Saturday, December 31, 2022

Nativity artwork and false narratives

This week, critics created a false narrative that is a good example of how such narratives often originate, whether ignorantly, negligently, or intentionally.

Gordon Monson, a columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune who usually writes thoughtful material, wrote a piece with this long title and subtitle:

Gordon Monson: When the LDS Church alters classic art in the name of modesty, it does more harm than good

Such moves are an affront to women and make the church look not just prudish but also extreme.

It's a misleading and foolish article when we learn that the original artist himself painted at least two versions, one with the exact attributes that Monson complained about; i.e., no angels and more modest clothing.

IOW, Monson accuses the Church of doing exactly what the original artist himself did!

Note: In a tweet, Monson tried to justify himself by writing:

To those making accusations that proper research wasn't done for a column about the LDS Church's altering a painting for modesty, I can assure you, it was done. The church confirmed to The Tribune that it had edited the depiction, and then had no comment. Thanks for reading.

Obviously, that doesn't address the problem with Monson's failure to mention that the original artist made similar (almost exactly the same) changes. 

Monson relied on an earlier article in the SLTrib with an equally sensational and misleading title, this one by Scott D. Pierce:

Latter-day Saints alter a Nativity painting to make Mary more modest

New version removes cleavage in Carlo Maratta’s 17th-century artwork.

The illustration used in both articles:

(click to enlarge)

Here is the artist's original that they omitted:

The Prado explains the piece this way:

The Virgin laying the sleeping Christ on Straw

Ca. 1656. Oil on panel.
On display elsewhere

This painting listed in the inventory of Queen Elizabeth of Farnesio offers a slightly varied reproduction of the central motive of the fresco of the Adoration of the Shepherds that decorates the Alaleone Chapel at the church of Sant’Isidoro Agricola in Rome. An early work, it was Maratti’s most important commission from the mid 1650s. This was the moment when he began to free himself from the influences of RaphaelCarracciReni and Correggio, opting for greater compositional freedom and movement favored by contrasting light and shadows. This is visible in the present small and very beautiful panel. Nonetheless, he never abandoned the measured and delicate gestures that mark his characteristically harmonious classicism and made him the most appreciated and influential Roman artist of the late 17th century (Text from La Belleza Cautiva. Pequeños tesoros del Museo del PradoMuseo Nacional del Prado, Obra Social la Caixa, 2014, p. 99).


The first Trib article points out that the Church's website removed the painting without giving an explanation, which implies guilt. Maybe a better approach would have been to point out the Prado piece.

Excerpt from the Pierce article, provided for archival purposes in case they change the article:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members to download a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus for Christmas, but it was an edited version — altered to remove a hint of Mary’s cleavage.

On its website, the church shared 18 Nativity images for members to retrieve and share or maybe use as a screen saver on their laptops, tablets or phones. One of those pictures is a painting by Italian artist Carlo Maratta from the 1650s of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child — except that someone modified the painting before sharing it on the website.

In the original Maratta painting, titled “The Holy Night” or “The Nativity,” small angels peek past Mary to gaze at the baby. In the church’s version, the angels have been removed.

(As of Wednesday, after an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune, the Maratta image had been removed from the website.)

In Maratta’s original, Mary shows a hint of cleavage as she gazes adoringly at her newborn. In the Latter-day Saint version, someone has not only given Mary a higher neckline but also moved a shawl a bit higher on her left shoulder, giving her added modesty after more than 3½ centuries.

The church declined to comment on the altered artwork.

The edited version of Maratta’s painting was created for the 2016 Light the World initiative, which is intended to encourage acts of Yuletide service. The original painting hangs in the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church, next to the Forum in Rome.

Excerpt from the Monson article, provided for archival purposes in case they change the article:

When does a church’s effort to champion female modesty have a corrosive effect on the way women view and feel about their own bodies?

Too often.

There’s no shame in the natural female form. It’s a good guess that even God would agree with that, since if you believe in him, you figure he was the author of it. But you wouldn’t know that by the way The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a faith, by the way, that preaches of a Heavenly Mother — attempts to keep it under wraps.

By now, you may have read in The Salt Lake Tribune about the Utah-based faith modifying classic works of art, including eliminating any hint of the Virgin Mary’s cleavage in Carlo Maratta’s 17th-century painting of the Nativity. In the church’s version, which had been made available on its website, Mary’s neckline is raised and a shawl covering her shoulder is a bit higher.

Not only are the alterations an affront to classic art — the church’s image also edited out surrounding angels depicted in the original — but they also either unwittingly or wittingly send the aforementioned message to women that there’s something shameful about their bodies. In other works, the church has previously covered the shoulders of female angels.

We get it. The church is all-in on modesty. But the attendant shame put upon women coming alongside that overemphasis on keeping themselves covered backfires on the church, not just in the harm it creates among women and women’s self-esteem, but also in sexualizing them as objects or, even worse, possessions.

Not good, brethren.

Ironically, news of this doctored photo emerges at a time when members are praising the church’s new principle-based “For the Strength of Youth” guidelines for backing away from proscriptive instructions on modesty.

Nothing wrong with respecting women; nothing wrong with modesty, but when the church drapes a shirt over the Virgin Mary in classic art, eliminating the slightest bit of cleavage, what exactly does that do? It draws more attention to that form, sexualizes it, even in a rendering that depicts the mother of the Lord in complete innocence, adoring her newborn.

It makes the church look not just prudish but also extreme.

Some experts believe such a heavy-handed approach to modesty becomes a controlling mechanism, a tool to suppress female expression and to — wrongly — make women feel as if they are responsible for men’s sexual thoughts.

For women, that modesty mechanism can cause fear and anxiety, they say, particularly when the boundaries for compliance are spelled out primarily by male church leaders.

If the church makes a big deal out of the hint of a woman’s cleavage then it becomes … a big deal. What it should be is … natural and normal, which is to say, it should be normalized.

Nobody’s saying here to be disrespectful, especially when it comes to such a revered character as Mary. The encouragement and point isn’t, from the church’s perspective, for it to encourage the flaunting of a woman’s body to the edge of abject immodesty, wherever that neckline or hemline is to be drawn.

And those lines should be drawn by each woman for herself.

