Friday, December 29, 2023

The obsolete Gospel Topics Essays

The Gospel Topics Essays on Book of Mormon Translation and Geography have always been notorious for the way they studiously avoid the clear, direct and unmistakable statements by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on these topics. This is now more obvious than ever because of a recent announcement on the Church's website that renders those essays obsolete, as anyone can see.

In December the Church announced a new resource called "Topics and Questions" which replaces "Gospel Topics."

This is a significant improvement. We will see many changes if the concept and methodology permeates all Gospel instruction and study throughout the Church.

Topics and Questions "provides resources for those seeking answers and for helping others with their gospel questions." The link is here:

The new resource offers two categories of principles based on "Helping Others with Questions" and "Seeking Answers to Questions." 

This resource is congruent with the Institute course "Answering Gospel Questions" that I've been teaching online. 

One of the principles under "Seeking Answers to Questions" is "Consult Reliable Sources." Here's the link:

The following excerpt shows the aspirations of the new approach. When we compare this aspiration to the reality of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation and the short article on geography we see that the essays need a lot of work. 

The Translation essay violates every one of the principles outlined in the following excerpt. Instead of quoting and citing what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said about the translation, the essay quotes and cites the speculative opinions of certain modern scholars.

We can hope that in 2024, this essay, along with others we've discussed, will be revised according to the principles set out in "Seeking Answers."

Original in blue, my comments in red.

Consult Reliable Sources

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Never in the history of the world have we had easier access to more information—some of it true, some of it false, and much of it partially true.”1 In this environment of uncertainty, the Church urges members to “seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information.”2 We should avoid sources that are founded on rumor or that promote contention or anger.

Learning to assess the quality of our sources of information involves both spiritual and intellectual work. Here are some tips for evaluating information:

  • Evaluate the reliability of sources. Not all sources are of equal value on all topics. The best sources will have direct knowledge of a topic instead of relying on hearsay, rumor, or innuendo. They will speak from a position of direct knowledge or expertise. 

[Comment. The Translation essay omits the best sources about the translation; i.e., what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said. These two men had direct knowledge. Their statements are not hearsay related decades after the events, but explicit, clear, and unmistakable explanations of the translation, published in an environment of criticism and false claims. Omitting their statements is a direct, obvious defiance of the new guidance. At a minimum, the revised Translation essay must include the full published statements of Joseph and Oliver regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon.]

  • They will refer to other reputable sources so you can check their claims. Reliable sources will not always affirm what you already think. They may challenge your views. If you have questions about official Church teachings, look first at what current Church leaders have and have not said. This will help you evaluate other, earlier statements.

[Comment. This principle brings an element of irony to the discussion. The reliable sources of Joseph and Oliver will definitely not "affirm what you already think" if you've succumbed to the SITH narrative (stone-in-the-hat) or M2C (the Mesoamerican/two Cumorahs narrative.]

  • Learn to recognize bias. Almost all sources have some bias. This does not automatically make them unreliable, but it is important to take the source creator’s perspective into account. Examine your source’s motives and background. Be wary of sources that claim to be unbiased or that express views in inflammatory ways.

[Comment. The obvious problem with the Gospel Topics Essays is that they are anonymous. It is literally impossible to recognize the bias of an anonymous source that neither admits nor explains any bias. Since the Gospel Topics Essays were originally published, we've wondered why they authors did not explain their bias. We've had to infer that the authors sought to accommodate M2C and SITH because there is no other apparent explanation for why they omitted the direct, explicit teachings of Joseph, Oliver and their successors regarding both Cumorah and the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. We infer that their motives involve their background as intellectuals who have promoted M2C and SITH. Revised essays that acknowledge the principle of recognizing bias will surely correct this fundamental error.] 

  • Corroborate what you learn. It is significant when multiple reliable sources agree or speak with clarity on a topic. This is especially true when studying sources discussing Church history and teachings. Though it is not always possible to find this kind of agreement among sources, it is helpful to compare information from different sources so you can better assess their quality.

