Tuesday, February 27, 2024

March 2024 Liahona articles on the translation and the plates

In this article we'll review two articles published in the March 2024 Liahona in the "United States and Canada section." Both articles contain inexplicable yet serious omissions from the historical record.

These articles raise the question, what is going on in the Church History Department? Here are two professional historians who are experts in Church history, fine, exemplary people who are faithful Latter-day Saints, yet they deliberately manipulate the historical sources by editing some and omitting others. What explains this? 

To be sure, every author must choose among reference materials. Editorial choices can be made to clarify and accurately represent original sources, or they can be made to promote the author's narrative or agenda. In my review, readers can assess the editorial decisions in these articles for themselves and make their own informed decisions.

In my view, the editorial decisions are suspect because of the narratives they promote. One explanation is deep groupthink that leaves these scholars unaware of the historical sources they omit. But that doesn't explain the deliberate editing of the sources they do quote. 

That leaves only one explanation for this manipulation of the historical record: an institutional determination to accommodate SITH (the stone-in-the-hat narrative) and M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs narrative). See what you think once you've read the analysis.

And if you can think of an alternative explanation, let me know at lostzarahemla@gmail.com and I'll update this post.

The two articles:

1. "The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon" by Gerrit Dirkmaat, PhD, Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University


2. "Witnesses of the Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon," by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Senior Historian, Joseph Smith Papers Project, Church History Department



Let's start with the better of the two articles.


2. "Witnesses of the Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon," by Mark Ashurst-McGee.

This article includes a significant improvement over the Mary Whitmer account as presented in Saints, BYU Studies, Book of Mormon Central, and other organizations and publications. Instead of repeating the "Mary Whitmer met Moroni" narrative, this article accurately presents some of the original sources.

But not all of them.

Inexplicably, this article omits the two primary sources for the identification of the messenger who showed the plates to Mary Whitmer.

The article also inexplicably omits important additional historical references that were well known during Joseph Smith's lifetime and actually preceded the references cited in the article.

Look at these omissions and let me know if you can think of an explanation other than the institutional accommodation of SITH and M2C.

Original in blue, my comments in red, other quotations from original sources in green.

In addition to the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, whose testimonies appear in the introduction to the Book of Mormon, several others saw or felt the gold plates.

In 1823, when the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph Smith, he told Joseph about the gold plates, saying “there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates. … He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith—History 1:34).

Four years later, on September 22, 1827, Moroni committed the plates into his charge. As Joseph later explained: “He told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken ... I should not show them to any person; ... only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them” (Joseph Smith—History 1:42).

While this is the canonized account, composed by Joseph's scribes and first published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the earliest detailed account of Moroni's visit was published in 1835, copied into Joseph's journal as part of his life story, and republished in the Times and Seasons, Millennial Star, Gospel Reflector, and The Prophet. This account gives us additional details that contemporary readers of Joseph Smith - History were familiar with.

He [Moroni] then 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 represented them as once being an enlightned and intelligent people, possessing a correct knowledge of the gospel, and the plan of restoration and redemption. 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.


Ask yourself, why would LDS historians omit this important reference--the earliest formal Church history, written by, Oliver Cowdery, the Assistant President of the Church with the assistance of Joseph Smith--that was so important Joseph had it republished multiple times after having it copied into his own history? 

Notice the two passages in bold. If Moroni said "this history was written and deposited not far from that place," referring to Joseph's home near Palmyra, then it was not written in Mesoamerica and transported to western New York. That obviously refutes M2C. 

And if Moroni told Joseph that it was his privilege to translate the record "by means of the Urim and Thummim which were deposited for that purpose with the record," that obviously refutes SITH. 

The plates were sacred, and Joseph did not show them to others without permission; however, many individuals felt the plates while covered and even heard the metal sounds of the plates. When the translation was finished, the Three and the Eight Witnesses saw the plates uncovered, and the Eight Witnesses handled them uncovered. The plates were, therefore, witnessed with three senses: seeing, touching, and hearing.

  • Witnesses saw the full stack of plates, as well as the rings that bound it; the sealed and unsealed portions, as well as the seal binding the sealed portion; each of the individual plates of the unsealed portion; and the engraved inscriptions on each side of each leaf.
  • Witnesses touched the plates when they hefted the full stack in their arms to assess its weight, thumbed the side of the stack like thumbing the pages of a book, and felt every single plate in the unsealed portion as they turned the leaves one by one.
  • Witnesses heard the metal plates rustle, tinkle, and clink when moved.

Over time, the plates were witnessed in three places: Manchester, New York; Harmony, Pennsylvania; and Fayette, New York.

Witnesses in Manchester

The Smith family and others in their area were given opportunities to heft the ancient record and feel its individual plates at the Smith family home in Manchester Township, New York. Joseph’s younger brother William, age 16 in 1827, had a vivid memory of witnessing the plates, which he later shared in a sermon: “When the plates were brought in they were wrapped up in a tow frock. My father then put them into a pillow case. Father said, ‘What, Joseph, can we not see them?’ [Joseph responded,] ‘No. … I was forbidden to show them until they are translated, but you can feel them.’ We handled them and could tell what they were. … Could tell whether they were round or square. Could raise the leaves this way (raising a few leaves of the Bible before him). One could easily tell that they were not a stone, hewn out to deceive, or even a block of wood.”1

Note: Even the online version of this article doesn't give a link to this obscure reference, so I've provided it below. William gave this sermon in 1884, nearly 60 years after the events, just two weeks before William died. The article characterizes William's memory as "vivid," but the historians don't mention that in this sermon, William also claimed the angel identified the hill where the plates were as "Cumorah" because that contradicts M2C. 

