There is growing confusion among Latter-day Saints about the translation of the Book of Mormon. It's an important issue because the origin of the Book of Mormon is a fundamental to its divine authenticity.
The issues are easy to understand once we examine the historical and scriptural references in context.
1. Urim and Thummim. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery always said Joseph translated the record by means of the Nephite interpreters, also called the Urim and Thummim, that came with the plates. They never said or implied that Joseph used any other instrument. The revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants affirm their statements.
2. Seer stone (SITH). Decades after Joseph and Oliver died, other people, including David Whitmer and Emma Smith, claimed that Joseph didn't use the Urim and Thummim but instead read words that appeared on a stone he put into a hat. This is the stone-in-the-hat (SITH) theory.
Some modern scholars, both faithful and critical, claim that Joseph used both instruments. Others insist Joseph used only SITH and that he and Oliver deliberately misled everyone when they referred to the Urim and Thummim. Still others claim that when Joseph and Oliver used the term "Urim and Thummim" they referred to both the Nephite interpreters and one or more "seer stones" that Joseph reportedly found in a well or a riverbed.
While there is historical evidence to support each of these interpretations, the issue boils down to whether we accept or reject what Joseph and Oliver explicitly taught. They left no room for ambiguity, as the references below demonstrate.
Once we see what Joseph and Oliver taught, we can reconcile the purported conflicting sources by realizing that whatever Joseph did with the seer stone, he was not translating the Book of Mormon with it.
SITH was described in the 1834 anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed, published by E.D. Howe based on information provided by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut (Hurlburt). [See the passages and links here: https://ldsgospeltopicsessays.blogspot.com/p/sith-in-mormonism-unvailed.html]
Oliver refuted SITH when he wrote Letter I, now canonized as Note 1 to Joseph Smith-History 1:71 and he reiterated the point when he rejoined the Church in 1848.
Joseph refuted SITH in the Elders' Journal and in the Wentworth letter (shown below). Joseph also expressly commented on Mormonism Unvailed by writing that “Hurlburt and the Howes are among the basest of mankind, and known to be such and yet the priests and their coadjutors hail them as their best friends and publish their lies, speaking of them in the highest terms.”
(Elders’ Journal I.4:59 ¶12–60 ¶3)
And yet, in our day, it is our own LDS scholars who are publishing the Hurlburt/Howe lies to promote SITH.
A selection of references regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon "by means of the Urim and Thummim."
Doctrine and Covenants 5
3 And I have caused you that you should enter into a covenant with me, that you should not show them except to those persons to whom I commanded you; and you have no power over them except I grant it unto you.
4 And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.
Joseph Smith History 1:35 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. . . .
JS-H 1:42 Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed.
Joseph also wrote:
“After I had obtained the above revelation [D&C 3], both the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from me again; but in a few days they were returned to me, when I inquired of the Lord, and the Lord said thus unto me:
“Revelation given to Joseph Smith. Jr. May 1829, informing him of the alteration of the Manuscript of the fore part of the Book of Mormon.
1. Now behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them:
2. and you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened;
3. nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again, therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.
30 Behold, I say unto you, that you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands;
31 For, behold, they shall not accomplish their evil designs in lying against those words. For, behold, if you should bring forth the same words they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself.
32 And, behold, they will publish this, and Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against you, that they will not believe my words.
33 Thus Satan thinketh to overpower your testimony in this generation, that the work may not come forth in this generation.
39 Yea, and you remember it was said in those writings that a more particular account was given of these things upon the plates of Nephi.
40 And now, because the account which is engraven upon the plates of Nephi is more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people in this account—
41 Therefore, you shall translate the engravings which are on the plates of Nephi, down even till you come to the reign of king Benjamin, or until you come to that which you have translated, which you have retained;
42 And behold, you shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words.
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.
(Elders’ Journal I.3:42 ¶20–43 ¶1)
These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold, 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. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving. With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.
Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.