[Comment. The teachings of Joseph and Oliver about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon are not only clear and consistent, but they are corroborated by the teachings of their peers and successors in Church leadership. Readers of the current versions of the essays would never know this because the essays omit what Joseph, Oliver and their successors taught about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon.]

  • Distinguish facts from interpretation. Some pieces of information are facts. But much of what we encounter on the internet and in other publications consists of someone’s interpretation of the facts. The best interpretations try to account for all the facts. They consider specific details or facts in broader context and give them proper weight. They don’t simply dismiss information that doesn’t agree with a particular point of view. Check the sources used to make a particular interpretation to ensure they support the claims being made and are not taken out of context.

[Comment. This is one of the most glaring errors in the Translation and Geography essays. Both are replete with interpretations by scholars who promote M2C and SITH, and both lack authentic historical facts taught by Joseph and Oliver. They link to third-hand accounts and speculations of scholars instead of to authentic published statements by Joseph and Oliver and their successors.]


For anyone unfamiliar with the problems with the Gospel Topics Essays, I've discussed the subject several times.

Here is a brief summary of the issues.

1. Essay on geography. The obvious omission in the geography essay is that it completely omits (aka censors, or decorrelates) the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah in New York, including those listed here:

Church leaders have always been clear about two things: (i) The Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York, and (ii) we don't know the location of other settings. These twin teachings are well established and are corroborated by extrinsic scientific evidence. 

Omitting these teachings from the essay is confusing to Latter-day Saints and others interested in the Restoration. The only conceivable rationale for omitting these teachings is to accommodate the M2C theory (Mesoamerican/two Cumorahs theory) promoted by certain RLDS and LDS scholars, who explicitly reject the teachings of the prophets. Which is fine. People can believe and teach whatever they want. But obfuscating the issue by censoring the teachings of the prophets is the antithesis of clarity, charity and understanding. 

Revising the obsolete essay will go far to promoting clarity, charity and understanding among all those interested in the Restoration.

2. Essay on Translation. The obvious omission in the translation essay is that it completely omits (aka censors, or decorrelates) the teachings of the prophets about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

In the Preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote:

As  many  false  reports  have  been  circulated  respec­ting  the  following  work,  and  also  many  unlawful  mea­sures  taken  by  evil  designing  persons  to  destroy  me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon.

The "many false reports" circulated consisted of the article by Jonathan Hadley that related SITH in Hadley's effort to ridicule the Book of Mormon. In the Preface, Joseph explicitly states that he translated the text that he took from the Book of Lehi and not from a stone (or spectacles) in a hat. 

Joseph and Oliver repeatedly explained that Joseph translated the engravings by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, but the essay on Translation neither quotes nor cites what they taught. 

The obsolete essay can be easily edited to provide the complete list of statements by Joseph and Oliver. If the authors decide to repudiate those teachings in favor of SITH, they should at least do so overtly and clearly so everyone can see their bias and agenda instead of avoiding the issue by omitting those teachings.

Monday, December 4, 2023

The Urim and Thummim narratives

My book Infinite Goodness includes a section on the Urim and Thummim. It's a useful overview of the narratives about the Urim and Thummim that I want to be able to refer to people, so I'm posting that section from the book here, with an additional link not in the book.


Urim and Thummim.
Jonathan Edwards’ observations about the “Urim and Thummim” may shed light on some unresolved questions in Church history.

Throughout this book, we’ve noted alternative faithful narratives for the Book of Mormon: translation (U&T) vs. vision (SITH). Statements by both Joseph and Oliver suggest it was Moroni who used the term “Urim and Thummim” when explaining the existence of the plates and how Joseph would translate them. For example,


He also informed me that the Urim & Thummim was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it with the assistance of this instrument; he then gradually vanished out of my sight or the vision closed.[1]


However, neither the text of the Book of Mormon nor any extant documentation prior to 1832 refers by name to the Urim and Thummim. The text refers to “interpreters” while early documentation refers to “spectacles.” This leaves believers to speculate about the origin of the term as applied to the Nephite interpreters/spectacles, particularly Moroni’s use of a biblical term that involved a much different relic.