It’s the overwrought and overbearing messages, the extremes, that do more harm than good, the insistence that women cloak themselves because doing otherwise, even to the point of showing a little shoulder or midriff or whatever, in real modern life or in a centuries-old painting, is disfavored on the one end or deplorable on the other.

Society has already done a negative number on the way too many women view their bodies. When faith leaders add to that number, women of all kinds, particularly females of faith, too often are made to look at themselves and feel what they should not feel — chagrin, dishonor, shame and disgrace.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Edward Stevenson's journal account of the messenger

Edward Stevenson (1820-1897) joined the Church as a teenager after Joseph Smith visited his family in Pontiac, Michigan. He became a famous missionary, reportedly traveling more miles as a missionary at his own expense than any other missionary. 

Stevenson interviewed David Whitmer and was instrumental in bringing Martin Harris to Utah. 

Stevenson's journal is available at the Church History site. On the page below, he related his conversation with David Whitmer about the messenger who took the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah. Joseph Smith identified him as one of the Three Nephites.

Here's the link:

Go to page 203 of 330.

(click to enlarge)

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Analysis: The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation

One of the most fundamental truth claims of the Restoration is the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, including its origin as a translation of ancient Nephite records. That truth claim was challenged in the early days of the Church by critics (such as E.D. Howe in Mormonism Unvailed) who claimed Joseph Smith didn't really translate anything but instead 

    (i) read words that appeared on a "peep stone" (the "stone-in-the-hat" narrative, aka SITH) and didn't even use the plates, 


    (ii) read a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding. 

Critics continue to employ the same arguments against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. But recently, several faithful LDS scholars have embraced the SITH narrative; i.e., they agree with the critics that Joseph didn't actually translate the engravings on the plates. 

They differ from the critics only in asserting that the words on the stone were from a divine source instead of from a human or malevolent source, as claimed by critics. 

The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, as of 1 September 2022, accommodates the SITH narrative. I propose that it be revised or edited to provide Latter-day Saints and other interested readers an accurate resource with a range of alternative interpretations of the historical evidence.


The introduction to the Gospel Topics Essays quotes D&C 88:118 and explains that "Seeking ‘out of the best books’ does not mean seeking only one set of opinions, but it does require us to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable sources."

The essays were originally intended “to provide accurate and transparent information on church history and doctrine within the framework of faith…” Leaders were told that “When church members have questions regarding [LDS] history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.”

However, the essay as currently published does not provide accurate and transparent information because it deliberately omits what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught about the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim (U&T) that came with the plates.

Readers deserve to be informed about what Joseph and Oliver taught, even though their claims contradict the currently popular “stone-in-the-hat” (SITH) narrative.

The current version of the essay is also misleading in several respects because it is carefully worded to accommodate the SITH narrative. Rather than acknowledge the irreconcilable contradiction between the SITH narrative and what Joseph and Oliver taught, the essay simply

(i)                  omits what Joseph and Oliver taught and

(ii)                tries to dodge the conflict by redefining the term Urim and Thummim to include the seer stone, contrary to the plain meaning of what Joseph and Oliver taught. 

To fulfill the stated purpose of the essay, at a minimum the essay should

(i)                  quote what Joseph and Oliver taught

(ii)                acknowledge the conflict between the SITH and U&T narratives, and

(iii)               outline multiple alternative reconciliations. Among these are the redefinition of terms approach and the evidence that the seer stone accounts originated with a demonstration rather than the actual translation process.


The table below includes commentary on the essay.

Gospel Topics Essay


1. Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any Book on earth & the keystone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other Book.”1 The Book of Mormon came into the world through a series of miraculous events.

The footnote explains this quotation comes from Wilford Woodruff’s journal, so it would be better to explain that “Wilford Woodruff reported that Joseph Smith taught that the Book of Mormon was ‘the most correct…’.”

In the 1800s, Woodruff’s summary was converted into a first-person quotation attributed to Joseph Smith. Inexplicably, the fake quotation remains in the official Introduction to the Book of Mormon.

2. Much can be known about the coming forth of the English text of the Book of Mormon through a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith, his scribes, and others closely associated with the translation of the Book of Mormon.

This is an ideal aspiration, but as we’ll see below, the essay doesn’t follow through because instead of offering “a careful study of statements made by Joseph Smith” and his scribes, the essay omits those statements and focuses on others.

3. Joseph Smith reported that on the evening of September 21, 1823, while he prayed in the upper room of his parents’ small log home in Palmyra, New York, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared and told Joseph that “God had a work for [you] to do.”2

Readers should know that the first and most reliable and authoritative identification of the messenger as Moroni was in Cowdery’s Letter VI, written in 1835 when Cowdery was Assistant President of the Church and with the assistance of Joseph Smith.

The quotation is from what is now Joseph Smith—History 1:33. That verse identifies the angel as Moroni.

The original version was published in the Times and Seasons on 15 April 1842.  There, the angel who visited was identified as Nephi. Lucy Mack Smith’s history quoted the Times and Seasons, also identifying the angel as Nephi. 

Some have wondered why the compilers of this history would have identified the angel as “Nephi” and why Joseph, supposedly the active editor of the Times and Seasons when this account was published, would not have “corrected” the identification. One reason could be that Joseph was merely the nominal editor; i.e., someone else was the actual editor. (That’s what I think the evidence shows. ) Another could be that the compilers knew Joseph interacted with both Moroni and Nephi and weren’t sure which one appeared in 1823.

Brigham Young taught that Joseph had interactions with Nephi (one of the unnamed three Nephites from 3 Nephi 28) as well as with Moroni.

One such incident can be pieced together from the historical record. Before leaving Harmony in May/June 1829, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger he later identified as “one of the Nephites.” The same messenger later showed the Fayette plates to Mary Whitmer. She said he identified himself as Brother Nephi.

For more about the Moroni/Nephi problem, see "Moroni and Nephi clarified" here: 

4. He informed Joseph that “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.”



Readers should know that the earliest explanation was in Cowdery’s Letter IV, which states that the messenger “said this history was written and deposited not far from that place [the Smith farm near Palmyra], and that it was [Joseph’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.”