Actually, William's account conflates the First Vision with Moroni's visit (an issue for another day) but he does corroborate what Lucy Mack Smith said about the angel identifying the hill as Cumorah--a point that Joseph himself made in D&C 128:20.

Here's the passage from William's account: "While he was engaged in prayer, he saw a pillar of fire descending. Saw it reach the top of the trees, He was overcome, became unconscious, did not know how long he remained in this condition, but when he came to himself, the great light was about him, and he was told by the personage whom he saw descend with the light, not to join any of the churches. That he should be instrumental in the hands of God in establishing the true church of Christ. That was the record hidden in the hill Cumorah which contained the fulness of the gospel. You should remember Joseph was but about eighteen years old at this time, too young to be a deceiver."  

To find the reference, search for "Cumorah" at this link: http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/IA/sain1882.htm#100484

Note also that William claimed Joseph translated by putting the Urim and Thummim into a hat, but he was never a witness to the translation, so his statements were hearsay at best. And note that he related this narrative specifically to refute the Spalding theory, just as Emma and David Whitmer did. William discussed the Spalding theory quite a bit in his sermon, which should tell us how much urgency he felt to refute it.

On another occasion, William provided further information: “I could tell they were plates of some kind and that they were fastened together by rings running through the back.”2 He also wrote that in addition to feeling the individual plates and rings, he had hefted the entire artifact: “I was permitted to lift them. … They weighed about 60 pounds according to the best of my judgment.”3 

Joseph Senior reported that they weighed 30 pounds. Presumably he weighed them during the 8 witnesses experience. This is one indication that he weighed the small plates of Nephi while William (who was not one of the 8 witnesses) was referring to the abridged plates that Joseph Jr. brought home from the hill Cumorah.

Joseph’s younger sister Katherine, age 14, also got to hold the plates the day Joseph brought them home. She “rippled her fingers up the edge of the plates and felt that they were separate metal plates and heard the tinkle of sound that they made.”4

Mother Lucy later shared her experiences with a neighbor, Sally Bradford Parker, who wrote: “I asked her if she saw the plates. She said no, it was not for her to see them, but she hefted and handled them and I believed all she said for I lived by her eight months and she was one of the best of women.”5 Though she never saw the plates uncovered, Lucy was certain of their authenticity and the validity of their translation. She remembered being visited by a deacon from one of the local churches who asked to see the plates. When she refused to produce the record, he asked her to stop talking to others about it. Lucy replied, “If you should … burn me at the stake, I would declare that Joseph has got that record.”6

Others in the Palmyra and Manchester area, where the Smith family lived, were permitted to heft the plates while they were stored inside a box or in some other kind of container. Martin Harris reported that his wife, Lucy Harris, and one of their daughters—probably Lucy or Duty—visited the Smiths and were allowed to heft the plates. Both told Martin that they were quite heavy.7 Then Martin Harris himself visited the Smiths and had the same experience.8

Martin Harris related that Alvah Beman, who lived in the area as well, was also permitted to heft the plates in a box and “said he heard them jink.”9 The plates had presumably moved when the box was handed to Alvah, making the sound of clinking metal.

Witnesses in Harmony

By December 1827 there had been several attempts to steal the plates, so Joseph decided to move with Emma to the home of her parents in Harmony Township, Pennsylvania.

When Joseph and Emma arrived, Joseph allowed Isaac Hale, Emma’s father, to heft the plates in a box. Isaac later stated, “I was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand, that the book of plates was then in the box.” Yet he was unconvinced and dissatisfied with the situation. He told Joseph to either show him the plates or remove them from his house. Joseph hid the plates in the nearby woods until he and Emma moved into their own home on the Hale property.10

An adjacent farm was owned by Joseph and Sarah McKune. Their granddaughter later reported that Joseph McKune had been allowed “to take in his hands a pillow-case in which the supposed saintly treasure was wrapped, and to feel through the cloth that it had leaves.”11

In Harmony, Joseph Smith began his translation of the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. 

[Note: the article omits the Urim and Thummim here, despite the historical record that establishes Joseph did use the U&T in Harmony--and despite JS-H 1:62 and the note to 1:71.]

His initial scribes were his wife, Emma, and his friend Martin Harris.12 Like members of the Harris and Smith families, Emma hefted the plates, as she “would lift and move them” while cleaning.13 She also felt the individual leaves and heard the sound they made when moved, describing them in this way: “I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved by the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.”14

The other principal witness of the plates in Harmony, Fayette, and Cumorah itself was Oliver Cowdery, whose testimony is inexplicably omitted from this article. Oliver wrote, "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) Oliver later reported that he handled both the plates and the Urim and Thummim. Brigham Young and others reported that Joseph and Oliver entered the repository of records in the Hill Cumorah, where they saw "many wagonloads" of plates.

Witnesses in Fayette

By the end of May 1829, the same kind of persecution Joseph had experienced in Manchester began occurring in Harmony, and Joseph realized he would need to move again to complete the translation. 