The earliest known published account of the translation is from August 11, 1829, six weeks after the translation was completed in the Palmyra Freeman. The article titled “Golden Bible” included this passage:

Its proselytes give the following account… By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret the characters.[2]

This article was republished in the Niagara Courier on August 27, 1829, the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph on August 31, 1829, and the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph on September 22, 1829.

A separate article published in Rochester on September 5, 1829, directly attributes the account to Martin Harris.

A man by the name of Martin Harris was in this village a few days since endeavoring to make a contract for printing a large quantity of a work called the Golden Bible. He gave something like the following account of it.... By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language.[3]

The reliability and precision of these early accounts (“he gave something like”) is questionable. No one could have seen Joseph put the Urim and Thummim into a hat because Joseph had been forbidden from displaying the interpreters until the translation was complete. That’s why Joseph used a stone during the demonstration.

Perhaps Martin said “stone” and the reporter conflated it with prior accounts about the “spectacles.” Whether and how much earlier events, rumors, and misunderstanding influenced these newspaper articles is impossible to say.

In his 1832 History, Joseph Smith wrote “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore.” His scribe Frederick G. Williams continued the sentence: “I commenced translating the characters.”[4] Translating characters isn’t merely reading words off a stone in a hat.

That Joseph did not use the term “Urim and Thummim” in the 1832 history does not mean that the term was not in circulation at that point. “Spectacles” is a shorter and more descriptive term, perhaps more appropriate in the brief 1832 history.

Joseph had apparently used the term Urim and Thummim at least by the time he wrote his 1832 history. The earliest known documented historical reference connecting the “Urim and Thummim” to the Book of Mormon dates to August 1832, roughly concurrent with Joseph’s 1832 history. An article in the Boston Investigator from August 5, 1832,[5] reported a question-and-answer sequence with Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith who were serving as missionaries in Boston.


Q.-By whom was a fac simile of some part of the language and characters taken, and on what material.

A.-It was taken by Joseph Smith on paper from the original plates themselves….

Q.-In what manner was the interpretation, or translation made known, and by whom was it written?

A.-It was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim; and was written partly by Oliver Cowdery, and partly by Martin Harris.

Q.-What do you mean by Urim and Thummim?

A.-The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.

Q.-What became of the plates after the translation was made?

A.-They were delivered into the hands of the angel of the Lord by whom they were afterwards shown to the three witnesses, who have testified to that effect.

Q.-At what place was the translation made?

A.-Partly at Manchester, Ontario county, N.Y. where the plates were found, and partly on the banks of the Susquehannah river in Pennsylvania.

[Note: this error confuses Fayette with Manchester, likely an error by the reporter.]

Q.-How many were present at the time and who?

A.-Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris-and several others at least part of the time whose names were mentioned but not taken down.

[Note: this is evidence that this exchange was not recorded verbatim.]

Q.-When were the plates seen by the eight who saw them, and who have testified to that fact; before they were translated, or since?

A.-They were seen at different times while they were in the hands of Joseph Smith and during the time of their translation.

[Note: This is another error or misunderstanding because the witnesses did not see the plates until after the translation was completed.]

Q.-Did they see the fac simile also, and if so, did they compare the fac simile with the plates to see if they agreed?

A.-They saw the fac simile also, but did not compare it with the plates to see whether it agreed or not.


The missionaries’ response uses a phrase identical to the one Joseph used in the 1842 Wentworth letter. “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.”[6] That phrase could be coincidental, but it also suggests that that Joseph was the common source; i.e., that his brother Samuel and/or Orson Hyde learned about the Urim and Thummim from Joseph.

Some scholars conclude that the phrase “Urim and Thummim” was adopted years after Moroni’s first visit, but both Joseph and Oliver published accounts depicting Moroni himself as having used the term.

