Friday, July 5, 2024

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 know basic historical evidence relevant to the topic. By now, I've thought the facts are well known and everyone interested has settled on what they believe through the process of bias confirmation. 

But there continue to be podcasts on the topic, and the presentations and comments evince considerable ignorance of the facts, whether coming from LDS, former LDS, non-LDS, or anti-LDS camps. 

The basic questions: Did Joseph translate the plates by means of the Nephite interpreters, aka the Urim and Thummim, that came with the plates? Or did he instead use a seer stone he found in a well years earlier that he supposedly used to find buried treasure?

It's a core question that goes to the heart of the credibility of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the Restoration narrative.

It's also an either/or question, which is what leads to cognitive dissonance.

Some claim it doesn't matter how Joseph produced the Book of Mormon, a classic response to cognitive dissonance (i.e., inability to reconcile the contradictions between what Joseph and Oliver said vs what others said). 

And that's fine. As we often say, people can believe whatever they want. This blog focuses on how narratives are created and promulgated, so we include narratives designed to mitigate cognitive dissonance.

Others resolve their cognitive dissonance by blurring the historical sources through wordplay. They claim that Joseph used "both" and that when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery referred to the Urim and Thummim, they actually meant the seer stone as well as the Nephite interpreters because the term "Urim and Thummim" refers to a "class of objects."

In this post, we'll look at one of the key historical sources that people used to justify the wordplay approach.


This controversy began before the Book of Mormon was even published. (See, e.g., this post on the Jonathan Hadley article:

Despite the efforts of Joseph and Oliver to resolve the controversy, people continually asked about it.

In 1838, Joseph published a response that left no room for confusion.

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

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

The SITH sayers reject this specific explanation. They claim Joseph and Oliver misled everyone because Joseph actually didn't use the Nephite interpreters but instead read words that appeared on a stone he put in a hat while the plates were covered up or not even in the same room. They also reject what Joseph formally published in the Wentworth letter in the 1842 Times and Seasons.

Note: For those new to this blog, SITH sayers are people who reject what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation of the Book of Mormon because they prefer the stone-in-the-hat (SITH) narrative advocated by David Whitmer in his Address to All Believers in Christ, in which he also claimed Joseph was a fallen prophet, there was no restoration of the Priesthood, etc.

The SITH sayers have developed an entire narrative around the David Whitmer claims, including imaginary artwork such as this.

SITH event as imagined by BYU professor Anthony Sweat

In this post, we'll look at a lingering factual element that continues to surface. It's even included in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation as a way to justify the SITH sayers' wordplay.

First, though, let's discuss the FAITH model.


For some time now, in the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, I've been promoting the FAITH model of analysis as a means to achieve "no more contention."

For those new here, the FAITH model consists of 5 steps of analysis:

FACTS. These are unambiguous, demonstrable facts, such as the existence of Lucy Mack Smith's history, Joseph Smith's 1832 history, etc. By definition, everyone can agree on the existence of facts. 

ASSUMPTIONS. People make a range of assumptions about the facts, based on their own prior beliefs, biases, agendas, ulterior motives, aspirations, etc. Frequently people treat their assumptions as facts, either deliberately or without realizing the distinction. Once we clearly distinguish between facts and assumptions, we can see where people's interpretations and opinions diverge.

INFERENCES. To fill gaps in the evidence, people make a variety of inferences.

THEORIES. To construct a narrative from the facts, assumptions, and inferences, people develop theories that, in their view, explain the facts.

HYPOTHESES. For purposes of this analysis, the hypotheses are the cumulation of theories that are united by overarching narratives that, in turn, reflect each person's worldview. Another way to look at the FAITH model is that is shows how people confirm their biases.

The FAITH model is productive because it creates clarity about what people believe. Because we assume people act in good faith (charity), it also enables a spirit of understanding instead of a compulsion to persuade, convince, or compel others.


It is not surprising to me that there are still LDS scholars who promote the SITH narrative. 

Some are heavily invested in that narrative and find it difficult to change their minds for a variety of reasons. Not that they should, of course. People can believe whatever they want. If they want to agree with John Dehlin and the CES Letter that Joseph and Oliver were wrong and/or misled everyone about the translation, that's fine with me. If instead they want to accept what Joseph and Oliver taught, that's great, too.

I don't care, so long as they are clear about what they believe and enable others to make informed decisions by providing all the facts.

What is surprising is how many Latter-day Saints remain ignorant of the facts because of all the disinformation provided by our SITH scholars and their SITH-promoting collaborators such as John Dehlin and the CES letter (whose critical agenda is explicitly stated, to their credit).

In this post, we'll look at one example of how a historical fact is being treated.


SITH sayers have long cited Wilford Woodruff's brief journal entry to support their SITH narrative.

Today's example, often quoted by SITH sayers, is Note 21 in the Gospel Topics Essay (GTE) on Translation of the Book of Mormon.

In my analysis of this GTE, I discussed this note.

For easy of reference, here's what I wrote there.


Original GTE in blue, my comments in red, other original in green.

Note 21.

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)


This is the reference used to define "Urim and Thummim" retroactively to mean a "class of objects" such that when Joseph and Oliver said Joseph translated "by means of the Urim and Thummim," they referred to the seer stone he found in a well, thus reconciling their statements with David Whitmer's.

But as we've seen, Joseph specifically addressed this argument when he clarified that he used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Thus, we see that this reference does not support the claims in the sentence in the GTE that "Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters." 

This leaves the claims 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 even 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 Woodruff described. Brigham 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:

(i) literally "saw" the seer stone and called it "the" Urim and Thummim, contrary to Brigham Young's description;

(ii) "saw" the "Urim and Thummim" in the sense that he understood it for the first time in his life (using "see" as a synonym for "understood" or "comprehended"; 

(iii) saw the actual Urim and Thummim (the spectacles) because Joseph had retained them and revealed them during the meeting; 

(iv) heard Joseph refer to the stone as "a" Urim and Thummim and recorded "the" instead, or 

(v) 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 (as well as what Joseph and Oliver always said about the Urim and Thummim).

Professional standards for historians require them to provide all relevant sources. This is another example of the authors of the GTE ignoring professional standards by omitting Brigham Young's explanation. It appears they selected the Woodruff citation to promote the SITH agenda instead of providing a complete explanation of the historical sources that would better inform readers.

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


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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...