Instead of the move being Joseph's realization as the article claims, Lucy Mack Smith reported that Joseph was commanded to move. We never see this account included by modern historians, apparently because it affirms Joseph's use of the Urim and Thummim, contrary to SITH.

In the mean time Joseph was 150 miles distant and knew naught of the matter e[x]cept an intimation that was given through the urim and thumim for as he one morning applied the<​m​> latter to his eyes to look upon the record instead of the words of the book being given him he was commanded to write a letter to one David Whitmore [Whitmer] this man Joseph had never seen but he was instructed to say him that he must come with his team immediately in order to convey Joseph and his family <​Oliver [Cowdery]​> back to his house which was 135 miles that they might remain with him there untill the translation should be completed for that an evil designing people were seeking to take away Joseph’s life in order to prevent the work of God from going forth among the world


Along with his wife, Emma, and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph was taken into the household of some acquaintances: Peter and Mary Whitmer of Fayette Township, New York.

While it's true that Emma eventually arrived at the Whitmer home, David originally picked up Joseph and Oliver. Here this article omits another important witness of the plates; i.e., the messenger to whom Joseph gave the abridged plates in Harmony. This messenger, whom Joseph identified as one of the Three Nephites, met David, Joseph and Oliver on the road to Fayette but declined David's offer of a ride, explaining that he was going to Cumorah. 

Mary Whitmer was shown the plates by a heavenly messenger. As far as we know, she never committed her experience to writing. But Mary shared her experience with her children and grandchildren, who later shared it with others. Her grandson John C. Whitmer related, “I have heard my grandmother (Mary M. Whitmer) say on several occasions that she was shown the plates of the Book of Mormon by an holy angel.”15

Her son David said that “she was met out near the yard by [an] old man.” 

This is amazing editing that misleads readers. The original reference (cited only generally in note 15, which includes no links to these obscure references that have never been translated into other languages) reads, "Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him)." 

The source is the official report of an interview with David Whitmer by Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt to the Quorum of the Twelve, which you can see here:


This was not merely "an old man" but "the same old man" whom David saw along the road to Fayette. David reported that the man was the messenger who had the plates, so this is another important witness of the reality of the plates.

This encounter is important because Edward Stevenson reported that during his interview with David, "Shortly afterwards, David relates, the Prophet looked very white but with a heavenly appearance and said their visitor was one of the three Nephites to whom the Savior gave the promise of life on earth until He should come in power." 

The article lists Stevenson's account as a reference in note 15, but again without a link, making it difficult for anyone to read the full account. The article also inexplicably omits Mary Whitmer identification of the messenger as "Brother Nephi," which is consistent with Joseph's identification.

But to its credit, at least the article does not reiterate the "messenger was Moroni" narrative taught by M2C advocates who claim the real Cumorah is in Mexico so the messenger could not have been going to Cumorah, despite what David Whitmer said.

[for more explanation, see https://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/2017/12/opening-heavens-but-censoring-history.html ] 

Grandson John said this man was “carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack” and that “at first she was a little afraid of him.” However, “when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with unexpressible joy and satisfaction.”

John provided further detail on the wonderful witness of the sacred record that Mary received at that time: “He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates. … This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; the personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell.”

John stated: “I knew my grandmother to be a good, noble and truthful woman, and I have not the least doubt of her statement in regard to seeing the plates being strictly true. She was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon until the day of her death.”16

As note 16 explains, the statements by John are found in Andrew Jenson's Historical Record, but again, the online article doesn't provide a link to this difficult to find reference. You can see the actual page with commentary here:


Inexplicably, the article failed to include a key point John made:

"I have heard my grandmother (Mary M. Whitmer) say on several occasions that she was shown the plates of the Book of Mormon by an holy angel, whom she always called Brother Nephi. (She undoubtedly refers to Moroni, the angel who had the plates in charge.)" 

Mary's explanation that she called the angel "Brother Nephi" corroborates Joseph's statement to David Whitmer that the messenger was one of the Three Nephites. Although we aren't given the name of the three, Nephi was one of the Twelve and their leader. We also know from Brigham Young that Nephi interacted with Joseph Smith. 

We can see from the parenthetical that Andrew Jenson changed the narrative because, in his opinion, Mary Whitmer was wrong. This inexcusable and arrogant dismissal of Mary Whitmer's account led to the widespread teaching that Mary met Moroni, contrary to the historical record and common sense.

The article could have resolved this point by simply quoting the original sources, but instead it avoided the issue, enabling the continued fictional narrative in Saints, volume 1.

Mary’s son David would become one of the Three Witnesses, who were shown the plates by an angel when the translation was complete. Moreover, Mary’s other sons would be among the Eight Witnesses to whom Joseph Smith showed the plates, who got to heft and handle the plates uncovered and to turn the plates and observe their ancient engravings.17

Here, we note that none of the Eight Witnesses said there was a "sealed portion" of any sort, which is another indication that they witnessed the plates of Nephi and not the abridged plates.

Our Own Witness

In matters of faith and history, many people want more evidence. Some might wish that the gold plates were available for all to view in a world-renowned museum. Though Joseph Smith returned the gold plates to the angel Moroni, and we do not get to personally inspect them, we have the testimonies of those who did.

Actually, Joseph's history says, "When, according to arrangements, the [unnamed] messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight." (Joseph Smith—History 1:60) The only account we have of Joseph delivering the plates to a messenger is when, before leaving Harmony, he delivered the abridged plates to the messenger who took them to Cumorah. 

