long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Friday, August 4, 2023

From Darkness Unto Light and Mormonism Unvailed, part 2

Recently I realized I have a lot of unpublished draft posts. This is one from a while back that seems pertinent today.

The book From Darkness unto Light sets out the theory that when Joseph referred to the "Urim and Thummim" he really meant both the seer stone he found in a well and the interpreters that came with the plates. Let's call this the "expansive U&T definition."

"By at least 1833, Joseph Smith and members of the Church began using the biblical term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to any seer stone, including seer stones Joseph Smith found before 1827."

[see discussion below for citation]

Readers who rely on the authors' references and citations might be persuaded to accept their theory. But their theory would be more persuasive if they presented all the evidence instead of omitting key sources.

The purpose of these posts about From Darkness Unto Light is to provide the background information that the authors apparently overlooked or forgot to include in their book for unexplained reasons.

Maybe after considering all the evidence, readers would still accept the expansive U&T definition. Such readers would at least be making an informed decision.

Here's a problem. The 1835 book Mormonism Unvailed set out a sharp distinction between the "peep stone" that Joseph put in the hat, and the alternative explanation that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. It sets forth the two alternatives on the very same page.

The authors mention the book Mormonism Unvailed 32 times (see below), but they forgot to include this passage that contradicts their theory.

Or maybe they omitted that passage intentionally because they knew it contradicted their theory.

You decide.

If, as the authors want us to believe, Joseph Smith began using the the "expansive U&T definition" in 1833, it makes no sense for Mormonism Unvailed to explain in 1835 that the seer (peep) stone theory (SITH, for stone-in-the-hat) is an alternative to the Urim and Thummim. 

Instead, as we'll discuss below, after the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, Joseph and Oliver consistently used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite interpreters. I think they did so specifically to refute the SITH claims of Mormonism Unvailed, a book they denounced as I discussed here: http://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/2023/04/mormonism-unvailed-then-and-now.html


In the chapter "Learning to Translate," the authors of From Darkness unto Light propose that 

"By at least 1833, Joseph Smith and members of the Church began using the biblical term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to any seer stone, including seer stones Joseph Smith found before 1827. 14

14.  See "The Book of Mormon," The Evening and the Morning Star, January 1833, 2. 

Why do they write "at least 1833" here? 

Footnote 14 refers to W.W. Phelps' 1833 explanation of the Urim and Thummim. For a while, historians thought this was the first usage of the term, so they assumed Phelps was the first to apply it. 

However, the 1833 theory has been discredited by the discovery of an earlier use of the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the Nephite interpreters which was published on August 5, 1832, when Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith told an audience in Boston that the translation “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim." For a discussion, see 


Now, look at the Phelps reference. It appears in a long article titled "The Book of Mormon" that sought to explain the book to the general public. Here's the excerpt:

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) and while it unfolds the history of the first inhabitants that settled this continent, it, at the same time, brings a oneness to scripture, like the days of the apostles;

(Evening and Morning Star I.8:58 ¶6)

Notice two things here. 

First, Phelps’ article was not inconsistent with prior use of the term Urim and Thummim, such as the way Orson and Samuel used the term, because Phelps was merely explaining the term using biblical terminology. 

Second, Phelps obviously used the term to apply specifically to the "pair of Interpreters, or spectacles." He neither said nor implied that the term would encompass a stone found in a well or any other object found before 1827. 

Thus, the only evidence cited by the authors directly contradicts their claim!

This leaves us with the way Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith used the term. They neither said nor implied that Joseph used a seer stone. 

You can decide whether Orson and Samuel invented the term, or whether they heard that from someone else—presumably Joseph or Oliver.

Letter IV describes Moroni telling Joseph that it was his privilege “to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record.” Moroni did not tell Joseph he had the privilege to translate the record "by any means he could or would discover." Moroni did not refer to any seer stone as a Urim and Thummim. 

When Oliver introduced these historical essays, he explained he was using original documents then in his possession. Perhaps he referred to the notebook he kept during the translation process, in which he recorded the things Joseph told him starting in April 1828. Maybe there were other documents, such as journal entries or letters. 


While scholars have assumed or inferred that Moroni did not use the term, the evidence supports an alternative working hypothesis; i.e., the idea that it was Moroni who first used the term, that it was common understanding among Joseph's contemporaries, and that Phelps merely explained the use of the term to readers who were familiar with the Bible.

Related to this is the well-known insertion of the term "Urim and Thummim" into what is now D&C 10. 

As originally published in the 1833 Book of Commandments as Chapter IX, the passage read:

NOW, behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them,


In the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, the passage was changed to read this way:

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;

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.

