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Joseph Smith and the Seer Stone: The Art of the Book of Mormon Translation Process

This article was revised on 12/29/19.

Check out this Viewpoint on Mormonism series that originally aired August 17-21, 2015 Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  

By Eric Johnson

Art can be very powerful. It tells a story. For instance, what is your idea when you see this photograph from June 1989 regarding the issue of China and democracy?

This image had a powerful effect on many who knew little about the details of the June 1989 student uprising in China but were affected by this solitary image. Or what do you see when you view this painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo?

The artist wants the reader to feel a certain way and even believe as he does. There is power in visual imagery such as these.

The Translation of the Book of Mormon and Church Art

For many years, Latter-day Saints were led to believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by looking directly at the gold plates that he supposedly dug up out of the ground in 1827 that had been buried by Moroni, whom leaders have taught was the last living Nephite, in the fifth century AD. This same Moroni is said by LDS leaders to have come back as an angel about fourteen centuries later; Moroni introduced Smith to the plates in 1823, allowing him to take them home in 1827.

For decades, the image of the translation process as advertised by the church is typified in this cover from the February 2001 Ensign magazine, an official publication of the LDS Church:

Look at the painting carefully. Joseph Smith is peering down at the gold plates, with his fingers running across one of the plates of the unsealed portion. Since it is taught that only one-third of the plates were unsealed, it appears that he’s almost at the end of his translation. The candle light provides illumination, with a quill pen standing on the table to the very left, symbolizing that this portrayal is during the time of translation. We assume that Oliver Cowdery or one of several other transcribers is sitting on the other side of the table writing down Smith’s words. The conclusion any objective observer would have when looking at this painting is that Joseph Smith is translating the plates, letter by letter and word by word, by literally looking at the plates.

Now fast forward almost two decades later. In the December 2017 Ensign magazine, Seventy Marcus B. Nash wrote an article titled “Joseph Smith: Strength out of Weakness.” A painting we have never seen before was shown on pages 58 and 59. Here it is:

Another version of this painting–with minor differences–was published in the January 2020 Ensign magazine dedicated to the Book of Mormon. This was included on pages 38-39 in the article titled “The Translation of the Book of Mormon: A Marvel and a Wonder”  authored by Seventy LeGrand R. Curtis Jr.:

Notice how the scribe (we assume it is Oliver Cowdery) sits on one side of the table opposite of Joseph Smith.  The plates are covered in a white cloth bag, a much different portrayal than what is depicted in the 2001 church painting. A top hat sits behind the plates, as only an eighth (or so) of the front part of the hat can be seen. Smith’s hand rests on the hat, as if he is steadying it. His cupped hand appears to be an attempt to help keep light out in order for him to better read the words shining off the seer stone; an informed audience would assume that a seer stone rests at the bottom of the hat.

Why is the hat only partially shown? In the 2017 Ensign article, a short description of the stone is given but nothing else. Unless I missed something, this had been the first artist’s portrayal of the hat (and assumed seer stone). I believe that the hat is only partially shown in order to not draw undue attention to those who might skim the article and hardly notice the introduction of a hat with an assumed seer stone inside.

There are a few minor differences between the 2017 and 2020 paintings. For one, the 2017 version has a black hat, while the hat in the the 2020 version is white. Smith is looking up in the first painting, while he is more hunched over and appears ready to look into the hat in the second. In the first, he writes down what Smith has just told him while in the second he puts his quill pen into the ink as he prepares for the next words from Joseph Smith. Also, a candle is shown in the second painting, which is not there in the  first. Otherwise, it appears everything else is the same.

What about the Seer Stone?

For decades most Latter-day Saints took the translation of the Book of Mormon in the way that the 2001 Ensign magazine depicted it. Imagine the surprise of many Mormons when a 2015 Gospel Topics Essay admitted that the seer stone was used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. (See MRM’s review of the essay here.) If the reader doubts this, I suggest finding a former Latter-day Saint who is willing to be honest and ask, “Were you always taught about the seer stone in the Book of Mormon translation?” I was never a Latter-day Saint, so I cannot state this definitely from my own experience. However, I have asked several dozen former Mormons this question and the answer is always a resounding “no!” Often I have been told how they were also never taught that Smith had married multiple wives (including teenagers and married women) or that the Book of Abraham was a spiritual, not literal, translation. These are other admissions that were made in the Gospel Topics Essays that were published between 2013-15.

Today there is a display in the Church History Museum (across the street from Temple Square) portraying the actual seer stone. Take a tour with us at the museum by clicking here.

 

In the January 2020 article, Curtis reports matter-of-factly about the seer stone as if this information was a fact that all Saints have always been taught. He quotes David Whitmer’s account on page 40:

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 on that appeared the writing. One character at a time 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.

Curtis adds:

All of us who have tried to read illuminated words on a screen can understand why Joseph would have used a hat or something else to screen out extraneous light when he was reading the words on the seer stone.

This Seventy writes as if what he says is common knowledge all Latter-day Saints always knew. After all, Whitmer wrote his pamphlet in the 1880s, close to a century and a half ago! Yet what about the time before 2015? Many questions are unanswered, including these:

  • Why did the LDS Church leaders make it appear that Smith ran his finger over the literal Book of Mormon plates when they certainly knew this was not the case? (Possible answer: It sounds more spiritual than having the Mormon founder look at a magic rock to get the translation.)
  • What was it that made the church come to terms with the real history? (Possible answer: The Internet has shed too much of the history for the church to deny this fact any longer, and perhaps coming to terms is nothing more than damage control.)
  • If Smith didn’t need to look at the plates for the actual translation of the Book of Mormon, then why did he have to take the plates home with him in 1827 when they were so heavy, most likely weighing over 200 pounds? (See here.)
  • Did the plates need to be near-by in order to translate them, even though Smith didn’t look at them with his literal eyes? (Possible answer: Does God work through “osmosis”? If so, it seemed like the translation could have just as easily come with the seer stone even if the plates were three miles away.)

Every Latter-day Saint ought to wonder why the church now appears to be so eager to tell its history in its magazines pages and include art that had never appeared before 2017.


See the article I wrote titled “Should Church Art Coincide with the Facts?”

Check out the 8-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that aired in October 2015: Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8

 

 

 

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