Separately, Brigham Young explained that Joseph returned the plates to the Hill Cumorah, which is presumably what Joseph did after showing the plates of Nephi to the Eight Witnesses. This seems like a contradiction until we realize they were referring to two separate sets of plates; i.e., Joseph returned the abridged plates to the messenger, and he returned the plates of Nephi to the repository in Cumorah.

Recall also that the original version of Joseph Smith - History (published in the Times and Seasons in 1842 when Joseph was the nominal editor, now found in the Pearl of Great Price) identified the messenger as Nephi, not Moroni. It's easy to understand why his scribes were confused because Joseph met both individuals at different times. Based on the accounts we have, the messenger who took the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah was named Nephi, and he was one of the Three Nephites. See https://www.lettervii.com/p/moroni-and-nephi.html

The history of the plates fulfills the divine law of witnesses: “The Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word” (2 Nephi 27:14). The men and women who saw and touched and heard the plates bore witness to the material reality of the plates and their inscriptions, their ancient appearance, and the heavenly approval of their divine translation.

As with the Three and Eight Witnesses, the testimonies of the other witnesses are not meant to convert us to gospel living. Rather, the testimonies of all the various witnesses provide a reason for us to take the Book of Mormon seriously, to read it, and to act on Moroni’s promise: “When ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and 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” (Moroni 10:4).

This promise is addressed to every person in the latter days. It is for you. Maybe this promise has already been fulfilled in your life. Maybe the words of those who saw the gold plates are calling you now to read the sacred scripture that was translated from their engravings. The men and women who saw and held the plates stayed true to their witness and we can do the same. We can hold our witness sacred, and we can share it with others.

All good!


1. "The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon" by Gerrit Dirkmaat.

The scriptures and the scribes and witnesses of the Book of Mormon shed light on how the Prophet Joseph translated it “by the gift and power of God.”

In November 1845, Elder Wilford Woodruff (1807–98) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reflected in his journal on his love for the Book of Mormon. Thinking about how much he had read the book since he joined the Church in 1833, he wrote: “My soul delighteth much in its words, teaching, and prophesyings. And in its plainness. I rejoice in the goodness and mercy of the God of Israel in preserving the precious Book of Mormon and bringing it to light in our day and generation.”1

Note: The article quotes E. Woodruff here to establish his credibility for a later part of this article.

In our own day, President Russell M. Nelson has said, “The truths of the Book of Mormon have the power to heal, comfort, restore, succor, strengthen, console, and cheer our souls.”2

There are millions of women and men all over the world who have similarly felt the power of the Book of Mormon to change their lives and bring them closer to the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Because the Book of Mormon is so central to believers, it is natural to wonder just how the miracle of its translation took place. While it is not possible to fully explain or understand a miracle wrought “by the gift and power of God” (title page of the Book of Mormon), we can better understand the translation process by looking to the scriptures and the historical accounts left by the scribes, witnesses, and those close to Joseph Smith. These witnesses were certain Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true.

What Do the Scriptures Say about the Translation?

When the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph to tell him of the work that God had for him to do, Moroni explained “that there were two stones … 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 1:35).

Whenever you see ellipses in an article by a modern Church historian, the first thing you should do is ask, "What are they omitting and why?"

This is especially true when they are censoring editing the scriptures.

Here is the passage without the omission:

35 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 1:35)

This censorship editing is consistent with what seems to be a prohibition on accurately and completely quoting what Joseph Smith said about the translation.

The article omits the earliest published account of Moroni's visit, an account written by Oliver Cowdery which Joseph helped write and which Joseph had copied into his own journal as part of his life story. Joseph also had the account republished in the Times and Seasons and the Gospel Reflector. During Joseph's lifetime it was also republished in the Millennial Star and The Prophet by members of the Quorum of the Twelve.

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.

The use of sacred stones, specially prepared by the Lord to be used by seers to translate ancient records, is also referenced multiple times by the prophets in the Book of Mormon. The brother of Jared was given two sacred stones by the Lord to seal up with his writings so they could be used by some future seer to translate his record. The Lord declared, “I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write” (Ether 3:24).

Note that this passage specifies it is these two stones--not any other stones--that would magnify the words on the plates.

Mosiah, another seer, also possessed two stones that he used to translate the Jaredite records. Ammon explained that Mosiah had “wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters” (Mosiah 8:13). Mosiah “translated [the records] by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.

“Now these things were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages; “And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord. … “And whosoever has these things is called seer” (Mosiah 28:13–16).

Similar to Joseph Smith, Mosiah “did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20; emphasis added).

Because these sacred stones were prepared for use by a seer, they are sometimes referred to as seer stones. Though Joseph Smith would initially call the stones found with the plates “spectacles,” he would eventually use a biblical term for the sacred instruments, Urim and Thummim (see Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8).3 

Let's look at note 3. 

"Although the term “Urim and Thummim” is used in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1, this is likely a later addition to the text made by Joseph Smith (see “Revelation, June 1829–E [D&C 17],” note 5, josephsmithpapers.org). The Prophet also made an inspired addition of the term “Urim and Thummim” to Doctrine and Covenants 10:1 sometime after it was published in the 1833 Book of Commandments and before it was published in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants."

