This is a reposting of a comment from a podcast about our book By Means of the Urim and Thummim: Restoring translation to the restoration. These thoughtful questions are commonly raised so this is a resource for those interested.


Comment: “I'm planning to get their book soon, but I have a few questions in the meantime. Perhaps you could help answer it Steve, since you've apparently read the book already? If Jonathan or James wants to chime in or just let me know if these things are addressed in their book, that would be helpful. 

How do Jonathan and James reconcile the statements of faithful LDS members like Wilford Woodruff and Brigham Young who recorded in their diaries the experience of Joseph "showing them his seer stone" on December 27, 1841? Wilford Woodruff also described consecrating Joseph Smith's seer stone at the dedication of the Manti Temple in 1888 in his journal—and it would seem that he was in a position to know whether it was really Joseph's seer stone given the fact that he had seen it in 1841. 

Additionally, the original version of D&C 8 refers to the "rod of Aaron" as a "thing of Nature" which lends credence to the concept that dowsing rods were being used by Oliver Cowdery in the early church—a closely related concept to the usage of seer stones. 

On top of all this, Joseph Smith himself stated in the Elders' Journal of July 1838 when he was asked, "Was not Joseph Smith a money digger?" his answer was: "Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it." 

These are sincere questions on my part—I'm not pointing any of this out in a polemical or agenda-driven context. I just have never been able to get solid explanations from U&T-only advocates for all of these apparent anomalies which seem to argue against a pure U&T-based translation. 

What was Joseph Smith's purpose for having the seer stone if he didn't use it for translation? 

Why did Wilford Woodruff call his seer stone a Urim & Thummim? 

Why did Wilford Woodruff and others describe Joseph Smith as translating the Book of Abraham with the Urim & Thummim even though Joseph apparently no longer had access to the Nephite interpreters once the BoM translation was completed?


Reply: We are aware of these few references to seer stones.  As with all historical references, they need to be put in their full historical context. These few references are thrown up repeatedly by seer stone proponents to argue that seer stones were big in the early Church.  But a very different picture emerges when these few scattered references are put in a larger context. 

1) The total historical record of the early Church runs to tens of thousands of pages.  The Joseph Smith Papers are many volumes, the Journal of Discourses is 26 volumes, Woodruff's diary is hundreds of pages and that is still only a fraction of the total historical record.  Yet, out of those thousands and thousands of pages, seer stone proponents have only come up with those few references mentioning seer stones outside of E. H. Howe, William McLellin and David Whitmer's SITH (stone-in-the-hat) campaigns advancing their anti-Joseph Smith agendas.  

Taking the totality of the record, seer stones are actually mentioned very rarely, especially considering how prevalent seer stone proponents want to make them out to be in early Church history.

And the only place they are specifically mentioned in modern Scripture, their use is condemned (D&C 28:11).

2) As for the two isolated references to Joseph showing Brigham and Wilford a seer stone in 1841 and the one account of Wilford dedicating a seer stone in the Manti Temple (a practice never repeated since in now hundreds of temple dedications and re-dedications), we would make three points:

(a) No one contends that Joseph did not have one or more seer stones.  They were popular souvenirs in his day, like pet rocks or lucky charms today.  The question is what he did with them. 

What is clear from repeated written statements by both Joseph and Oliver is that the Book of Mormon was translated with the dual Nephite interpreters which came with the plates.  This excludes translation by a different seer stone found elsewhere. 

You ask why he had a seer stone if not for translation.  Lots of people collect interesting rocks, and this would be especially the case if you grew up in a culture where they were thought to possibly be lucky or special in some way, the way many people today regard healing crystals.

(b) In any case, whatever Joseph showed Brigham and Wilford in 1841, it could not be the brown striped stone now held by the Church which SITH proponents claim was the seer stone used to translate the Book of Mormon.  In an article published in the Ensign, historians state that that stone was given by Joseph to Oliver Cowdery in 1831, which then passed from Oliver's widow to Brigham's brother around 1850 who then gave it to Brigham. It became part of his estate when he died and one of his wives, Zina, obtained it and gave it to the Church. By 1841, Oliver had left the Church and was nowhere near Nauvoo. Thus, any seer stone Joseph showed the brethren in 1841 in Nauvoo could not have been the seer stone which SITH proponents claim was used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. 

And if Wilford Woodruff put a seer stone in the Manti Temple altar (a one-off never repeated action), and that stone was the one he saw in 1841, it could not have been the stone SITH proponents claim was used in the translation.  

Conclusion: These few scattered out-of-context references only show that early Church members on a few rare occasions still played with seer stones. 

These accounts do not refute in any way the repeated, consistent testimonies from Joseph and Oliver that the Book of Mormon was translated with the Nephite interpreters.

(c) Also note that even that one isolated incident in 1841 is not clearcut. Brigham Young's account of the same meeting Woodruff wrote about is quite different. He says Joseph explained the Urim & Thummim and showed them his seer stone; i.e., two separate topics. Woodruff either misunderstood or conflated the two. However, as we show in our book, Joseph on several occasions would show a seer stone to try to explain the Nephite interpreters "to satisfy the awful curiosity" of his supporters.

3)    As to the Elders' Journal reference to Joseph's employment in money-digging, he never denied it.  It is even referenced in the Scriptures (See JS-H 1:56) and further discussed by Oliver in Letter VIII in his early Church history [see below]

However, to argue from that to prove he used a seer stone to translate is jumping over dozens of unproven intermediate steps. Critics like to paint a sweeping picture that tries to collapse Joseph’s early employment in treasure-digging to argue that therefore he must have used his treasure-digging peep stone to translate, but that argument falls apart when you look at all the blanks that it has to leap over when analyzed in detail. 