(Times and Seasons III.9:707 ¶5–6)
“In the mean time while Martin Harris was gone with the writings, I went to visit my father’s family at Manchester. I continued there for a short season and then returned to my place in Pennsylvania. Immediately after my return home I was walking out a little distance when behold the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again, (for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings which he lost by transgression,” ( https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/times-and-seasons-16-may-1842/4
(Times and Seasons, 16 May 1842 p.786)
Introduction to D&C 17
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, at Fayette, New York, June 1829, prior to their viewing the engraved plates that contained the Book of Mormon record. Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, had learned from the translation of the Book of Mormon plates that three special witnesses would be designated (see Ether 5:2–4; 2 Nephi 11:3; 27:12). Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris were moved upon by an inspired desire to be the three special witnesses. The Prophet inquired of the Lord, and this revelation was given in answer through the Urim and Thummim.
Zenas Gurley personally interviewed as many of Joseph's contemporaries as were still living. He explained the confusion this way.
“That Joseph had another stone called seers’ stone, and ‘peep stone,’ is quite certain. This stone was frequently exhibited to different ones and helped to assuage their awful curiosity; but the Urim and Thummim never, unless possibly to Oliver Cowdery. . . . Elder David Whitmer’s idea was that the translation was made by the seers’ stone, as he calls it, not the Interpreters, and Emma Smith’s (Bidamon) statement accords with Whitmer as published in Herald some years since. The only discrepancy between the statements of the witnesses is that relating to the detail of the translation; and, as shown above, David and Emma, in the nature of things, did not know just how the Urim and Thummim were used, as they had never seen them. The reader will please bear in mind that no one was allowed to see either the plates or the Urim and Thummim, except as God commanded. “
( Zenas H. Gurley, quoting “Dr. Robinson,” Source: Zenas H. Gurley, “The Book of Mormon,” Autumn Leaves 5 (1892): 451-54, located on the Book of Abraham Project.)
One of the earliest known references to the spectacles as the Urim and Thummim appeared in the Latter-day Saint newspaper The Evening and Morning Star in January 1833, three years after the Book of Mormon was published.
“The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.-It 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).” ( W. W. Phelps, The Evening and The Morning Star, 1/8 (January 1833), 57)
Remember-David Whitmer and Martin Harris-NEVER SAW THE URIM AND THUMMIM UNTIL THE BOOK OF MORMON WAS FINISHED! It seems Oliver may have done so before then because of his attempt to translate. But Whitmer and Harris did not see them until the angel appeared to show them the plates and the Interpreters on June 28,1829. Joseph had translated the title page of the Book of Mormon- the last page to be translated --on May 30, 1829.
Therefore, any attempt to describe actually seeing them used during the translation would not be true, except for Oliver. And Oliver ALWAYS said the entire translation was done with the Urim and Thummim.. David Whitmer-- who loved to describe the process and did so in several different ways after he left the Church; and taught and wrote a book calling Joseph a “fallen prophet.” ) It is to his credit that he never denied the experience with the angel and being shown the plates and “interpreters,” but that was something he actually experienced, and he probably dared not deny it.)
“On the fifteenth day of that same month in which we had been baptized and ordained, Oliver Cowdery baptized him; and he returned to his father’s house greatly glorifying and praising God, being filled with the Holy Spirit.— Not many days afterwards my brother Hyrum Smith came to us to enquire concerning these things, when, at his earnest request, I enquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim , and received for him the following:
“A great and marvellous work is about to come forth among the children of men”
Revelation given to Hyrum Smith, Harmony, Susquehannah co. Penn. May, 1829.
(D & C 6:1)
(Elder’s Journal, July 1838, 1:43)
(https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/25 ) [page 866]
Lucy Mack Smith:
“I trembled so much with fear lest all might be lost again by some small failure in keeping the commandments, that I was under the necessity of leaving the room to conceal my feelings. Joseph saw this and followed me. "Mother," said he. "Do not be uneasy. All is right. See here," said he, "I have got the key."
I knew not what he meant, but took the article in my hands and, examining it with no covering but a silk handkerchief, found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows connected with each other in much the same way that old-fashioned spectacles are made. He took them again and left me, but did not tell me anything of the record....