Now, let's look at note 5. Inexplicably, even the online article does not provide a hyperlink, so here's the url: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-june-1829-e-dc-17/1

Note 5: In this version of the revelation, the use of “Urim and Thummim” (rather than the Book of Mormon term “interpreters” or the term “spectacles,” which JS used in 1829 and 1832) is probably a later redaction since “Urim and Thummim” does not appear in JS’s writings before 1833. The revisions in this section may in part be correcting errors made while copying from a source text that had itself been revised. (See Book of Mormon, 1830 ed., 172–173, 546 [Mosiah 8:13; Ether 4:5]; JS History, ca. Summer 1832; and “Joseph Smith Documents Dating through June 1831.”)  

The editors put their thumb on the history by using words such as "likely" and "probably" instead of simply relating the facts. 

While the note accurately reports that there are no extant records of Joseph writing the term "Urim and Thummim" prior to 1833, the note fails to acknowledge that Joseph's brother Samuel and Orson Hyde, while on a mission in Boston, did report, in 1832, that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. These are the facts. We can make assumptions and draw inferences from these facts to develop our own theories about where the use of the term originated. 

In my view, it seems unlikely that the missionaries would have come up with the term. Because both Joseph and Oliver quoted Moroni as having used the term (albeit after 1832), it is rational to assume they reported Moroni's explanations accurately. Joseph's failure to use the term in his scant writings prior to 1833 does not preclude his having used the term verbally. Furthermore, the absence of the term in the early writings is easily explained by the brief, descriptive nature of those writings. "Spectacles" is a more descriptive term than "Urim and Thummim," particularly where the two stones set in a bow are unlike the Old Testament description of the Urim and Thummim.  

Instead of assuming that Joseph "probably" changed D&C 10 by inserting the term Urim and Thummim to make a connection to the Bible, we can infer that he made the change to clarify what everyone knew at the time of the original revelation; i.e., originally everyone knew he used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, but with the confusion caused by Jonathan Hadley and Mormonism Unvailed, Joseph realized he had to edit the revelation to clarify the point.

He came to use this term to describe other sacred stones as well, not just the ones found with the plates. For instance, even though President Brigham Young (1801–77) taught that Joseph gave the Urim and Thummim stones back with the plates after finishing the Book of Mormon translation,4 when Joseph showed a seer stone to Elder Woodruff in 1841, he referred to it as a Urim and Thummim.5

Inexplicably, the article doesn't point out that Brigham Young's record of the meeting in 1841 materially differs from Woodruff's. Brigham recorded that Joseph explained the Urim and Thummim and showed them his seer stone, thereby distinguishing between the two. Woodruff interpreted what Joseph said to mean that Joseph referred to the seer stone as the (or a) Urim and Thummim. 

While the Book of Mormon primarily referred to a sacred translation device that had two stones bound together, it also referred to a single stone that would be part of the translation: “The Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23).

This is an oddity in the Book of Mormon. Verses 21 and 24 refer to "interpreters," plural. In the 1830-1840 editions, the term used here was "directors," not interpreters, but in both cases it was plural. Alma makes a clear distinction between whatever "Gazelem, a stone" referred to and "these directors" that "were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled." (Alma 37:24)

At any rate, both Joseph and Oliver made it clear that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, not with an alternative substitute stone.  

President Woodruff described how Joseph Smith found this particular seer stone named Gazelem buried underground: “The seer stone known as ‘Gazelem’ … was shown of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph to be some thirty feet under ground, and which he obtained by digging under the pretense of excavating for a well.”6 Though that separate seer stone is less well known by many members than the stones found in the box with the gold plates, President Woodruff revered it as sacred. The day after he dedicated the Manti Utah Temple, he wrote in his journal that he “consecrated upon the Altar the Seers Stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 feet under the Earth.”7

Of course, nothing Woodruff recorded states or implies that Joseph used this stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

Reviewing the scriptural references to the stones might allow believers to conclude several things about the miraculous translation even before reading what witnesses and scribes had to say about the process:

God prepared sacred stones to be used by a future seer to translate the gold plates (see Joseph Smith—History 1:35; Mosiah 28:13; Alma 37:23).

The seer would look at or in the stones to translate (see Mosiah 8:13).

There was more than one translation device composed of stones that God had prepared for the translation of unknown languages: the two stones given to the brother of Jared (see Ether 3:23), the two stones used by Mosiah (see Mosiah 28:13), and the single stone, Gazelem, mentioned in Alma 37:23.

It is possible that the way the stone Gazelem functioned is that it would “shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23).

What Did Joseph Smith Say about the Translation Process?

Joseph Smith did not publicly provide a detailed explanation of the miraculous translation. He consistently said that he translated the record “by the gift, and power of God” but also noted that he translated “through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.”8 

Notice how the quotations are sliced into segments, obscuring the original meaning. The amazing thing here is that the article cannot bring itself to quote what Joseph actually wrote, which is as plain as words can be.

Note 8 reads: "Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons, Mar. 1, 1842, 707; see also “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43."

Readers naturally wonder why the article didn't just quote the original instead of chopping it up. Here is the original passage from "Church History," commonly known as the Wentworth letter, with the parts excepted in the article in bold.

With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.