Along these lines, note that when he returned to the Church in 1848, Oliver still had the brown striped stone Joseph had given him, but in his address to the Saints he instead talked (yet again) only of the Urim & Thummim Nephite interpreters instrument. [see below]

4)    As to the use of the term "Urim & Thummim" in a couple of late scattered references, note that as originally used, the term only referred to the Nephite interpreters.  All persons with even peripheral connections to the translation, when referring to the translation, always, always used the term only for the Nephite interpreters, and referred to the seer stone as a different object.  This includes persons cited by SITH proponents like Emma Smith and David Whitmer.  

However, by the 1840s, use of the term had gotten looser such as in the 1843 revelation now in D&C 130. Your references to the use of the term in the 1840s and later reflect this looser use of the term, but are logically irrelevant to the use of the term for the Nephite interpreters in connection with the translation, where everyone used it only to refer to the interpreters.

5)    No one is disputing that the early Saints lived in a culture with folk magic beliefs. With regard to the early version of D&C 8, it may be that Oliver thought he could translate with a divining rod, but the next section of the D&C makes clear that that was a bust.  The Book of Mormon could not be translated by folk magic.  It could only be translated with ancient divinely created interpreter devices especially prepared by the Lord. (See D&C 17:1 and JH-S 1:35).


Oliver on treasure digging. Oliver discussed the treasure seeking claims that had been raised on Mormonism Unvailed when he wrote Letter VIII. https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/105

Notice at the end of the second paragraph how careful Oliver is to distinguish between facts and speculation.


Soon after this visit to Cumorah, a gentleman from the south part of the State, (Chenango County,) employed our brother as a common laborer, and accordingly he visited that section of <the> country; and had he not been accused of digging down all, or nearly so the mountains of Susquehannah [Susquehanna], or causing others to do it by some art of nicromancy, I should leave this, for the present, unnoticed. You will remember, in the mean time, that those who seek to vilify his character, say that he has always been notorious for his idleness. 

This gentleman, whose name is Stowel [Josiah Stowell], resided in the town of Bainbridge, on or near the head waters of the Susquehannah river. Some forty miles south, or down the river, in the town of Harmony, Susquehannah county, Pa. is said to be a cave or subteraneous recess, whether entirely formed by art or not I am uninformed, neither does this matter; but such is said to be the case,— where a company of Spaniards, a long time since, when the country was uninhabited by white setlers, excavated from the bowels of the earth ore, and coined a large quantity of money; after which they secured the cavity and evacuated, leaving a part still in the cave, purposing to return at some distant period. A long time elapsed and this account came from one of the individuals who was first engaged in this <mining> buisness. The country was pointed out and the spot minutely described. This I believe, is the substance, so far as my memory serves, though I shall not pledge my verasity for the correctness of the account as I have given.—
Enough however, was credited of the Spaniards story, to ex[c]ite the belief of many that there was a fine sum of the precious metal lying coined in this subteraneous vault, among whom was our employer; and accordingly our brother was required to spend a few months with some others in excavating the earth, in pursuit of this treasure.

For those interested in Book of Mormon geography issues, Oliver described Stowel as living in Bainbridge "on or near the head waters of the Susquehannah River." The actual headwaters of that river are in Cooperstown, NY, more than 50 miles upriver from Bainbridge. This does not mean Oliver wrote in error.

Bainbridge was about 40 miles upriver from Harmony. Another 20 miles downriver from Harmony is the town of Binghamton. Jonathan Edwards sent his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr., to serve with the Indians in that area. Edwards Senior referred to this area as the “head of the Susquehanna river.” 

Obviously, he did not mean Binghamton was located at the source of the river. Instead, for Edwards the "head of the river" was the confluence between the Susquehanna and the Chenango rivers in present-day Binghamton.

Although there is no similar major river joining the Susquehanna in Bainbridge, there are streams running into the river there. We can't tell whether Oliver referred to Bainbridge as the headwaters by mistake, but given Edwards' designation, it appears there were at least two separate locations along the river known as "headwaters." The term apparently referred to a confluence of rivers and/or a significant site along the river.


Oliver rejoins the Church.

An article in the Ensign from October 2015 explains some of the history of the seer stone.

According to Joseph Smith’s history, he returned the Urim and Thummim, or Nephite “interpreters,” to the angel. But what became of the other seer stone or stones that Joseph used in translating the Book of Mormon?

David Whitmer wrote that “after the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more.”26

Oliver, who was outside the Church for a decade until being rebaptized in 1848, planned to go west to be with the Saints in Utah, but he died in 1850 in Richmond, Missouri, before making the trip.27 Phineas Young, who had helped bring Oliver Cowdery back into the Church, obtained the seer stone from Oliver’s widow, who was David Whitmer’s sister, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery. Phineas in turn gave it to his brother Brigham Young.28 

If, as the history indicates, Oliver possessed the stone from 1830 until he died, that means he had it with him in 1848 when he rejoined the Church in Iowa.

Oliver's statement upon rejoining was carefully recorded by Reuben Miller. As you read this, realize that Oliver had the seer stone with him, possibly in his pocket. 

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.


On that occasion, Oliver did not produce the seer stone to show the audience as corroboration of his testimony. 

He did not say Joseph translated any portion of the record by means of that seer stone.

He did not equate the seer stone with the holy interpreters. 

Instead, he reaffirmed what he had written in 1834 in response to Mormonism Unvailed

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