That of which I spoke, which Joseph termed a key, was indeed nothing more nor less than a Urim and Thummim by which the angel manifested those things to him that were shown him in vision; by which also he could at any time ascertain the approach of danger, either to himself or the record, andfor this cause he kept these things constantly about his person. (“Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” book 6, p. 1, Church History Library, available on Church Historian’s Press, The Joseph SmithPapers, http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/69. )
“[Oliver Cowdery] represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the ‘translators’ over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages.” (Personal Statement of S. W. Richards, 25 May 1907, at Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, Special Collections, quoted in Anderson, “By the Gift and Power,” 79.)
William, Smith (Prophet’s brother):
“He translated them by means of the Urim and Thummim, (which he obtained with the plates), and the power of God. 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.”
(William Smith, “On Mormonism,” 1883,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:497)
William also said that the spectacles were “much too large for Joseph,” and that Joseph “could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other. By putting his head in a hat or some dark object it was not necessary to close one eye while looking through the stone with the other. In that way sometimes when his eyes grew [tired] he [relieved] them of the strain.” (William Smith interview by J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender, 1890,” in Early Mormon Documents, 1:508. )
In 1834, W.W. Phelps wrote a letter to Oliver Cowdery noting that the translation occurred “through the aid of the ‘Urim and Thummim,’ ‘Nephite Interpreters,’ or Divine Spectacles.”
(W. W. Phelps, “Letter No. 4,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1/5 (Feb. 1835), 65. http://en.fairmormon.org/Messenger_and_Advocate/1/5.)
WHAT BECAME OF THE SO-CALLED “SEER STONE”?
According to David Whitmer: “After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished early in the spring of 1830 before April 6th, Joseph gave the Stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone anymore.” (Whitmer, An Address, 32. Joseph Smith’s claim that he no longer needed the seer stone in order to receive revelation was one factor in Whitmer’s eventual disillusionment with him.)
Why “through with it”? Not needed to distract curious enquirers any more? It is interesting that Lorenzo Brown, an early Church member, records the Prophet Joseph as saying: “After I got through translating the Book of Mormon, I took up the Bible to read with the Urim and Thummim.”(Matthews, Plainer Translation,25).
The stone ultimately made its way to Utah. At one point, the stone was present at the Manti Temple dedication. Wilford Woodruff wrote about this event in his journal: “Before leaving I Consecrated upon the Altar the seers Stone that Joseph Smith found by Revelation some 30 feet under the Earth Carried By him through life.”
(Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 18 May 1888, quoted in Richard O. Cowan,Temples to Dot the Earth (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 1997).
In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith commented that “the statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is currently in the possession of the Church.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:225.)
History (or Legend) of “seer stone” after Joseph gave it to Oliver, saying he was through with it:
Phineas Young, who had helped bring Oliver Cowdery back into the Church, obtained the seer stone from Oliver’s widow, who was David Whitmer’s sister, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery. Phineas in turn gave it to his brother Brigham Young.
(See Minutes, Sept. 30, 1855, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; “David Whitmer,” The Historical Record, Oct. 1888, 623; Maria L. Cowdery Johnson to David Whitmer, Jan. 24 1887, Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri; and Franklin D. Richards, Journal, Mar. 9, 1882, Church History Library.)
“I have Joseph’s 1st Seer Stone which I [h]ad from O[liver] C[owdery],” President Young acknowledged in 1853. “Joseph [h]ad 3 which Emma has,” he added, “2 small ones and 1 large one.” Two years later, Brigham Young told a group of assembled Church leaders that “Oliver sent me Joseph’s first Seer stone, Oliver always kept it until he sent it to me.”
[This leaves out the account of Oliver’s widow having the stone after Oliver’s death, giving that to Phineas Young, who then gave it to Brigham- brother of Phineas. Brigham either forgot or left out Oliver's widow. And those kind of little “forgettings” (which are so common, as any historian knows) make a lot of the history of that stone not very solid. Also apparently it was only Brigham’s understanding that Emma had three more.]