In full context, we see that Joseph Smith described the Urim and Thummim and clarified that "the ancients" called this instrument "Urim and Thummim," thereby corroborating the other accounts from Joseph and Oliver that it was Moroni who called the instrument Urim and Thummim. That obviously and unambiguously contradicts claims that Joseph used a stone he found in a well to produce the Book of Mormon.

What about the second reference in Note 8 to the Elders' Journal? Why not quote that account to respond to the question in the heading of this section of the article; i.e., "What Did Joseph Smith Say about the Translation Process?" 

Like with the Wentworth letter, Joseph's response in the July 1838 edition of the Elders' Journal, pages 42-43, is apparently too clear and unambiguous to accommodate the theory that Joseph used a seer stone he found in a well.

Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?

Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.

In courtrooms, sometimes lawyers try to badger witnesses by asking the same question repeatedly, hoping for a different answer. Opposing counsel can successfully object based on "asked and answered." 

In this case, Joseph Smith explained that he "translated the plates" "by the means of" "the Urim and Thummim" he obtained with the plates. There is no ambiguity or confusion here. Joseph did not say, imply, or even leave any room for the claim that he read words that appeared on a stone in the hat while the plates were covered with a cloth. 

We have to wonder, why omit Joseph's published answer to this obvious question? I've heard that some historians dismiss this statement on the ground that Joseph was just being concise and didn't want to get into the details of SITH. Others suggest that Joseph was embarrassed by the SITH narrative. 

If those (or any other reasons) justify omitting Joseph's answer to this question, historians should directly state that. Otherwise, omitting Joseph's answer is inexcusable.

In his earliest written explanation of the translation, Joseph wrote that even though he was not learned, “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters.”9 

The second quotation in the article, from Joseph's 1832 history, leaves no room for a seer stone in a hat. “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters.”

He also explained that the angel had said 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.”10

Notice that the third quotation in the article, taken from the November 9, 1835, entry in his history, is an excerpt which obfuscates Joseph's claim that it was Moroni who used the term Urim and Thummim.

He [Moroni] 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;

The relevance of Joseph's declarations is all the more significant under the circumstances. From as early as September 1829, when Jonathan Hadley claimed Joseph dictated the text by reading words off "spectacles" he put in a hat, through October 1834 when the book Mormonism Unvailed claimed Joseph dictated from a "peep stone" in a hat or, alternatively, the biblical Urim and Thummim with the plates nowhere in sight, rumors about the translation had circulated far and wide. 

Joseph refuted Hadley's false reports when he wrote the Preface to the 1830 Book of Mormon. "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."

With Joseph's assistance, in 1834 Oliver Cowdery responded to Mormonism Unvailed when he explained that "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)

Later, in 1835 and 1842, Joseph published his own accounts that emphasized he translated the plates with the instrument--the Urim and Thummim--that came with the plates. 

By omitting both the complete quotations from Joseph Smith and the historical context, the article accommodates an altered historical narrative; i.e., that, contrary to what Joseph and Oliver said, Joseph produced the Book of Mormon by reading words off a stone in the hat (SITH). 

As we'll see, the article was constructed to promote the SITH narrative. 

That miraculous process produced a nearly 600-page book in about 60 working days.11

This is a small point often overlooked. David Whitmer says it took eight months, which is consistent with what Joseph said when he told his mother he started translating again in November 1828, but we can see from the Original Manuscript that Oliver started writing Alma in April 1829, so at most Joseph would have translated Mosiah before Oliver arrived.

What Did the Scribes and Witnesses Say about the Translation Process?

Joseph’s scribes, friends, and other witnesses of the translation provided many more details of the mechanics of translation.

Oliver Cowdery repeatedly testified of the miracle of the translation but provided few details. He told a group of Shakers in 1830 that there was “in the box with the plates two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” and that Joseph used them along with a hat to translate.12 At another time he explained that Joseph “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.”13

We can all see that these statements, even though they are hearsay, reiterate and corroborate what Joseph and Oliver always said. 

Inexplicably, the article omits Oliver's statement from Joseph Smith-History, which I included above.

Next the article paraphrases excerpts from the two Emma Smith accounts.

Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife and primary early scribe, related that Joseph used two different instruments to translate. The first was the device containing two stones found with the plates, and the second was a single stone that was “a dark color.”14 

This is Emma's response to Emma Pilgrim. The original letter is not extant so we can't tell what the question was. In her response, Emma Smith explains that she no longer had her reference books so she had to rely on her memory. One wonders whether her statement would have been different if she had the Times and Seasons to refer to. Maybe if she re-read the Wentworth letter, for example, she would have remembered that Joseph said he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim and didn't accommodate the SITH narrative at all. 

"Now, the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of 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. I cannot tell whether that account in the Times and Seasons is correct or not because someone stole all my books and I have none to refer to at present, if I can find one that has that account I will tell you what is true and what is not." 

Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, March 27, 1870, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, volume 1, p. 532.

This stone is in the possession of the First Presidency, and an image of it was first published in the Liahona and Ensign magazines in 2015.15 

The stone in the published photos is the stone that Zina Young purchased from her husband Brigham's estate and then gave to the Church. It purportedly was the stone that Oliver's widow gave to Phineas Young. Whether it matches the description from Emma--"not exactly black, but was rather a dark color"--is up to the reader. Few if any observers would describe the multi-colored, striated stone as "not exactly black, but rather a dark color." Perhaps Emma was describing a different stone, or perhaps her memory was vague. [The striated stone appears to be a type of stone found in Wyoming in the specific areas traversed by Brigham Young on the way to Utah, suggesting maybe it was picked up along the way and acquired an accompanying narrative.]   