He [Moroni] said 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. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;

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.

(Joseph Smith—History 1:34–35)

In 1835, Oliver, who had kept a notebook of what Joseph told him starting in April 1829, related what Moroni told Joseph during their first encounter in 1823.

He [Moroni] 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.[7]

Nothing in the historical record contradicts what Joseph and Oliver taught in these examples. Moroni could have used the term whether Joseph published it or not. Evidently, at least by summer of 1832 Orson and Samuel had heard about it from someone.

On top of the vague chronology of events, we wonder why Moroni would have called the interpreters the “Urim and Thummim.”

Scholars have long observed that the Urim and Thummim described by Joseph Smith differs from the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Bible. There are only a few references in the Bible.

30 ¶ And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart, when he goeth in before the Lord: and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually. (Exodus 28:30)

8 And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim. (Leviticus 8:8–9)

8 ¶ And of Levi he said, Let thy Thummim and thy Urim be with thy holy one, whom thou didst prove at Massah, and with whom thou didst strive at the waters of Meribah; (Deuteronomy 33:8)

63 And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim. (Ezra 2:63)

65 And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim. (Nehemiah 7:65)

These obscure passages don’t explain much. The biblical Urim and Thummim was “put in” the breastplate and the priest could stand up with them. There is no suggestion of “spectacles” such as those Joseph found with the plates or any connection to a “seer” here.[8]  

A good summary of biblical interpretations is here:

Even assuming Joseph was familiar with these biblical passages, it would have been confusing for Moroni to use the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite interpreters. However, Joseph’s understanding of the Urim and Thummim was not necessarily limited to what he could read in the Bible. Jonathan Edwards discussed the Urim and Thummim in several passages in the 1808 edition of his work. He pointed out that:

(i) the ancient priests determined matters by Urim and Thummm,

(ii) that the Jews had lost the Urim and Thummim,

(iii) that it was something by which the high priest inquired of God and receive immediate answers from him,

(iv) that God revealed himself by Urim and Thummim.

These characteristics roughly fit the Nephite interpreters, or spectacles, which had been prepared to enable Joseph to translate the plates. In a sense, the translation process required Joseph to inquire of God and receive answers. If Moroni referred to the spectacles as “Urim and Thummim,” Joseph could have understood the term as explained by Edwards: a means for getting answers from God and an object that had been lost to the Jews (although once he translated the plates, he would learn that the interpreters originated with the brother of Jared).

Other Christian writers offered brief explanations of the Urim and Thummim, but Edwards wrote enough about the topic to support Moroni’s use of the term (assuming Joseph read Edwards’ writings). Edwards pointed out that there was no account of the Urim and Thummim “being ever restored.” Moroni putting the interpreters with the plates could be seen as restoring the Urim and Thummim.

Again another thing that was lost that the Jews had before was the Urim and Thummim . This is evident by Ezra 2:63, "And the Tirshatha [said unto them], that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there should stand up a priest with Urim and with Thummim." And we have no account of this being ever restored, but the ancient writings of the Jews say the contrary. What this Urim and Thummim was I shall not now inquire, but only shall observe that it was something by which the high priest inquired of God and received immediate answers from him, or by which God gave forth immediate oracles on particular occasions. This was now withdrawn, the time approaching when Christ, the great antitype of the Urim and Thummim, the great word and oracle of God, was to come… 

And it was of vast importance that we should have an inspired history of these times of the Jewish church wherein there was kept up a more extraordinary intercourse between God and them, and while he used to dwell among them, as it were, visibly revealing himself to them by the Shekinah, by Urim and Thummim, and by prophecy, and so more immediately to order their affairs….

It was by the Urim and the Thummim that the high priest was especially furnished to make intercession for the people, and to reveal the mind and will[9] of God to them. The Urim and Thummim had their principal importance, as they were typical, and represented the perfection, and merit, the light, and glory, there are in Christ.