5. The book could be found in a hill not far from the Smith family farm.

This is an uncredited paraphrase of President Cowdery’s 1835 Letter IV, in which Moroni tells Joseph “this history was written and deposited not far from that place [the Smith family farm near Palmyra].” Letter IV gives additional details from this visit that relate to the translation, but these details are omitted in this essay. The angel “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 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."


Readers deserve to know that during his first visit, Moroni told Joseph “the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place.”

Oliver declared it was a fact that the hill Cumorah in New York is the same as the hill Cumorah in Mormon 6:6.

6. This was no ordinary history, for it contained “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel as delivered by the Savior.”3

This is another quotation from Joseph Smith—History 1:34.

Inexplicably, the next verse, 35, is never quoted or cited in the essay. That verse explains what accompanied the plates: “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.”

7. The angel charged Joseph Smith to translate the book from the ancient language in which it was written.

This is an inaccurate, misleading paraphrase of what Moroni said because it omits Moroni’s explanation that Joseph would translate the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. The Urim and Thummim was specifically prepared for a seer to translate the unknown language.

The essay should quote, or at least cite, the actual source.

“Moroni said] that it was [Joseph’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.”


8. The young man, however, had very little formal education and was incapable of writing a book on his own, let alone translating an ancient book written from an unknown language, known in the Book of Mormon as “reformed Egyptian.”4

Joseph’s formal education was limited to three years, but he knew the many Biblical passages Moroni quoted well enough to discern that Moroni had quoted some exactly and changed the wording in other passages. Joseph was also “intimately familiar” with Christian doctrines and writings.

9. Joseph’s wife Emma insisted that, at the time of translation, Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”5

Actually, Joseph wrote a letter to his uncle Jesse before he translated the Book of Mormon. Jesse said it looked like it had been written by a prophet. A letter Joseph wrote to Oliver shortly after the translation was complete is both coherent and well worded, and it does not merely repeat Book of Mormon language.

Emma purportedly related this statement to her son, Joseph Smith III, shortly before she died in 1879 (50 years after Joseph translated the plates). The account was published after her death. Emma never publicly acknowledged the statement. Plus, her statement doesn’t make sense because Joseph did dictate the book.

10. Joseph received the plates in September 1827 and the following spring, in Harmony, Pennsylvania, began translating them in earnest, with Emma and his friend Martin Harris serving as his main scribes.

Good as is, except it is misleading because he didn’t receive the plates by themselves. Readers should know about two key scriptural passages: “At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate.” (Joseph Smith—History 1:59)

“immediately after my arrival [in Pennsylvania] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following." (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

11. The resulting English transcription, known as the Book of Lehi and referred to by Joseph Smith as written on 116 pages, was subsequently lost or stolen. As a result, Joseph Smith was rebuked by the Lord and lost the ability to translate for a short time.6

The essay doesn’t explain what “lost the ability to translate” means, but Lucy Mack Smith explained that Joseph had to give up the Urim and Thummim after losing the 116 pages.

Later, Joseph told her that “on the 22d of September [1828], I had the joy and satisfaction of again receiving the Urim and Thummim; and have commenced translating again, and Emma writes for me; but the angel said that the Lord would send me a scribe, and I trust his promise will be verified. He also seemed pleased with me, when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim; and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.

“Soon after I received them I inquired of the Lord, and obtained the following revelation”:

“Now, behold I say unto you, that, because <you> delivered up those writings, which you had power given you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them; and you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened;”  

Notice how the Urim and Thummim was directly linked to Joseph’s ability to translate throughout this incident. The essay explains none of this; it merely says Joseph “lost the ability to translate for a short time.”

12. Joseph began translating again in 1829, and almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a three-month period between April and June of that year.

David Whitmer said it took 8 months. Joseph said he started translating in the fall of 1828 after he received the record and the Urim and Thummim back. Some portion or all of the Book of Mosiah was translated before Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony in April.

13. His chief scribe during these months was Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher from Vermont who learned about the Book of Mormon while boarding with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra. Called by God in a vision, Cowdery traveled to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and investigate further.

 Fine as is.

14. Of his experience as scribe, Cowdery wrote, “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven.”7

This truncated quotation misleadingly omits a key teaching relevant to the topic.

“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 would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’

(Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

15. The manuscript that Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others is known today as the original manuscript, about 28 percent of which still survives.8 This manuscript corroborates Joseph Smith’s statements that the manuscript was written within a short time frame and that it was dictated from another language. For example, it includes errors that suggest the scribe heard words incorrectly rather than misread words copied from another manuscript.9 In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.10

 This is fine as is, except to the extent that, by citing Skousen's work, the essay could be interpreted as endorsing Skousen's theory that Joseph didn't translate the plates. Skousen has also claimed that Joseph and Oliver deliberately misled everyone by teaching that (i) Joseph translated the plates and (ii) used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

16. Unlike most dictated drafts, the original manuscript was considered by Joseph Smith to be, in substance, a final product.

 This statement is not supported by anything Joseph said, and is contradicted by Joseph's later editing of the text in 1837 and 1840.

17. To assist in the publication of the book, Oliver Cowdery made a handwritten copy of the original manuscript. This copy is known today as the printer’s manuscript. Because Joseph Smith did not call for punctuation, such as periods, commas, or question marks, as he dictated, such marks are not in the original manuscript. The typesetter later inserted punctuation marks when he prepared the text for the printer.11 With the exceptions of punctuation, formatting, other elements of typesetting, and minor adjustments required to correct copying and scribal errors, the dictation copy became the text of the first printed edition of the book.12

  This is fine as is.

Translation Instruments


18. Many accounts in the Bible show that God transmitted revelations to His prophets in a variety of ways. Elijah learned that God spoke not to him through the wind or fire or earthquake but through a “still small voice.”13 Paul and other early Apostles sometimes communicated with angels and, on occasion, with the Lord Jesus Christ.14 At other times, revelation came in the form of dreams or visions, such as the revelation to Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, or through sacred objects like the Urim and Thummim.15

  This is fine as is, although it overlooks the obvious point that we have no original manuscripts of Biblical texts and that every English version is a translation. No one claims the English texts came by revelation.

19. Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people. For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments.

  This is fine as is, except for the plural of "physical instruments." This would be a good place to explain that God prepared Joseph from a young age for his future role as translator.

20. Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon.

