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 As with all historical references, they need to be put in their full historical context.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).