A Seer Stone and a Hat - "Translating" the Book of Mormon

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

The founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, claimed an angel named Moroni visited him in September of 1823. This heavenly messenger is reported to have told him about gold plates that contained a record of "former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang." The plates were said to contain "the fulness of the everlasting Gospel" as it was "delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants." In order to translate the language contained on the plates (a language called "Reformed Egyptian"), two stones in silver bows, called the Urim and Thummim, were included with the plates (Joseph Smith History 1:34,35). According to Smith's testimony, four more years went by before the angel allowed him to retrieve the gold plates.

Joseph Smith said,

"each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed" (History of the Church 4:537).

The question at hand, then, is whether or not Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon plates is true. If Smith truly was a prophet with the ability to decipher plates of an unknown language which were said to contain the story of Jesus' appearance in the Americas, then this man should be revered and his translation of this ancient work heralded as God's word to mankind. On the other hand, if the translation has no basis in fact, but instead is based on fraud, then it should be exposed and the man's teachings about God and faith should be debunked. This is the difference between the way Mormons and critics of the LDS Church view Mormonism's first prophet. What is the evidence?

The method in which Joseph Smith "translated" the gold plates has been a source of interest to many people who have studied the origins of the LDS movement. While many paintings and pictures used in Mormon visitor's centers and books depict a prayerful Smith leaning over the plates, many contemporaries of Smith admit that he used a hat and a seer stone as a means of bringing about this "divine" record.

In his Comprehensive History of the Church (CHC), LDS historian and Seventy Brigham H. Roberts quotes Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses whose name is found in every edition of the Book of Mormon since its original edition. Harris said that Smith possessed a seer stone, described by Roberts as a "chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum." Roberts goes on to state that it was by using this stone that "Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates" (CHC 1:129).

Martin Harris was one of the scribes Joseph Smith used to record the writing on the plates. This enabled him to give a first-hand account of how Smith performed this translation. Harris noted,

"By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say 'written;' and if correctly written, the 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" (CHC 1:29).

Harris' description concurs with that of David Whitmer, another one of the three witnesses whose testimony appears at the front of the Book of Mormon. Whitmer details exactly how the stone produced the English interpretation. On page 12 of his book An Address to All Believers in Christ, Whitmer wrote,

"I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man."

Robert N. Hullinger, in his book: Joseph Smith's Response to Skepticism, cites a personal interview Emma Smith-Bidamon gave to a committee of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1879. He notes on pages 9-10: "Smith's wife Emma supported Harris's and Whitmer's versions of the story in recalling that her husband buried his face in his hat while she was serving as his scribe."

Dan Vogel also mentions Emma's 1879 interview on pages 98-99 of his book, The Word of God:

"Smith's wife, Emma Smith Bidamon, was interviewed late in her life by her son Joseph Smith III about her knowledge of the early [p.99] church. This interview took place in February 1879 in the presence of Lewis C. Bidamon, her husband. At one point Emma stated the following: ‘In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us... .'"

In volume two of "A New Witness for Christ in America," LDS writer Francis Kirkham notes that Joseph Smith's brother William also confirmed the use of the hat and seer stone. His account is also similar to the accounts given by Harris and Whitmer although he refers to the seer stone as the "Urim and Thummim." He stated, "The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God" (2:417). William's account leads us to wonder why Smith went through the bother of digging up the alleged plates if he didn't even have to look at them during the "translation."

Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and William Smith all agree that Joseph Smith used a seer stone and a hat in the translation process. Interestingly enough, an article in the January 1997 LDS Church publication Ensign leaves out any mention of the hat and deemphasizes the seer stone. In fact, LDS Apostle Neal Maxwell, who authored the article, quotes Apostle Orson Pratt from 1874 as saying that Smith relied less and less upon the seer stones the more he learned how to translate (pg. 39). It seems odd that God would provide these instruments and then allow the translator to have more freedom as the translation went on. And it seems extremely curious that Maxwell makes no reference to the hat. In fact, a picture on page 38 shows the dutiful Oliver Cowdery writing down the English translation while Smith appears to be translating. In this picture there is no sign of the so-called seer stones or the hat. What could be the reason for leaving these items out of a publicity painting except to distance the translation from the ocultic practices that really characterized the Book of Mormon translation! The use of similar types of seer stones, or peep stones as they were also called, was quite common among believers in folk magic during the time of Joseph Smith. There is plenty of evidence to show that Smith, the one whom Mormons claim God used to restore the "true" church, was quite fascinated with the occult, as were members of his immediate family.