Emma explained that Joseph translated by placing a stone or stones into his hat, and then he would dictate the translation he saw on the stones.16

Note 16 cites Emma Smith, in Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 289. The credibility and reliability of that account is dubious for several reasons. The "Last Testimony" was recorded by Joseph Smith III shortly before his mother died in 1879 (50 years after the events), was never publicly acknowledged by Emma, and was not published until six months after her death. The second part of the "Last Testimony" related to plural marriage and was soundly impeached by multiple witnesses in Utah. One of them, Eliza R. Snow, suggested that Emma didn't dictate the "Last Testimony" at all but that Joseph Smith III composed it to refute claims that his father practiced polygamy. Significantly, Joseph Smith III himself didn't quote from or even mention the "Last Testimony" in a detailed analysis of the translation issue he wrote years later, in which he refuted David Whitmer's SITH testimony and concluded that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to produce the Book of Mormon. Brigham Young publicly denounced Emma as a liar. Furthermore, Joseph's contemporaries among the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints persisted in testifying that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim even after Emma's "Last Testimony" was published.

Nevertheless, modern LDS scholars accept the "Last Testimony" on its face without offering any indicia of reliability and credibility apart from Emma's identity as Joseph's wife.

Why would he place the sacred stones into his hat? Several witnesses of the translation explained that Joseph needed to make the area around the stone dark so he could see the words of the translation that would miraculously appear on the stone.17 

The first problem is the phrase "several witnesses of the translation." Note 17 refers to Orson Hyde, who was not a witness. The paragraph then quotes Joseph Knight, Sr., who was also not a witness. Even those who claimed to be witnesses did not mention what, exactly, Joseph dictated during the event they witnessed, so there is no "chain of custody" between what they claimed and the text of the Book of Mormon.

Second, notice how this sentence mixes "stones" with "stone." Note 17 quotes an English translation of a German tract by Orson Hyde, which was based on a pamphlet by Orson Pratt. Rather than referring to "the stone" the way the article does, the original source refers to "two stones, called the Urim and Thummim." But you won't see that in the excerpt in Note 17, which is edited to accommodate the idea that the term Urim and Thummim could refer to one stone. 

Note 17: Orson Hyde explained that the seer stones needed to be “placed where there was no light,” and then the translation would be “written with letters of light on the Urim and Thummim, but disappeared again soon after” (Ein Ruf aus der Wüste [A Cry out of the Wilderness], 1842, extract, English translation, 27, josephsmithpapers.org). 

Once again, unlike the inference in the article and the edited note, the original source clarifies that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, not a separate "seer stone." 

Two transparent stones, clear as crystal, were found with the records. They were called “seers” and were used by the ancients. The manner in which they were used is as follows: These two stones, called Urim and Thummim, in diameter the size of an English crown (coin) but a little thicker, were placed where there was no light. Those using them then offered prayers unto the Lord and the answer appeared written with letters of light on the Urim and Thummim, but disappeared again soon after. Thus: “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” [John 1:5] — In this manner these records were translated into English.


Joseph Knight Sr., a close friend who provided paper to Joseph during the translation, explained the miracle this way: “The way [Joseph] translated was he put the Urim and Thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes,” and a sentence “would appear in bright … letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away [and] the next sentence would come and so on.” After giving the explanation, Brother Knight testified of the translation, “So we see it was marvelous.”18

Joseph Knight provided paper but never claimed to be present during the translation. His account is hearsay, useless as direct evidence but an example of what he heard from others.

David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, gave a similar description of translation. He explained that Joseph Smith “would put the seer stone into a hat … to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. … One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English.” Like Joseph Knight, David Whitmer heralded this process as miraculous and testified, “Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”19

Note 19 cites David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (1887), 12. It remains astonishing that modern LDS scholars continue to cite this reference without qualification or context. 

As mentioned above, Joseph Smith III rejected David's claims after careful analysis. As did Joseph's contemporaries and successors in Church leadership, none of whom adopted David's SITH narrative but instead reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver said.

David's original pamphlet can be read here:


It's very strange how eager certain historians are to quote from David's screed against Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the "Utah" church. Notice that David Whitmer himself rejected the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which anyone can read on page 4 of his pamphlet that this article quotes from:

We do not indorse the teachings of any of the so-called Mormons or Latter Day Saints, which are in conflict with the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as taught in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. They have departed m a great measure from the faith of the Church of Christ as it was first established, by heeding revelations given through Joseph Smith, who, after being called of God to translate his sacred word — the Book of Mormon — drifted into many errors and gave many revelations to introduce doctrines, ordinances and offices in the church, which are in conflict with Christ's teachings. They also changed the name of the church. Their departure from the faith is also according to prophecy. "Now the spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils." (1 Tim. iv : 1). On account of God giving to Joseph Smith the gift to translate the plates on which was engraven the Nephite scriptures, the people of the church put too much trust in him — in the man — and believed his words as if they were from God's own mouth. They have trusted in an arm of flesh. (Jeremiah xvii : 6) "Thus saith the Lord : Cursed be the man that trusted in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord." They looked to Joseph Smith as lawgiver ; we look to Christ alone, and believe only in the religion of Jesus Christ and not in the religion of any man.