This is a deliberately misleading sentence. Joseph never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim.

Oliver Cowdery, his main scribe for all but a few pages of the Book of Mormon we have today, never wrote of any instrument other than the Urim and Thummim.

Another scribe, John Whitmer, also spoke only of the Urim and Thummim.

That leaves only Martin Harris and Emma Smith as scribes who wrote about two instruments. However, Martin never wrote about the translation, and Emma wrote only a brief letter in which she mentioned two instruments. Additional verbal statements of varying reliability have been attributed to Martin and Emma but were not written by them.

21. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English.

This is by definition hearsay because the only person who looked into the instruments was Joseph Smith. We have no record of a direct statement by Joseph about what he saw or how he used the instruments, except that he used them to translate.

The witness statements reflect inference, assumption, and conjecture.

Furthermore, these witnesses could not have seen the actual translation because Joseph was forbidden to show them either the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, the evidence suggests they merely observed a demonstration. All of their statements are consistent with having observed a demonstration, not the actual translation of the plates

22. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” Joseph found the interpreters buried in the hill with the plates.16

This is another misleading statement, designed to imply that the term “Urim and Thummim” was an invented term that is only "better known" to modern Latter-day Saints. That's directly contradicts the historical record.

The “interpreters” were “better known” during Joseph’s time as the “Urim and Thummim” because Joseph himself referred to the Nephite interpreters as the “Urim and Thummim,” as is plain throughout Joseph Smith—History and his other accounts of Moroni’s visit. The essay consistently evades that important point. 

Furthermore, they were not “buried.” They were “deposited” in a stone box. “Buried” implies a false connection with “buried treasure.”

23. Those who saw the interpreters described them as a clear pair of stones bound together with a metal rim. The Book of Mormon referred to this instrument, together with its breastplate, as a device “kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord” and “handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages.”17

Important: this is the only instrument that Oliver and Joseph ever said that Joseph used during the translation.

As indicated in the footnote, some scholars assume it was W.W. Phelps who coined the term “Urim and Thummim” for the interpreters because Phelps’ article in the 1833 Evening and Morning Star was thought to be the earliest extant published account that uses that term. However, Phelps’ article is also consistent with prior use of the term, whether verbal or printed; i.e., Phelps was providing an explanation of the term for readers who were familiar with the Bible.

More importantly, the first known published use of the term “Urim and Thummim” that refers to the Nephite interpreters was reported on August 5, 1832, when Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith told an audience in Boston that the translation “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.”  Of course, Orson and Samuel undoubtedly heard that from someone else—presumably Joseph or Oliver.

Letter IV portrays Moroni telling Joseph that it was his privilege “to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.” When Oliver wrote these letters, he explained he was using original documents then in their possession. He could have referred to the notebook he kept during the translation process, in which he recorded the things Joseph told him. In other words, it could have been Moroni, not W.W. Phelps, who first identified the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim.

The footnote observes that Joseph “most often used the term “Urim and Thummim,” but does not explain that we have no record of Joseph ever using the term “seer stone” to explain his translation of the Book of Mormon.

24. The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.”18

Here the essay leads readers to think past the sale by describing the “seer stone” as an instrument used for the translation, contrary to what Joseph and Oliver expressly taught.

25. As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.19 

Joseph and Oliver both jokingly acknowledged the allegations, but neither stated, suggested, or implied it was anything as extensive as the critics (and some modern LDS historians and apologists) claim.

26. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.20

The last sentence is pure speculation, portrayed here as fact. There are no historical records in which Joseph says or implies anything like this.

27. Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters.

This is also pure speculation, portrayed as fact. Neither Joseph nor Oliver ever said he used one seer stone to translate the text. 

Others claimed they observed Joseph dictating words, but none of them reported what the words were.  No one quoted Joseph saying he was translating the plates during these occasions. 

These accounts are consistent with people who observed a demonstration and inferred it was the actual translation. But these accounts also said Joseph did not use the Urim and Thummim or the plates, so by their own admission, they did not observe what Joseph and Oliver claimed about the actual translation.

28. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.21

Although the essay claims Joseph and his associates “often” used the term to refer to a seer stone, the footnote gives only one example, and that example doesn’t support the claim. 

The example is from Wilford Woodruff's journal. This happens to be one of the few events that Woodruff recorded for which we have another contemporaneous account that differs significantly from what Woodruff recorded, but the essay doesn't tell readers about that.

Over a decade after the translation, on December 27, 1841, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal “The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the seer + he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God the privileges + blessings of the priesthood + I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.” 

Woodruff does not describe the object, leaving historians to surmise he was referring to the seer stone so many people reported seeing Joseph use years previously. But Joseph had given that stone to Oliver Cowdery. Besides, if Woodruff was referring to the seer stone that many people had already seen, he doesn’t explain why it was such a privilege.

Brigham Young recorded the same occasion differently.

“I met with the Twelve at brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone.“

This quotation contradicts the main thesis of SITH. Brigham Young made an explicit distinction between "the Urim and Thummim which he [Joseph] found with the plates," and the "seer stone" Joseph had, which Joseph displayed to explain that "every man who lived on earth was entitled to" such a seer stone. Every man on earth was not entitled to the Urim and Thummim that Joseph found with the plates. Thus, Brigham Young specifically refuted the modern theory that the term "Urim and Thummim" referred to the seer stone Joseph found in a well. 

Unlike Brigham, Woodruff didn’t mention two separate objects. His statement can be interpreted several ways. Maybe he did use the terms interchangeably, contrary to Brigham. Maybe he missed part of the meeting or misunderstood. Maybe he didn’t care enough about the seer stone to mention it, but was impressed because Joseph still had the actual Urim and Thummim.

On February 19, 1842, Woodruff recorded in his journal that “the Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim Ancient records.” We can't tell whether Woodruff reported this from direct observation, from something Joseph said, or merely from his own inference.

Lucy Mack Smith wrote that “Joseph kept the Urim and Thummim constantly about his person.” She was writing about an event that occurred in 1827, but in Joseph Smith—History 1:60, he says nothing about him delivering the Urim and Thummim to the messenger.

