oliver Cowdery is reported to have testified in court that the Urim and Thummim enabled Joseph ‘to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.’”


This statement by Oliver is consistent with everything else he taught; i.e., that Joseph translated the characters with the Urim and Thummim.


Many years before becoming President of the Church, Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote, “The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights.” He then quoted David Whitmer and Emma Smith without further comment.


These statements are “precious insights,” but insights into what? David and Emma apparently coordinated their statements more than 40 years after the events. Both focused on SITH to refute the Spalding theory.

The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”27

The passage in Alma (37:21-25) refers twice to “interpreters,” but that was a change made in the 1920 edition. Earlier editions, including the original 1830 edition, used the term “directors” instead. That suggests a meaning different from the “interpreters” mentioned in Ether 4:5 and Mosiah 8 and 28, to which Oliver Cowdery referred in Letter 1 (“the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters’”).


The scriptural phrase doesn’t necessarily refer to shining words appearing on a stone.

Consider the other instances of the phrase “shine forth” in the scriptures. “Thou shalt shine forth” (Job 11:17). “Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth” (Psalms 80:1). “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun” (Matthew 13:43). “The King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men” (Alma 5:50). “Then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:25). “It shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness” (Mormon 8:16). “Prepare them [stones] that they may shine forth in darkness” (Ether 3:4). “Thy church may… shine forth” (D&C 109:73. “Arise and shine forth…” (D&C 115:5).

The teachings of the Book of Mormon themselves “shine forth” regardless of the method of translation.

The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”28

Emma never specified when she wrote or what portion of the text she recorded. She apparently acted as scribe before Martin Harris arrived in 1828, before Oliver Cowdery arrived in 1829, and at the Whitmer home in Fayette. In her 1870 letter, she wrote, “Now the first that my husband translated was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.” This implies Joseph did not use the U&T after the 116 pages were lost.

However, Joseph said Emma wrote for him after he recovered the U&T in 1828 (they had been taken because of the lost 116 pages). Lucy Mack Smith wrote in her history that while Joseph and Oliver were working in Harmony, Joseph applied the Urim and Thummim to his eyes and looked on the plates.

It doesn’t make sense to conclude that Joseph received the U&T back in September 1828 so he could resume translating, only to not use the U&T with Emma but then to begin using it with Oliver starting in April 1829.

Emma apparently wrote part of 2 Nephi in Fayette when Joseph demonstrated the process with a stone in a hat. That could have provided the basis for her statements 40+ years later, especially if she sought to counter the Spalding theory.

According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”

This statement has been taken to mean Joseph never used the plates during the translation, but that is not what it says. Joseph had to leave the plates somewhere when he wasn’t using them. That doesn’t mean he didn’t actually use them when he translated. This is not complicated.

When asked if Joseph had dictated from the Bible or from a manuscript he had prepared earlier, Emma flatly denied those possibilities: “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.”

This is part of the refutation of the Spalding theory, which was the original purpose for the interview. Emma volunteered her comments about the manner of translation; they were not in response to specific questions from her son.

Emma told her son Joseph Smith III, “The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”29

If Joseph was translating the plates, he naturally would have resumed the translation where he ended it, with no need of seeing the manuscript to jog his memory.

Another scribe, Martin Harris sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, “Written.”

After he would say “Written,” Martin claimed that “if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”


The reference to the engravings on the plates is consistent with the language of D&C 10.

Martin’s statement seems to imply a literal translation, but Joseph said only that the Title Page was a literal translation.


Martin never claimed to have seen what Joseph saw when he translated. He also didn’t claim that Joseph told him what he saw. Instead, Martin apparently made this claim based on his own inference of what occurred. This statement has led some to conclude that the translation was “tightly controlled,” but we do not have the 116 pages to see if there were misspellings and other errors of the type present in the OM.

Martin wrote the 116 pages, so the process may have been different for the translation we have today.]

An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph “possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”30

The essay’s footnote here points out that Martin Harris recognized the distinction between the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) and the seer stone. Like his contemporaries, Martin didn’t use the term to apply to both. Of course, Martin’s statement here contradicts Emma’s statement that Joseph used the stone only after the 116 pages were lost. Martin’s first statement about the seer stone was published in 1881, six years after Martin’s death in 1875, and after David and Emma had used the seer stone scenario to refute the Spalding theory.]

The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.”31

This is consistent with every statement by Joseph and Oliver about the translation, although it contradicts the SITH narrative.

In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.”32

This report has Joseph looking on the engraving instead of having the plates resting nearby under a cloth. This is consistent with what Lucy Mack Smith wrote about how Joseph translated the plates. The phrase “two transparent stones” is the description always given of the Nephite interpreters.]



Joseph Smith consistently testified that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” His scribes shared that testimony. The angel who brought news of an ancient record on metal plates buried in a hillside and the divine instruments prepared especially for Joseph Smith to translate were all part of what Joseph and his scribes viewed as the miracle of translation. When he sat down in 1832 to write his own history for the first time, he began by promising to include “an account of his marvelous experience.”33 The translation of the Book of Mormon was truly marvelous.

The term “buried” is ahistorical and implies a false connection to “buried treasure.” Moroni explained that the plates were “deposited.”

The truth of the Book of Mormon and its divine source can be known today. God invites each of us to read the book, remember the mercies of the Lord and ponder them in our hearts, “and ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” God promises that “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”34


The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.





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