The doctrine of polygamy was not introduced until about fourteen years after the church was established ; but other doctrines of error were introduced earlier than this. I left the body in June, 1838, being five years before polygamy was introduced.

Joseph Smith drifting into errors after translating the Book of Mormon, is a stumbling-block to many, but only those of very weak faith would stumble on this account...  

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the church at Salt Lake City) believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet up to the time of his death, and accept his revelations which they have published in their Book of Doctrine and Covenants. In this book is the revelation on polygamy.

It is also a stumbling-block to those who desire to investigate as to the truth of the Book of Mormon, to see the believers in that book divided; but the divisions have been brought about by the revelations of Joseph Smith.

Modern historians have a duty to explain why they pick and choose which among David's claims they accept to confirm their own biases. In my view, David's testimony is unreliable. He directly contradicts Joseph's account in several respects, such as by saying Joseph never hat the Urim and Thummim after he lost the 116 pages. David admitted he was not present for any of the translation in Harmony and did not observe most of the translation in Fayette. He recounted only one episode in Fayette as if he was present, the demonstration attended by several family members. All of this indicates his testimony was mostly hearsay, albeit stated as fact. 

Furthermore, David was strongly motivated to refute the Spalding theory, which he discusses on page 10, and that motivation also explains other SITH accounts, including Emma's "Last Testimony."

All in all, this article would have been far more useful and informative had it included all of the statements by Joseph and Oliver, in context, along with the corroborating statements by their contemporaries and successors in Church leadership.  

In an interview about the Book of Mormon, President Nelson explained the translation process this way: “We know they had the golden plates, covered usually. And Joseph used these: the Urim and Thummim, seer stones, in the hat. And it was easier for him to see the light when he’d take that position.”20

In this interview, President Nelson summarized the historical evidence as provided by the Church History Department. He did not assess and reject what Joseph and Oliver claimed or evaluate the relative merits of the SITH witnesses and their various agendas. Obviously, no living person was a witness to any of the events of the translation; we're all reading the same historical record, and no one is claiming revelation to elucidate the historical record. 

While we may not fully understand how the miracle of translation occurred, what matters most is that it resulted in the Book of Mormon. As President Nelson taught: “The great worth of the Book of Mormon lies not in its miraculous translation, wondrous as it was, nor in its stories that we read to our children. The great worth of the Book of Mormon is that it is another testament of Jesus Christ.”21 Believers can grow closer to Jesus Christ as they read the words He brought forth through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Yes! This is the main point of the Book of Mormon. 

But it's also obvious that minimizing Joseph's teachings to the point of censoring them in favor of the claims by his critics is not conducive to encouraging people to read and ponder the Book of Mormon.


Underlying these articles is a more general concern. In my view, the way these articles and related materials are edited (such as using ellipses to change meanings and providing obscure citations without links) seems to contravene basic principles of the Standard of Professional Conduct from the American Historical Association, such as this one:

Professional integrity in the practice of history requires awareness of one’s own biases and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. Historians should document their findings and be prepared to make available their sources, evidence, and data, including any documentation they develop through interviews. Historians should not misrepresent their sources. They should report their findings as accurately as possible and not omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation. 


Hopefully we can all do better in the future.

We all recognize and appreciate the diligent, professional historians who have assembled, compiled, organized, and presented the voluminous historical record of the Restoration, particularly those who have worked with the Joseph Smith Papers. 

In the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding (nomorecontention.com), we have all been blessed by the world-class accuracy and reliability of the historical content in the Joseph Smith Papers.

For some time now we've also hoped that more accurate and complete information about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon would be made available to the Latter-day Saints around the world. For non-English speakers, the historical references are difficult to access. Few of these sources have been translated. Consequently, new, young and non-English speaking Latter-day Saints necessarily rely on a handful of materials, including the Saints books and the Gospel Topics Essays, for accurate information.

We've previously discussed the way the Saints book (Vol. 1) was written to accommodate the SITH (stone-in-the-hat) and M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs) agendas instead of to inform readers about the authentic historical record regarding the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. E.g., https://saintsreview.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-historians-explain-censorship-in.html

We've also discussed how the Gospel Topics Essays on Book of Mormon Translation and Geography were written to accommodate the same agendas. For example, it's unthinkable that an essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon would omit what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said about the topic, but everyone can read the essays and see for themselves. E.g., https://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/p/gospel-topics-essay-on-translation.html

Even the editorial content of the Joseph Smith Papers accommodates these agendas. E.g., https://www.academia.edu/67756647/Agenda_driven_editorial_content_in_the_Joseph_Smith_Papers

Thus, there is room for improvement, as we've discussed many times on this blog. This post encourages such improvement in accuracy in the editorial content of these and other ancillary materials, in this case the Liahona magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan is so correct. I love these side by side comparisons as he takes the writings of historians and shares their edits and non links to quotes. Many Church Historians are wrong and want to keep their narrative without looking at Jonathan's amazing work. That is sad and wrong. I believe Joseph and the scriptures. You can't find one scripture that mentions a stone in a hat but many that say as JSH 1:35 says, "these stones, fastened to a breastplate" are what Joseph used. There is only one Hill Cumorah where the plates were deposited and that same hill and surrounding area is the place the Nephites fought their last battles and the same hill called Ramah, where the Jaredites fought last battles as well.


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...