The SITH problem: 1829-2024

From the outset of the Restoration, SITH was a problem. It started in 1829. Joseph and Oliver tried to refute it (by emphasizing that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates) in published accounts in 1830, 1834, 1835, 1838, 1841, 1842, and 1844. 

Nevertheless, SITH persisted.

Joseph's successors in Church leadership reiterated Joseph's teachings about the Urim and Thummim for over 150 years. The last General Conference address to specifically reaffirm what Joseph and Oliver taught was by Elder L. Tom Perry in April 2007.

The translation of the Book of Mormon is a miracle in itself and gives further proof of the book’s divine origin. When Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, on April 5, 1829, to serve as the Prophet’s scribe, only a few pages of the final text had been translated. That evening Joseph and Oliver sat down together and discussed the Prophet’s experiences long into the night. Two days later, on April 7, they commenced the translation of the work. Over the next three months, Joseph translated at an amazing rate—approximately 500 printed pages in about 60 working days.

Oliver wrote of this remarkable experience: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim … the history, or record, called ‘The book of Mormon’” (Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 14; see also Joseph Smith—History 1:71, note).

(2007, April, L. Tom Perry, ‘The Message of the Restoration,’ Ensign, May 2007, ¶ 27–28)

Since then, no one has quoted or even reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver taught about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Let's look at the history.

1829. In 1829, even before the Book of Mormon was published, Jonathan Hadley wrote an antagonistic, derogatory article that was widely circulated, in which he claimed Joseph put "spectacles" in a hat and read words to his scribe. Some LDS scholars cite this article as evidence of SITH!

1830. Joseph Smith denounced the "false reports" of Hadley's SITH narrative in the Preface to the 1830 Book of Mormon, explaining 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." Nothing in the Preface suggests, implies, or even accommodates the claim that Joseph read words off a stone (or spectacles) in a hat.

1832. An article in the Boston Investigator 2 (August 10, 1832), reported on the missionary efforts of Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith (Joseph's younger brother). They had been called on a mission to the "eastern countries" in January 1832 (D&C 75:13). 

The article included this exchange:

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.

1834-5. In response to the persistent SITH allegations in the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, Joseph and Oliver twice explained the U&T in two of the eight essays on Church history published in the 1834-5 Messenger and Advocate, an account that Joseph had his scribes copy into his journal and that was republished in the Gospel Reflector, the Times and Seasons, the Millennial StarThe Prophet, and the Improvement Era. 

But their account was never published in the Ensign or the Liahona. It probably never will be.

Consequently, most Latter-day Saints will never know what they said.

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.

Fortunately, another excerpt from this account was added as a note to JS-H 1:71 so Latter-day Saints everywhere can read it. But we don't see this quoted in Saints or the Gospel Topics Essay. 

Actually, the Gospel Topics Essay edited the note in JS-H to omit the portion in bold below!

“These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites should have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or reccord, called “the book of Mormon."

1835. Because the SITH rumors persisted, for the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph edited what is now D&C 10:1 to clarify that he had the power to translate "by the means of the Urim and Thummim." He also added D&C 17 which explained that the witnesses would have a view of "the Urim and Thummim" along with other artifacts related to the Book of Mormon. No "seer stone" was included among the evidences of the Book of Mormon.

In 1838, Joseph set out several oft-asked questions in the Elders' Journal. Joseph answered the question about the Book of Mormon directly, clearly, and unambiguously. This should be the starting place for any discussion of the translation, but the SITH scholars never quote it.

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. 

The Gospel Topics Essay on Translation (GTE) actually includes a citation to the Elders' Journal in note 19, but only regarding Joseph's answer to whether he was a "money digger." The GTE completely ignores what Joseph said about the translation, even though Joseph's explanation quoted above is on the same page as the "money digger" answer! Here again, the historians deliberately omitted what Joseph said about the translation.

1841. In 1841, the Church history essays were republished in the Times and Seasons, the Millennial Star, and the Gospel Reflector. 

1842. Then, in the 1842 Wentworth letter, Joseph reiterated the point. This, too, is missing from the GTE.

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. 

Also in 1842, the Times and Seasons published part of History of Joseph Smith, including this passage:

He 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 fullness of the everlasting gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Saviour 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 was what constituted seers in ancient or former times, and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. ...

Again he told me that when I got those plates of which he had spoken (for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled) I should not show them to any person, neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them, if I did I should be destroyed. ...

immediately after my arrival there [in Harmony, PA] I commenced copying the characters of the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them,

(Times and Seasons III.12:753 ¶4-5, 7, now in Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price)

1844. In 1844, Joseph's brother William Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, republished the Church history essays yet again, this time in the New York newspaper called The Prophet.

1848. Oliver Cowdery rejoined the Saints in 1848. Reuben Miller recorded Oliver's statement upon rejoining. As you read what he said, realize that Oliver had possession of the seer stone, possibly in his pocket, but didn't mention it as relevant to the Book of Mormon. 

Friends and Brethren, my name is Cowdery—Oliver Cowdery. In the early history of this Church I stood identified with her, and one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. Not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called; but, to fulfill the purposes of God, He called me to a high and holy calling. 

I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, ‘holy interpreters.’ 

I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the ‘holy interpreters.’ That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.

For over 150 years, Joseph's contemporaries and successors in church leadership reiterated what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

None of those accounts are included, except for one misleading excerpt, in the Gospel Topics Essay or the Saints book. See, e.g.,

Even in the March 2024 Liahona, an article that purports to relate what Joseph said about the translation omits these references (except for a brief misleadingly edited excerpt from the Wentworth letter).

Instead, our Church historians quote from Emma Smith's dubious "Last Testimony" and David Whitmer's antagonistic "Address to All Believers in Christ," both published 50 years after the events they purport to describe.

No wonder so many Latter-day Saints (and prospective Latter-day Saints) have problems SITH.

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