Another puzzle involving the Urim and Thummim is the expanded application of the term around 1843 (D&C 130). In the early years of the Church, the term meant the Nephite interpreters. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed distinguished between the Urim and Thummim and the “peep stone” that some people claimed Joseph put in a hat to see the words he dictated to his scribes. In response to Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery emphasizes that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. (JS-H 1:71, note 1). Subsequent teachings by Joseph and Oliver reaffirmed this point.

On April 2, 1843, however, Joseph taught that “the placed where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim,” that the earth “will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon,” and “the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17 will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one.” Although not presented as revelation, these teachings have been canonized as such.

Perhaps Joseph was influenced by comments Jonathan Edwards made in his notebooks of ideas and insights that he drew upon for his sermons and treatises. Some, but not all, of these Miscellanies[10] were published in the 1830 10-volume collection of The Works of President Edwards, edited by his grandson Sereno Edwards Dwight.

Entry number 240 discusses the Urim and Thummim. I’m not aware that it was published in whole or in part prior to 1843, or whether Joseph would have had access to it if it was published, but Edwards’ here explains that in his view, the term referred not to specific objects but to the spiritual power to prophesy and obtain divine responses. This expanded concept of the term is congruent with what Joseph taught, so it’s worth considering. I’ve highlighted relevant portions in bold.



There has been great inquiry, what was that urim and thummim that was in the breastplate of the high priest, whereas I think we have it plainly described in Exodus 28:17–21. …

Every jewel stood for a tribe, and had the name of that tribe written on it that it stood for. God's people are called his jewels. So Christ bears our judgment; that is, he is our representative in judgment and, as to God's dealings with respect to his law, he stands for us.

The name "urim and thummim" signifies light and perfection; and it being 'tis the plural number, may more properly be rendered "glisterings" (or "brightnesses") and "beauties," because of the charming appearances that the jewels made by their different kinds of glisterings, and the beautiful proportion of their different colors. …

The use of it seems to be much the same with the plate of gold on the miter mentioned in Exodus 28:36, whereon was engraved "holiness to the Lord"; which the high priest was to have on his forehead, that he might bear the iniquity of the children of Israel, and that he might be accepted when he came in before the Lord (as Exodus 28:38). By the urim and thummim he was to bear the judgment of the children of Israel on his heart; by this plate of gold he was to bear the iniquity of the children of Israel on his head. 

We find them both mentioned after the same manner, where we have an account of Moses putting the holy garments upon Aaron, as in Leviticus 8:8–9, …

But if the objection be allowed, all that it can argue is that the urim and thummim was not any material thing, but a power given to the breastplate of foretelling or of obtaining divine responses. 

For we can't imagine in reason, that any material thing was expected to be sent down from heaven, to be put into the breastplate; but Leviticus 8:8 proves it was [a] material thing.

Therefore, if they had those jewels in the breastplate at that time, the reason of their speaking in this manner must be, because they did not think them worthy the name of urim and thummim till they had such a power given them as the former urim and thummim had.

[2] “Golden Bible,” The Freeman, August 11, 1829, online at

[3] “A Golden Bible,” The Gem, of Literature and Science, Rochester, NY, September 5, 1829, Vol. I, No. 9, online at

[4] Joseph Smith, History, circa Summer 1832, online at

[6] “Church History,” Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842, online at

[7] Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV,” History, 1834-1836, p. 64, online at

[8] Jewish traditions have various understandings, ranging from the Urim and Thummim as lots or dice cast for divination to their being illuminated words or jewels on the breastplate that formed words. Whether Joseph was familiar with this speculation is unknown but unlikely. See Trevan G. Hatch, “Magic, Biblical Law, and the Israelite Urim and Thummim,” Studia Antiqua 5, no. 2 (2007).  


[9] The non-biblical phrase “mind and will” appears only in D&C 133:61 (November 3, 1831). “And this according to the mind and will of the Lord.”

[10] A complete list of the Miscellanies is available here:

The GTE and the Wilford Woodruff quotation

It amazes me that there are still discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon (SITH vs U&T) among Latter-day Saints who don't...