(Doctrine and Covenants 10:1)

Some have suggested that this change was prompted by Phelps' coining the term in 1833. However, as we've seen, the term was used at least as early as 1832 in Boston.

What else happened between the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants?

One event that may have prompted this change was the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, which, as we've seen, set forth SITH as an alternative to the use of the U&T.  

In my view, Joseph and Oliver added the term "Urim and Thummim" to the published revelation (i) to clarify the meaning of the passage, which was well known at the time but would not be in the future, and (ii) to refute the SITH claims of Mormonism Unvailed.

In fact, when Joseph described the translation, he made it perfectly clear, to the point of emphasis, that he used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, thereby precluding any reference to a seer stone he found in a well or anywhere else. It's difficult to imagine how he could have been any more clear and precise.

Joseph Smith's explanation in the Elders' Journal:

[Moroni] 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.


He re-emphasized this point in the Wentworth letter:

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.


Notice, Joseph said the Urim and Thummim was with the records and that "the ancients" called the interpreters "Urim and Thummim." Moroni was an ancient, and his claim here is consistent with his claims in Joseph Smith-History. There is no room in this passage for a seer stone Joseph found in a well. 

Nevertheless, some LDS historians have rejected Joseph's claims and instead embraced the SITH narrative from Mormonism Unvailed.


BTW, the claim that the term Urim and Thummim was applied to the seer (peep) stones has been often repeated, even in a 2021 BYU Studies article I discussed here: 



Continuing with the text of From Darkness Unto Light"Learning to Translate:" 

The name was apparently adopted to reflect the Old Testament's use of the Urim and Thummim that the high priest of Israel used for revelatory guidance. 15 

However, the Book of Mormon explains that the spectacles were handed down to Joseph Smith from ancient American prophets, and though the term was used in the early 1830s, they were not originally called the Urim and Thummim. 16. [emphasis added]

15 [citing Old Testament verses]

16. Joseph Smith, History, 1832, 6.

To claim as the authors do here that the interpreters "were not originally called the Urim and Thummim" defies what Joseph himself reported. 

34 He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;

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.

(Joseph Smith—History 1:34–35)

 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 Smith—History 1:42)

To be clear and accurate, the authors could have written "there is no extant document referring to the interpreters as the Urim and Thummim prior to 1832." But that is a far cry from their claim that the interpreters "were not originally called the Urim and Thummim." Obviously, we have no recording of what people said during those years, and scant records of what was reported about what they said.

Furthermore, the authors simply slide over the obvious problem with their theory; i.e., although we do have records of Joseph and Oliver specifically referring to the Nephite interpreters as the Urim and Thummim, we have no record of Joseph or Oliver ever using the term "seer stone" in connection with the translation.

Years later, in the Nauvoo era, Joseph did use the term Urim and Thummim in a broader context (D&C 130:10), but the only confusing aspect of this is the effort by modern SITH scholars to retroactively conflate the terms by claiming that, in 1835 and 1838, Joseph meant his seer stone when he referred to the Urim and Thummim.


The first mention of Mormonism Unvailed appears in the Foreword. Richard Bushman sets out the underlying methodology of From Darkness unto Light.

For years Mormon scholars simply disregarded critical sources, such as the affidavits concerning the Smith family in E.D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed. They felt the critical writings were too biased to be of any use. But in recent years, automatic exclusion of negative reports is no longer the practice. Everything has to be examined and evaluated. MacKay and Dirkmaat work on the principle that bias must be taken into account in analyzing any historical source. The art of the historian is to extract useful information from original sources whether negative or positive. The notes of From Darkness unto Light show the authors ranging through sources all across the spectrum. The result is a much enriched and compelling narrative, one that will hold up under critical scrutiny.

I like the way Richard explained "the art of historian" here, but he left a loophole. He should have written "extract useful information from all the original sources."  

Everyone can see that MacKay and Dirkmaat used original sources, but all historians (and polemicists) do that. The problem is that they simply omitted original sources that contradict their theory about the translation, including the sources most directly on point; i.e., the teachings of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, as we discussed here: https://www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/2022/07/from-darkness-unto-light-omitting.html

On the scale of historian mistakes, omitting the statements of the principals is near or at the top. 

Such omissions are obvious to informed readers, who easily recognize the historians' mistake.

The problem is much worse when historians deliberately omit statements from frequently cited sources solely because those statements contradict the historian's pet theory.


It's not that the authors were unaware of Mormonism Unvailed. They cited the following pages of Mormonism Unvailed: 13-15, 236, 240-248, 252, 257-58, 260-261, 270, and 273.