According to a court record dated March 20, 1826, Smith was described as a "glass-looker," a common scam in which the glass looker claimed to have the ability to find buried treasure (for a fee, of course). Obviously, many Mormons have tried to deny that Smith had anything to do with glass looking or money digging. Joseph F. Smith, Mormonism's sixth president, concluded that such a title was used by enemies to injure the prophet's credibility. He wrote:

"He was called a 'money digger,' and many other contemptuous things. If you will look at his history, and at the character of his parents, and surroundings, and consider the object of his life, you can discover how much consistency there was in the charges brought against him. All this was done to injure him. He was neither old nor a 'money digger,' nor an impostor, nor in any manner deserving of the epithets which they applied to him."

The problem with Smith's conclusion is that Joseph Smith admitted to being a money digger in an interview printed in the "Elders' Journal" (v.1, num.2, pp.28,29). (See also The Documentary History of the Church 3:29, and the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg.120.)

It seems apparent that the Book of Mormon was, in fact, brought about using an occultic method. If so many witnesses testify to Smith's use of a hat and a magical rock, why don't Mormon books and periodicals, for the sake of accuracy, emphasize the fact? Why do the pictures of Smith translating from the plates--as shown in the January 1997 Ensign--have him deep in thought rather than looking into a hat?

In our opinion, the answer to these questions stems from the fact that the earlier accounts are embarrassing to the LDS Church, so a better, more "faith-promoting" account has been proposed. Despite the early documentation, as provided by some of the witnesses of the actual translation, history has been revised to restore credibility to the original creation of the LDS Church. For instance, tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith, who previously served as an LDS Church historian for 50 years, denied Joseph Smith's use of the seer stone. He wrote:

"While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22-24.

"These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes" (Doctrines of Salvation 3:225-226).

Apostle Maxwell says the translation process should strengthen the faith of the faithful Mormon. He writes:

"Our primary focus in studying the Book of Mormon should be on the principles of the gospel anyway, not on the process by which the book came forth. Yet because its coming so amply fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy of a `marvelous work and a wonder,' we may find strengthened faith in considering how marvelous and wondrous the translation was..." (Ensign, January 1997, pg. 39)

If this process should strengthen the believer's testimony, then why isn't the true process being told?

But Maxwell goes on. Although allowing for the possibility that seer stones could have been used by Smith, Maxwell says this did not mean Smith was translating letter by letter as the earlier witnesses suggest he did. If he was using these "divine instrumentalities" to translate the language into English,

"he was not necessarily and constantly scrutinizing the characters on the plates--the usual translation process of going back and forth between pondering an ancient text and providing a modern rendering...While the use of divine instrumentalities might also account for the rapid rate of translation, the Prophet sometimes may have used a less mechanical procedure. We simply do not know the details" (pg. 39).

What is interesting in this assertion is that Smith, whom Maxwell admits did not know any ancient languages and was said to be ignorant of the facts in his Bible, could have improved his translation abilities without becoming proficient in the language he was translating! It also goes against the explanations of the earlier witnesses.

Maxwell also makes it a point to concur with Emma Smith’s account that there was probably no blanket or curtain hung between Joseph Smith and his various scribes during this process. Maxwell feels that a curtain/separator was used only to partition off the living area to keep the translator and scribe from the eyes of visitors. Again the LDS Church seems to be revising its history. When Bill McKeever visited the restored Peter Whitmer cabin at Fayette (NY) in April of 1990, a curtain was hanging between two tables where the translation supposedly took place. In the adjacent visitor's center a painting of Smith "translating" the plates also showed a curtain separating Smith and his scribe. Page 29 of the book, Meet the Mormons (1965 ed.), also shows a curtain separating Smith from his scribe Oliver Cowdery.

In conclusion, we feel that the move away from the actual facts of the translation process of the Book of Mormon demonstrates a lack of credibility on the part of LDS leaders. No doubt they understand that most people would balk in accepting the Book of Mormon if it was known to have been "translated" by using a magical rock and a hat. Eyewitness accounts clearly conflict with the image the LDS Church is currently attempting to portray. We pray that both the LDS people, and those investigating the LDS Church, will take a closer look at how this supposedly "sacred" book came about.