Years later, Heber C. Kimball declared in General Conference that Brigham Young had the Urim and Thummim. Some say this referred to a seer stone, which is possible. But it is also congruent with Woodruff’s journal entry to infer that what Woodruff saw and what Brigham Young possessed was the actual Urim and Thummim that Joseph obtained with the plates.

All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors in Church leadership, including Brigham and Wilford, taught that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. None said or implied that he used a seer stone instead.

See the references and discussion here:

29. In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumined.22 Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters.

The Urim and Thummim in the Bible was never described as spectacles. Joseph never said or implied that the Urim and Thummim he had was the same as was mentioned in the Bible.

When the essay says "Latter-day Saints later understood the term..." it implies that the term was coined years after Joseph obtained the interpreters from Moroni. However, Joseph’s history shows it was Moroni who identified the interpreters as Urim and Thummim. JS-H 1:52.

30. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.

“Seem to have understood” is mindreading—and unsupportable historical revisionism. 

It's true that by 1843, usage had developed this way (D&C 130:8-10), but not before Nauvoo, and not with reference to the "seer stone" Joseph found in a well. 

In 1834, there was no confusion about the two terms. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed spelled out the two distinct and alternative explanations for the translation: SITH and U&T.

In response to Mormonism Unvailed, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith declared unequivocally that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. They published Letter I (now the footnote to Joseph Smith—History 1:71 that we discussed above). Thereafter, Joseph and Oliver consistently taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. All of Joseph’s contemporaries and successors did likewise. There are no known instances in which Joseph or Oliver ever used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to anything Joseph used for the translation of the Book of Mormon except the instrument Moroni put in the stone box.

31. Some people have balked at this claim of physical instruments used in the divine translation process, but such aids to facilitate the communication of God’s power and inspiration are consistent with accounts in scripture. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, the Bible mentions other physical instruments used to access God’s power: the rod of Aaron, a brass serpentholy anointing oils, the Ark of the Covenant, and even dirt from the ground mixed with saliva to heal the eyes of a blind man.23

These examples of divinely prepared instruments demonstrate that the Urim and Thummim was not a generic term applying to ordinary rocks, but instead referred to a specially prepare instrument, carefully preserved along with the plates.

The Mechanics of Translation


32. In the preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote: “I would inform you that I translated [the book], by the gift and power of God.”

This excerpt misleadingly portrays Joseph as saying merely that he “translated” “by the gift and power of God.”

However, in the balance of his statement, which the essay omits, Joseph explains the source: “the which I took from the Book of Lehi,” referring to the plates.

He did not say “the which I read on a stone.”

When read in context, Joseph unambiguously explained that he translated the plates.

33. When pressed for specifics about the process of translation, Joseph repeated on several occasions that it had been done “by the gift and power of God”24 and once added, “It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.”25

This is another misleading rephrasing of the original source.

The record does not show that Joseph was “pressed for specifics about the process of translation.” He was asked about “the coming forth of the book of Mormon” which involved more than the translation, such as Joseph being tutored by divine messengers (including Moroni and Nephi), details about the plates, the breastplate, and the interpreters, information about the repository in the hill Cumorah, whether there was only one or more sets of plates, or even where the Title Page was published.

While this 1831 statement could have also referred to the manner of translation, those present at the meeting did not apparently understand it that way. David Whitmer and Martin Harris were both present, and both later discussed details about the translation. If Joseph meant “it is not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the translation of the Book of Mormon,” then these two men violated Joseph’s instructions. There is no record of anyone stating that Joseph told them not to talk about the mechanics of the translation.

For that matter, after 1831 both Joseph and Oliver provided more details about the process of translation when they testified that Joseph translated the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

34. Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process.

This statement simply assumes these non-scribe witnesses observed the actual translation, even though their testimony directly contradicts what Joseph, Oliver, and John Whitmer said.

If we accept what Joseph and Oliver said, then whatever the witnesses observed regarding SITH was not the translation.

35. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone.

This analysis conflates the accounts and redefines “Urim and Thummim” to include the seer stone.

Joseph said he studied the characters (JS-H 1:62). Joseph and Oliver consistently said that Joseph translated the plates with the U&T that Moroni put in the stone box. Neither of them ever said or implied that Joseph used a seer stone.

Other observers who described SITH may or may not have observed the translation. They did not record what words they heard Joseph dictate, so we can’t tell what parts, if any, of the text they thought they witnessed being translated.

Dan Vogel, a critic of Joseph Smith, agrees with the anonymous authors of this essay.

“Eyewitness testimony confirms that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the same manner that he once hunted for buried treasure: that is, with his brown-colored seer stone placed in the crown of his white top hat and his face snug to its brim. Rather than seeing treasures in the bowels of the earth, Smith claimed he saw luminous words on the stone, which he read to a scribe. In this manner the entire Book of Mormon as we have it came into existence. This fact conflicts with Joseph Smith's official history, which claims that he used magic spectacles—which he euphemistically called Urim and Thummim—attached to a breastplate.”

I agree with Vogel that SITH conflicts with the official history, as well as every other statement Joseph and Oliver made.

But I disagree with Vogel—and this Gospel Topics Essay—when they claim the other witnesses observed Joseph translating the Book of Mormon.

36. According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.26

Here again, the essay simply assumes the witnesses were describing the actual translation of the Book of Mormon instead of a demonstration.

The essay’s footnote claims two Apostles discussed accounts of the translation process, but each involve isolated quotations from the historical record, not rejections of what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Urim and Thummim. Obviously, neither one was a witness, and neither claimed revelation on this issue. In both cases, they relied on the same historical record that everyone else is.

The footnote cites a talk by Elder Maxwell in which he wrote, “The Prophet Joseph alone knew the full process, and he was deliberately reluctant to describe details. We take passing notice of the words of David Whitmer, Joseph Knight, and Martin Harris, who were observers, not translators…." 

Taking "passing notice" of these observers is appropriate because they are part of the historical record. But these observers do not supersede what Joseph and Oliver explained.

Elder Maxwell continued. "Oliver Cowdery is reported to have testified in court that the Urim and Thummim enabled Joseph ‘to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.’”

This statement by Oliver is consistent with everything else he taught; i.e., that Joseph translated the characters with the Urim and Thummim.

Many years before becoming President of the Church, Elder Russell M. Nelson wrote, “The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights.” He then quoted David Whitmer and Emma Smith without further comment.

