Joseph Smith/Seer stones/"Rock in hat" used for Book of Mormon translation

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    Why did Joseph use the same stone for translating that he used for "money digging?"

Questions and Answers

Gospel Topics: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture"

"Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on (2013):

Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” ....

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.” 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. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.[1]

Question: Why would Joseph Smith use the same stone for translating the Book of Mormon that he used for "money digging"?

Would God approve the use of a "magic peep stone" in translating a sacred record?

Joseph was given a set of Nephite interpreters along with the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was produced. In addition, Joseph already possessed and utilized several seer stones. Although Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon using the Nephite interpreters, he later switched to using one of his seer stones to complete the translation. Critics (typically those who reject Mormonism but still believe in God) reject the idea that God would approve the use of an instrument for translation that had previously been used for "money digging."

Regardless of the perspective (believing or non-believing) from which we tell the story of the translation, the essential fact of the translation is unchanged

The conclusion that Joseph used a "magical" or "occult" stone to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon is entirely dependent upon one's own preconception that the use of such an instrument would not be acceptable by God. Believers, on the other hand, ought not to take issue with a distinction between one set of seer stones versus another. As Brant Gardner notes: "Regardless of the perspective from which we tell the story, the essential fact of the translation is unchanged. How was the Book of Mormon translated? As Joseph continually insisted, the only real answer, from any perspective, is that it was translated by the gift and power of God." [2]

  • The point is not necessarily that the stone had the same ability, but that it provided a means for Joseph to exercise his spiritual abilities.
  • If one stops assuming that Joseph was a liar and deceiver, we can consider the matter from Joseph's point of view:
    • He's being called upon to reveal things that are hidden, and to translate an ancient record.
    • Joseph is painfully aware that he cannot do these things.
    • How could Joseph know that he wasn't going crazy or being delusional? Tying his early prophetic work to something with which he had already had objective success (the use of the seer stone) allowed Joseph to trust both God and himself.
    • The Lord seems to have used Joseph's preexisting beliefs about how the world worked (including seer stones to reveal hidden things) to help Joseph gain confidence in his own abilities.
    • The Nephite interpreters had been blessed and dedicated for the purpose of translating the Book of Mormon—this would have increased Joseph's faith, and they did help him receive revelation more effectively, initially. This is what excited Joseph more than even the plates themselves—he was able to do more with the Nephite stones.
    • With time, Joseph was able to translate with his "original" stone—thus, his own ability had increased, because he no longer needed the "stronger" Nephite stones.
    • Eventually, he did not require the "prop" or "crutch" of the stone at all—his faith and experience had grown.
  • Critics of the Church often act as if the stone or Urim and Thummim were a type of "magic translator" that anyone could have looked through. They weren't. Joseph always insisted he was only able to do what he did "by the gift and power of God." It is probable that anyone else examining the stones would have found nothing unusual or different about them.
  • The power to translate or reveal hidden things came from God—as Joseph's experience and spiritual maturity increased, his reliance upon a physical instrument became less and less.

Question: What role did Joseph fill in the community as a youth?

Joseph acted as a "village seer"

Brant Gardner notes that Joseph filled the role of "village seer," and that the invitation of village seers to assist local treasure diggers was actually an English tradition. According to Keith Thomas,

There was not necessarily anything magical about the search for treasure as such, but in practice the assistance of a conjurer or wizard was very frequently invoked. This was partly because it was thought that special divining tools might help, such as the 'Mosaical Rods' for which many contemporary formulae survive.[3]

Gardner continues by confirming that "[w]hat the modern world tends to know about the village seers is the result of only one of the ways in which their talents were put to use. Since they could see that which was hidden, local seers became involved in the mania of digging for lost treasure."[4] Add to this the statements regarding Joseph's money digging activities mentioned in the Hurlbut affidavits, and it is easy to see why critics wish to make an issue regarding Joseph's utilization of the his "treasure seeking" seer stone to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon.

For a detailed response, see: Joseph Smith and "money digging" and The Hurlbut affidavits

Question: Didn't Joseph's 1826 Bainbridge appearance before a judge prove that he had previously been using his stone for nefarious purposes?

The actual evidence indicates a favorable outcome for Joseph Smith

Even Joseph himself noted that he was sought out by Josiah Stowell ("Stoal") to use the stone to find hidden valuables. (JS-H 1:55-56) Stowell "came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye."[5]

Stowell eventually joined the Church; some of his family and community religious leaders[6], however, brought charges against Joseph in court for events related to this treasure seeking effort. This led to what is commonly referred to as Joseph's 1826 Bainbridge "glasslooking trial." Although this proceeding was used to accuse Joseph of being a "disorderly person" and attempting to defraud Stowell, it should be noted that Stowell actually testified in Joseph's defense. The report of the result of this proceeding varies depending upon who is telling the story. Some say that Joseph was found "guilty," or "condemned." Others indicate that he was "discharged." Constable De Zeng indicated that the proceeding was "not a trial." A synthesis of all the evidence indicates a favorable outcome for Joseph Smith.[7]

Gardner concludes that "[t]he implication is that since Joseph used a peep stone, he must be seen in the same category as those who ran a scam with one. Clearly the 1826 court appearance tells us that some contemporaries considered him in that category....However, the fact that the communities would be willing to follow the confidence scheme simply tells us that there was an existing belief system in which seer stones were considered effective and acceptable."[8] More recent critics, notably Dan Vogel, have suggested that Joseph belongs in the category of a pious fraud,[9] a model that others have found incoherent and inadequate[10] to explain Joseph's successes and failures as a village seer (and later prophet) and his tendency to polarize acquaintances into believers or debunkers.