[Brigham Young’s] daughter, Zina Young Card, in a letter to her cousin, Apostle F. D. Richards, related: “There is a matter that I wish to lay before you, that weighs upon my mind, and seems very important to me. I refer to some very sacred articles I bought at the sale of my father’s personal effects,—articles that never should have been given up to the idle gaze; but being brought out, my mother and myself felt it a wish of our hearts to get them, that their sacredness might not be sullied. “They are: two sear-stones [sic] and an arrow point. They are in the possession of President Woodruff now, and very properly too, but I feel dear cousin, that they should ever be the property of the President of the Church, and not of individuals; that at his demise, they are not retained as they were before among ‘personal effects,’ but considered ever the legitimate property of God’s mouth-piece,” (Zina Young Card to F. D. Richards, 31 July 1896, F. D. Richards Letter Collection, LDS Church Archives.)
None of this says the Church has definitively proclaimed the stone shown in pictures by the Ensign is an actual "seer stone" – used by Joseph to translate the plates. They just admit they own the stone given them by Zina Young- which she believed to have originated with Oliver Cowdery and which ended up (after at least a couple of other possessors) with Brigham Young. Apparently, Wilford Woodruff got them from Zina, and accepted the story he was told. Is it possible he was mistaken? Accounts told over and over tend to stray from the actual story. Could modern Church leaders have been mistaken in just accepting the many stories about Joseph using some kind of “seer stone”? Did the First Presidency, under Pres. Hinckley, falsely believe- for a time- the Mark Hoffman forgeries were real? Prophets are human and can make mistakes. Pres. Hinckley did later say Bruce R. McConkie was the only one who didn’t ever accept the Hoffman papers as genuine. It is easy to get a false picture of past history when stories are retold by so many times by so many different people from so many different viewpoints.
Joseph may well have had a “seer stone” between the time of the First Vision and getting the plates and the U and T, but after he received the seer stones the Lord gave him, through Moroni, there is absolutely no proof that he ever used a lesser stone to translate. The stories of him doing so are contradicted all over the place by the accounts of different “witnesses.” And both Joseph and Oliver, the two who actually saw and handled the Urim and Thummim, ALWAYS said they were the means of translating all of the plates.
Some would point out that those “seer stones,” (often referred to as “peep stones” and not unusual at that time, as the story of Hiram Page shows in D&C 28:11) ) were used almost exclusively by those involved in witchcraft and other less than heavenly pursuits in Joseph’s day; and were the adversary’s counterfeit to the Lord’s consecrated stones. Did Satan use them with the young Joseph to try to demean the translation he would do later on with the stones actually blessed by God to do that work of translation? As was pointed out, Joseph called out Hiram for using such a stone later on.
In his first attempt to write his history he said that soon after the First Vision: “after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul.” Remember that Moroni, when Joseph went to retrieve the plates and interpreters the first time, told him: ”you have not kept the commandments of the Lord which I gave unto you therefore you cannot now obtain them for the time is not yet fulfilled therefore thou wast left unto temptation that thou mightest be made acquainted with the power of the adversary therefore repent and call on the Lord thou shalt be forgiven and in his own due time thou shalt obtain them” (manuscript produced by Joseph Smith in his initial personal attempt to record his experience. Written between 20 July and 27 November 1832. Taken from The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Compiled and edited by Dean C. Jessee, 1984, pp 6-7)
We are not told what Joseph did to bring those words upon his head, but is it possible that it was the use of a supposed “seer stone” at that time of his young life?
Joseph NEVER says he used some other “seer stone” to translate the plates- but always said he used the stones God said were to be used, known as the “interpreters” or Urim and Thumim. The same is true of Oliver Cowdery in all his writings.
However, as Elder Oaks pointed out, he may have, “as a young man,” “prior to his being entrusted with the plates,” “before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work, ”attempted to use a seer stone to help in finding treasure.
And as Joseph said, “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” (Wentworth letter)
Joseph Knight: “Now the way he translated was he put the Urim and Thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes, then he would take a sentence and it would appear in bright Roman letters, then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away, the next sentence would come, and so on. But if it was not spelled right it would not go away till it was right, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the whole translated. (“Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835–1847,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4, 17–18. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized for readability. Original spelling is as follows: “Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes than he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it[.] Then the Nephite interpreters (the glasses) in 1827. See Dean Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17/1 (1976), 2. )
“Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. “ (emphasis added)
(Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” From a talk given at Brigham Young University, 6 August 1987.)