These statements are part of the historical record, so it is appropriate to mention them, but as “precious insights,” they are insights into what? 

Like Elder Maxwell, then-Elder Nelson did not teach that the SITH statements superseded what Joseph and Oliver taught.

The statements from David and Emma give us insights into the context of the decades after Joseph and Oliver died. They apparently coordinated their statements more than 40 years after the events. As we can see from the context of the statements themselves, both David and Emma focused on SITH to refute the Spalding theory.

37. The process as described brings to mind a passage from the Book of Mormon that speaks of God preparing “a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.”27

The passage in Alma (37:21-25) currently refers twice to “interpreters,” but that was a change made in the 1920 edition. Earlier editions, including the original 1830 edition, used the term “directors” instead. That suggests a meaning different from the “interpreters” mentioned in Ether 4:5 and Mosiah 8 and 28, to which Oliver Cowdery referred in Letter 1 (“the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters’”). 

In other words, when he and his contemporaries used the term "interpreters," Oliver would not have Alma in mind.

Besides, the scriptural phrase in Alma doesn’t necessarily refer to shining words appearing on a stone.

Consider the other instances of the phrase “shine forth” in the scriptures. “Thou shalt shine forth” (Job 11:17). “Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth” (Psalms 80:1). “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun” (Matthew 13:43). “The King of heaven shall very soon shine forth among all the children of men” (Alma 5:50). “Then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God” (Alma 40:25). “It shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness” (Mormon 8:16). “Prepare them [stones] that they may shine forth in darkness” (Ether 3:4). “Thy church may… shine forth” (D&C 109:73. “Arise and shine forth…” (D&C 115:5).

The teachings of the Book of Mormon themselves “shine forth” regardless of the method of translation.

38. The scribes who assisted with the translation unquestionably believed that Joseph translated by divine power. Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”28

The essay cites Emma's "Last Testimony," which her son Joseph Smith III recorded shortly before Emma died. Emma never publicly acknowledged this document, and Joseph Smith III did not publish it until several months after she died. From the context of the statement itself, it is apparent that Emma sought to refute the Spalding theory (which was based on the premise that Joseph dictated from behind a curtain because he was reading the Spalding manuscript.)

Although Emma claimed to work as a scribe, we have no record in which she specified when or where she wrote or what portion of the text she recorded. 

The historical record supports three possibilities. Emma apparently acted as scribe before Martin Harris arrived in 1828, before Oliver Cowdery arrived in 1829, and at the Whitmer home in Fayette. 

Another translation reference by Emma relates to her credibility and reliability. Historians often cite Emma's 1870 letter in which she wrote, “Now the first that my husband translated was translated by the use of the 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.” 

By specifically distinguishing between the two instruments, Emma's statement directly refutes the claim in the essay that we previously discussed: "Latter-day Saints later understood the term 'Urim and Thummim' to refer exclusively to the interpreters." The essay should at least acknowledge this point.

Note that Emma's statement implies Joseph did not use the U&T after the 116 pages were lost.

However, Joseph said Emma wrote for him after he recovered the U&T in 1828 (they had been taken because of the lost 116 pages). Lucy Mack Smith wrote in her history that while Joseph and Oliver were working in Harmony, Joseph applied the Urim and Thummim to his eyes and looked on the plates.

It doesn’t make sense to conclude that Joseph received the U&T back in September 1828 so he could resume translating, but then did not use the U&T with Emma, and then to begin using it with Oliver starting in April 1829.

I've proposed that Emma wrote part of 2 Nephi in Fayette when Joseph demonstrated the process with a stone in a hat. That could have provided the basis for her statements 40+ years later, especially if she sought to counter the Spalding theory.

For more on Emma's "Last Testimony," see 

Note 28 here cites the Hadley article. For a discussion of that, see 

39. According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”

This statement has been taken to mean Joseph never used the plates during the translation, but that is not what it says. Joseph had to leave the plates somewhere when he wasn’t using them. That doesn’t mean he didn’t actually use them when he translated. This is not complicated.

40. When asked if Joseph had dictated from the Bible or from a manuscript he had prepared earlier, Emma flatly denied those possibilities: “He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.”

This is part of the refutation of the Spalding theory, which was the original purpose for the interview. Emma volunteered her comments about the manner of translation; they were not in response to specific questions from her son.

41. Emma told her son Joseph Smith III, “The Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”29

If Joseph was translating the plates, he naturally would have resumed the translation where he ended it, with no need of seeing the manuscript to jog his memory.

42. Another scribe, Martin Harris sat across the table from Joseph Smith and wrote down the words Joseph dictated. Harris later related that as Joseph used the seer stone to translate, sentences appeared. Joseph read those sentences aloud, and after penning the words, Harris would say, “Written.”

After he would say “Written,” Martin claimed that “if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”

The reference to the engravings on the plates is consistent with the language of D&C 10. D&C 10, by directing Joseph to translate the engravings on specific plates (the plates of Nephi which he didn't have at the time), refutes the idea that he was reading words off a stone. 

Martin’s statement seems to imply a literal and perfect translation, but the only part of the translation that Joseph said was literal was the Title Page. And we can all see that the Original Manuscript (OM) we have today contains inconsistent spellings and other errors that Joseph later corrected, so Martin's description contradicts the evidence from the OM.

Of course, Martin wrote the lost 116 pages, so the process may have been different for the translation of the text we have today. In that sense, Martin's testimony is irrelevant.

Martin never claimed to have seen what Joseph saw when he translated. He also didn’t claim that Joseph told him what he saw. Instead, Martin apparently made this claim based on his own inference of what occurred. This statement has led some to conclude that the translation was “tightly controlled,” but we do not have the 116 pages to see if there were misspellings and other errors of the type present in the OM.

43. An associate who interviewed Harris recorded him saying that Joseph “possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone.”30

The essay’s footnote here points out that Martin Harris recognized the distinction between the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) and the seer stone. Like his contemporaries, Martin didn’t use the term to apply to both. 

Of course, Martin’s statement here contradicts Emma’s statement that Joseph used the stone only after the 116 pages were lost. Martin’s first statement about the seer stone was published in 1881, six years after Martin’s death in 1875, and after David and Emma had used the seer stone scenario to refute the Spalding theory.