The references to Mormonism Unvailed are listed below.

Retrieving the Plates. 

Note 30 E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: 1834), 240-48. [The note refers to this mindreading statement in the text "Chase likely refused [to make a case to hold the plates] because he doubted that Joseph could repay him for the materials and labor."]

Note 34. See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240-48. [This note referred to Lawrence's involvement with Joseph Smith and mentioned that Lorenzo Saunders, who gave a similar account, "was likely dependent upon Chase's printed testimony in Mormonism Unvailed, but he likely also spoke with Chase."]

Note 36. If Chase's account is correct, which claimed that Samuel Lawrence went to the hill with Joseph Smith, the spectacles were revealed to him....Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240-48.

Note 49. Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, MS 65; Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 245-46. [relating to a conjurer Chase hired to find the plates.]

Note 75. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240-48.

Note 76. Chase claimed that Joseph had previously deceived Lawerence, convincing the latter to pay his way to Harmony, Pennsylvania by claiming that JOseph knew about a silver mine that never materialized. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240-48.

Note 77. Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, MS 65; Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240-48. 

Escaping Palmyra and Copying Characters from the Gold Plates

Note 4. see also Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 257-58.

Note 21. Lucy Smith wrote that the plates were "severely nailed up in a box and the box put into a strong cask made for the purpose the cask was then filled with beans and headed up as soon as it was ascertained." Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, book 6-7. See also Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 13-15.

Note 31. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 257-58.

Note 38. Martin showed the characters he had copied from the plates to individuals throughout his lifetime.... See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 260-61.

Harris's Trip to the East

"He [Charles Anthon] wrote a letter to E.D. Howe in 1834 as Howe prepared his book Mormonism Unvailed, an expose criticizing the origins of the Church."

Note 6. See W.W. Phelps to E.D. Howe, 15 January 1831, in Mormonism Unvailed, 273. [discussing Martin Harris' stop in Utica where he "may have" gathered information about filing a copyright.]

Note 49. [Quoting Anthon's letter to Howe] E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 270. 

Note 50. E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 270

Learning to Translate

Note 28. [quoting Chase's claim that Harris said that Emma would have a son who could read the "Gold Bible" when two years old] E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 248.

Note 29. [Quoting Anthon's letter to Howe] E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 270-72. 

Translation and the Lost Book of Lehi

Note 2 [regarding Martin Harris as a Universalist and a Methodist] See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 260-61.

Note 11. [referring to Abigail Harris' claim that Martin sought to make money] Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 253-54.

Note 16. [regarding Harris giving Joseph $50] Joseph Smith, History, vol. A-1, 9. See also Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 254. 

Note 27. [supporting "early accounts only describe Joseph setting the breastplate aside."] See Joseph Smith, History, vol. A-1, 5; Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 246-7, 253, 267. 

Note 35. Charles Anthon stated from his interaction with Harris in Febraury 1828 that Joseph Smith "was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles." Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 270-72. 

Note 37. ... Eber D. Howe wrote that Martin Harris explained that "he never saw the wonderful plates but once, although he and Smith were engaged for months in deciphering their contents." Mormonism Unvailed, 13.

Returning to the Translation

Note 8. [referencing "This need for a great witness may have been the result of a lawsuit threatened by his wife."] See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 264.

Note 13. Compare Peter Ingersoll statement in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 236.

Note 17. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 264.

Note 21. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 265.

Oliver Cowdery and the Translation of the Book of Mormon

Note 26. Brigham Young explained that Smith's first seer stone ws found fifteen feet underground and that "He saw it while looking in another seers stone which a person had. He went right to the spot & dug & found it." Kenny, Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 5:382-83. It is unclear who this other seer was, but Joseph Smith Sr. apparently said the other seer used "a dark stone." Fayette Lapham, "The Mormons Part II," Historical Magazine, May 1870, 306. Ashurst -Mcgee suggests that Luman Walters (Reflector, 12 June 1830, 37), William Stafford (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 238), and Samuel Lawrence (Naked Truths About Mormonism, 2) may have been the seer Smith Sr. was referencing... In an affidavit accusing Joseph Smith of theft, Willard Chase testified that he had hired Alvin and Hyrum Smith to dig a well for him and that Chase found the brown stone at that time, but Hyrum took and kept it without his permission. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 240.

Note 36. Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, 17 February 1834, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 270-71.

Paying for the Book of Mormon

Note 7. ... In 1833, Ingersoll swore in an affidavit that Joseph Smith had told him his "frock" allegedly containing the plates was filled with sand. See Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 235-36.

The Publication of the Book of Mormon

Note 46. [regarding the sales price of the Book of Mormon] Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252.

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