For a detailed response, see: Joseph's 1826 glasslooking trial

Question: Why would Joseph Smith not continue to use the sacred interpreters provided with the Nephite record?

Ultimately, it was more convenient for him to use the seer stone

Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes "for convenience" during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.[11]

The Nephite interpreters which were given to Joseph along with the plates consisted of two stones set in a bow, resembling a pair of "large spectacles." Martin Harris described the Nephite interpreters as being "about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre.... They were joined by a round bar of diver, about three-eights of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which with the two stones, would make eight inches."[12]

The Nephite interpreters, therefore, were yet another set of seer stones. It is unsurprising that Joseph would be completely comfortable with these instruments, given his experience with the use of seer stones up to that time.

Latter-day Saints associate the term "Urim and Thummim" with these interpreters. Gardner notes,

We all know that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon—except he didn't. The Book of Mormon mentions interpreters, but not the Urim and Thummim. It was the Book of Mormon interpreters which were given to Joseph with the plates. When Moroni took back the interpreters after the loss of the 116 manuscript pages, Joseph completed the translation with one of his seer stones. Until after the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim belonged to the Bible and the Bible only. [51] The Urim and Thummim became part of the story when it was presented within and to the Great Tradition. Eventually, even Joseph Smith used Urim and Thummim indiscriminately as labels generically representing either the Book of Mormon interpreters or the seer stone used during translation. [52] [13]

After the loss of the 116 pages, contemporary accounts are very clear that Joseph continued the translation using his seer stone. In later years, the term "Urim and Thummim" was retroactively applied to both the Nephite interpreters and to Joseph's seer stone. Thus the use of "Urim and Thummim" tends to obscure the fact that two different instruments were employed.

For a detailed response, see: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon

Question: Did Joseph use his seer stone to view the location of the gold plates in the Hill Cumorah?

There is an account which indicates that this may have happened

Joseph's seer stone may even have played a role in the location of the plates and the Nephite interpreters themselves. There is considerable evidence that the location of the plates and Nephite interpreters were revealed to Joseph via his second, white seer stone. In 1859, Martin Harris recalled that "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase...It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates."[14]

Some critics have sought to create a contradiction here, since Joseph's history reported that Moroni revealed the plates to him (JS-H 1:34-35,42). This is an example of a false dichotomy: Moroni could easily have told Joseph about the plates and interpreters. The vision to Joseph may well have then come through the seer stone, as some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., Section X) would later be revealed. One account from Henry Harris in Eber D. Howe's anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed matches this theory well:

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.[15]

For further information related to this topic

FairMormon Perspectives offers answers to these questions

Brant A. Gardner"Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?," Proceedings of the 2009 FAIR Conference (2009)

Two pictures:

The manner of translation was as wonderful as the discovery. By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him. After delivering this to his emanuensi,[sic] he would again proceed in the same manner and obtain the meaning of the next character, and so on till he came to the part of the plates which were sealed up.

Truman Coe, Presbyterian Minister living among the Saints in Kirtland, 1836

I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him.

Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery’s wife, 1870

These two descriptions of Joseph Smith translating the golden plates paint radically different pictures of the same event. It easy to accept the finger-on-the-plates translation, but the rock-in-the-hat feels completely foreign. Nevertheless, it is a much better attested description of the process than the first.

Why do we have both of these pictures if the second better fits the majority of descriptions? To answer that question, there are two stories that must be told: first–why would anyone think of translating with a rock in a hat?–and second–why we are so surprised at that?

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To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on (2013)
  2. Brant A. Gardner, Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, 2009 FAIR Conference presentation.
  3. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 234 quoted by Gardner in Joseph the Seer...
  4. Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, 2009 FAIR Conference presentation.
  5. Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853),91–92.
  6. David Keller, The Bainbridge Conspiracy, Fair Blog, March 23, 2008
  7. David Keller, Not Guilty, Fair Blog, Dec. 17, 2008.
  8. Gardner, Joseph the Seer
  9. Trevor Luke, "The Scandal in the Practice: Joseph Smith as a Religious Performer" 2009 Sunstone Conference
  10. David Keller, Seer or Pious Fraud, Fair Blog, May 5, 2008
  11. See Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 320–326.
  12. Joel Tiffany, "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 165–166; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing'", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 15, no. 2 (Summer 1982):62, footnote 27.
  13. J. V. Coombs, Religious Delusions: Studies of the False Faiths of To-Day as cited in Gardner, Joseph the Seer. Van Wagoner and Walker note that "These stones could not have been the Nephite interpreters, yet Joseph specifically calls them 'Urim and Thummim.' The most obvious explanation for such wording is that he used the term generically to include any device with the potential for 'communicating light perfectly, and intelligence perfectly, through a principle that God has ordained for that purpose,' as John Taylor would later put it." as cited in Gardner, Joseph the Seer.
  14. Mormonism—II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 163, see also 169; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 286.
  15. Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290.

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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