44. The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “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.”31

This is consistent with every statement by Joseph and Oliver about the translation, although it contradicts the SITH narrative.

45. In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.”32

This report has Joseph looking on the engraving instead of having the plates resting nearby under a cloth. This is consistent with what Lucy Mack Smith wrote about how Joseph translated the plates. The phrase “two transparent stones” is the description always given of the Nephite interpreters.



46. Joseph Smith consistently testified that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” His scribes shared that testimony. The angel who brought news of an ancient record on metal plates buried in a hillside and the divine instruments prepared especially for Joseph Smith to translate were all part of what Joseph and his scribes viewed as the miracle of translation. When he sat down in 1832 to write his own history for the first time, he began by promising to include “an account of his marvelous experience.”33 The translation of the Book of Mormon was truly marvelous.

The term “buried” is ahistorical and implies a false connection to “buried treasure.” Moroni explained that the plates were “deposited.”

47. The truth of the Book of Mormon and its divine source can be known today. God invites each of us to read the book, remember the mercies of the Lord and ponder them in our hearts, “and ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true.” God promises that “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.”34

 Good as is.

The Church acknowledges the contribution of scholars to the historical content presented in this article; their work is used with permission.


 FOOTNOTES: (Original in blue, my comments in red.)


Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 28, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

This was Woodruff's summary of a day's teaching, not a direct quotation. The journal is available online here: 


On the identity of the angel, see Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 223 n 56.


Davidson et al., Joseph Smith Histories, 223; punctuation regularized; Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3 (March 1, 1842): 706–7. See also Joseph Smith—History 1:33–34.



“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 290.


Joseph Smith History, 1838–ca. 1841, 8–11 (draft 2), in Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jenson, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 252–3; available at josephsmithpapers.orgDoctrine and Covenants 3:5–15.


Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16; Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, Sept. 7, 1834, in Messenger and Advocate 1 (Oct. 1834): 14; italics in original.


Most of the manuscript disintegrated or became otherwise unreadable due to water damage between 1841 and 1882, as a result of being placed in the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House in Nauvoo, Illinois. Most of the surviving pages were later archived in the historian’s office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. The extant original manuscript has been published in The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). A complete copy of this original, known as the printer’s manuscript, was made by Oliver Cowdery and two other scribes between August 1829 and early 1830. It was used to set the type for most of the printing in Palmyra. The printer’s manuscript is published in The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typological Facsimile of the Entire Text in Two Parts, ed. Royal Skousen (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001). Both the printer’s manuscript and the original manuscript will be published in future volumes of The Joseph Smith Papers. (Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 [Spring 1970]: 261–72; Royal Skousen, “Piecing Together the Original Manuscript,” BYU Today 46, no. 3 [May 1992]: 18–24.)


For example, when Joseph translated the text that is now in 1 Nephi 13:29, the scribe wrote “&” in one place where he should have written “an.” At 1 Nephi 17:48, the scribe wrote “weed” where he should have written “reed.” (See Royal Skousen, “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997], 67; see also Grant Hardy, “Introduction,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], xv–xix.)

These examples contradict the narrative that Joseph could not continue the translation if the scribe made an error. He had to wait until the error was corrected first.


John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon” and “Names of People: Book of Mormon,” in Geoffrey Kahn, ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics (Brill Online, 2013); M. Deloy Pack, “Hebraisms,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 321–25; John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 77–91; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Donald W. Parry and others, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 155–89.

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On the role of the typesetter John Gilbert, see Royal Skousen, “John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and others, eds., The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 383–405.


Some grammatical constructions that sound odd to English speakers were edited out of later editions of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith or others in order to render the translation into more standard current English. See Richard E. Turley Jr. and William W. Slaughter, How We Got the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 44–45. Approximately five-sixth of the 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon was typeset from the printer’s manuscript. The other one-sixth was typeset from the original manuscript. (Royal Skousen, “Editor’s Preface,” in The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, xxx.)

The cover of the 1840 edition includes this statement: "Carefully edited by the translator." That refutes the narrative that Joseph didn't translate the plates in the first place.





Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grand Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, and William G. Hartley, eds., Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, vol. 1 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), xxix.


Mosiah 28:14–15, 20; see also Mosiah 8:13, 19; and Ether 4:5. Joseph Smith seems to have used the terms “interpreters” and “spectacles” interchangeably during the early years of the Church. Nancy Towle, an itinerant Methodist preacher, recounted Joseph Smith telling her about “a pair of ‘interpreters,’ (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles, by looking into which, he could read a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown” (Nancy Towle, Vicissitudes Illustrated in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America [Charleston: James L. Burges, 1832], 138–39). Joseph’s 1832 history referred to “spectacles” (Joseph Smith History, ca. summer 1832, in Joseph Smith Histories, 16). In January 1833, the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, edited by William W. Phelps, equated “spectacles” and “interpreters” with the term “Urim and Thummim”: the Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles— (known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim)” (“The Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833, [2]). By 1835 Joseph Smith most often used the term “Urim and Thummim” when speaking of translation and rarely, if ever, used the terms “interpreters” or “spectacles” (Joseph Smith, Journal, Nov. 9–11, 1835, in Journals: Volume 1: 1832–1839, 89; Joseph Smith, History, 1834–1836, in Davidson et al., Histories, Volume 1, 116; John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., with Erick B. Carlson, Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 [Provo, UT, and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press and Deseret Book, 2005], 123–28).

The note fails to mention that the earliest known use of the term Urim and Thummim in connection with the translation was by Samuel Smith and Orson Hyde in a Boston newspaper in summer 1832, which obviously precedes the Phelps usage. That indicates Phelps was writing not to coin the term but to put it in a biblical context for his readers.


Joseph Smith probably possessed more than one seer stone; he appears to have found one of the stones while digging for a well around 1822. (Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], 69–70.)


According to Martin Harris, an angel commanded Joseph Smith to stop these activities, which he did by 1826. (See Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 64–76; and Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24, no. 4 [Fall 1984]: 489–560.) Joseph did not hide his well-known early involvement in treasure seeking. In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43, available at For the broader cultural context, see Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780–1830,” American Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 6–33.


Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet” (Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).


For example, when Joseph Smith showed a seer stone to Wilford Woodruff in late 1841, Woodruff recorded in his journal: “I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM” (Wilford Woodruff journal, Dec. 27, 1841, Church History Library, Salt Lake City). See also Doctrine and Covenants 130:10.

First, we observe that note 21 is cited to support this statement in the GTE: 

Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.

If they "often" used the term this way, we should expect to see more than one ambiguous reference. But the authors of the GTE can manage only this one reference to Wilford Woodruff's brief journal entry.

They do cite D&C 130:10, which is part of instructions given by Joseph on April 2, 1843. There, Joseph gave three separate examples of what "a" Urim and Thummim is, none of which have anything to do with the "interpreters" (the instrument that came with the plates which Joseph said he used to translate the plates). Two of the examples don't even exist at present, but will at some future time.

The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.

This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.

10 Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known;

(Doctrine and Covenants 130:8–10)


Thus, we see that the sentence in the GTE is misleading at best, unsupported by any citation other than, arguably, the reference to Woodruff's journal. 

Let's be clear: Contrary to the statement in the GTE, there are no known instances in which Joseph used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone he found in a well or any stone he found anywhere else. Prior to D&C 130, Joseph used the term solely to refer to the interpreters (see Elders' Journal, Wentworth letter, D&C 10, etc.). And in D&C 130, he did not use the term to refer to what are commonly referred to as his seer stones.

Second, contrary to the implication of the note, Joseph didn't show the seer stone to Woodruff alone. In fact, Woodruff doesn't even say Joseph showed him the seer stone. 

Here is the entirety of Woodruff's journal entry for that day.

27th The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the seer + he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God the privileges + blessings of the priesthood + c. I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM

Anyone can read the original journal here:

Third, Brigham and other Apostles present at this meeting repeatedly taught that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. Neither Woodruff nor Brigham ever taught that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by putting a stone in a hat and reading the words off of it. See

Fourth, Brigham Young recorded a more detailed account of the meeting that related an experience that directly contradicts the representation in the GTE. 

I met with the Twelve at brother Joseph’s. He conversed with us in a familiar manner on a variety of subjects, and explained to us the Urim and Thummim which he found with the plates, called in the Book of Mormon the Interpreters. He said that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness, and most of those who do find one make an evil use of it; he showed us his seer stone.

Elden J. Watson, ed., Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1801–1844 (Salt Lake City: Smith Secretarial Service, 1968), 112a.

Thus, Joseph explained the Urim and Thummim and showed them his seer stone. Brigham made a clear distinction between the two. This is the opposite of what the GTE claims, which may explain why the authors of the GTE forgot to cite this reference.

Finally, Woodruff's brief journal entry doesn't even mention the stone. It is unclear whether he literally "saw" the seer stone and called it "the" Urim and Thummim, "saw" the "Urim and Thummim" in the sense that he understood it for the first time in his life, saw the actual Urim and Thummim (the spectacles) if Joseph had retained them, heard Joseph refer to the stone as "a" Urim and Thummim and recorded "the" instead, or merely inferred that the seer stone was a Urim and Thummim. 

Summary. Given that Brigham Young's record is more detailed and clearly distinguished between the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, aka, the Interpreters, on one hand, and Joseph's seer stone on the other, it is impossible to tell exactly what Woodruff meant by his brief journal entry. While the authors of the GTE cite it to support their SITH narrative, we can all see that their interpretation is, at best, only one of several possible interpretations and one of the least plausible, given that it contradicts Brigham's more detailed description.

Professional standards for historians require them to provide all relevant sources. This is another example of the authors of the GTE ignoring professional standards to promote an agenda, in this case the SITH narrative.

If the GTE retains this reference, the text should be edited for clarity and to address the problems identified in these comments. 


Cornelius Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 9–26.



Preface to the Book of Mormon, 1830 edition.


Minutes, Church conference, Orange, OH, Oct. 25–26, 1831, in Minute Book 2, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, available at; Welch, “Miraculous Translation,” 121–9.


Virtually all of the accounts of the translation process are reproduced in Welch, “Miraculous Translation.” Two accounts of the translation process, including the use of a seer stone, have been written by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and published in Church magazines. Historians have also written about the seer stone in Church publications, both in the Ensign and in The Joseph Smith Papers. (See Neal A. Maxwell, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 36–41; Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, July 1993, 61–63; Richard Lloyd Anderson, “‘By the Gift and Power of God,’” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 78–85; and Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, xxix–xxxii.)



“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90. Some outside reports describe the spectacles being placed in the hat during the translation process. A Palmyra newspaper published the earliest known account of the translation in August 1829: Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.” (“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, [2].) In the winter of 1831, a Shaker in Union Village, Ohio, spoke of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.” (Christian Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar: The Earliest Book of Mormon Reviewer,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 2 [Spring 2011]: 143.)

The Last Testimony we discussed above. 

Hadley strongly opposed the Mormons. His article was widely distributed and is probably one that Joseph referred to in the Preface to the 1830 Book of Mormon, in which Joseph reiterated that he translated the record and took it from the plates of Lehi (i.e., not by reading words off a stone in a hat). The Hadley article is discussed here:

There's no need to discredit the McNemar account because it corroborates what Joseph and Oliver always said and contradicts the SITH accounts directly. 

As Joseph and Oliver said, Joseph used the U&T and looked on the plates. If you read the entire account by McNemar, you can see he was quite hostile to the Book of Mormon, which he described as "cunningly devised fables." He doesn't actually quote Oliver. He says Joseph translated "plates of brass," suggesting he may have confused some of the narrative, relating what he thought he heard. He could have conflated what Oliver said with other accounts such as the widely distributed Hadley account that Joseph refuted in the Preface to the 1830 edition.  

McNemar's entire article can be found here:


“Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” 289–90.


“One of the Three Witnesses,” Deseret Evening News, Dec. 13, 1881, 4. Here Martin Harris uses the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the interpreters found with the plates.


A. W. B., “Mormonites,” Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 (Apr. 19, 1831): 120.


Goodwillie, “Shaker Richard McNemar,” 143. For additional accounts of translation by one of the Three Witnesses, see David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness, ed. Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991).


Joseph Smith History, ca. Summer 1832, 1, in Histories, Volume 1, 1832–1844, 10; available at Spelling modernized.




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...