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.

Translation theories summary

Before my book titled A Man that Can Translate, there were four basic approaches to the question of Book of Mormon translation.

[acronyms used in this article: U&T (Urim and Thummim) and SITH (stone in the hat)]

1)    That Joseph translated the plates with the U&T that came with the plates. This is what we have from Joseph, Oliver and Lucy in their accounts (including Joseph's claim in the Preface to the 1830 Edition that he translated the plates). These witnesses did not directly address SITH, although Oliver Cowdery's account in Letter I (Joseph Smith-History, note 1) was published in response to Mormonism Unvailed, the 1834 book that mentioned SITH and U&T as alternative explanations for the Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith--History includes not only Oliver's account, but Joseph's own explanation that he copied characters from the plates and translated them with the U&T.

2)    That SITH was used instead of U&T, with the plates covered with a cloth the entire time. The sources for this include people who were on the scene, including primarily David Whitmer and Emma Smith, although the extant written sources for these were recorded/written decades after the fact. The plates become not the source of a translation but a sort of talisman that prompted revelation through the seer stone, whether conveyed in a vision or in the form of words on the stone. In this understanding, the BoM is not a translation of an ancient text as Joseph and Oliver said, but rather a modern Koran, revealed directly into the mind of Joseph Smith the way the Koran was revealed directly to the mind of Mohammad

3)    Some blend of 1 and 2 where the seer stone is equated with the U&T. Some scholars propose that the term U&T, as used by Joseph and Oliver, referred to the seer stone as well as the U&T that came with the plates. In this scenario, Joseph used both "instruments" the same way, by placing them in a hat and reading words that appeared on the stone. However, newspaper accounts from the early 1830s, along with Mormonism Unvailed, referred to both SITH and U&T as alternatives, not synonyms. 

4)    That only U&T was used, and that all the SITH witnesses were lying (this is the Stoddards' approach in their book).

On #4, I disagree with the Stoddards on the translation. The Stoddards just reject any evidence that contradicts their theory. As a lawyer, I don't think it makes sense to reject testimony of people who were present for ideological reasons. 

But I also don't think it makes sense to reject or ignore what Joseph and Oliver taught, the way the Gospel Topics Essay on the translation does.

For that reason, I also disagree with #2, which rejects what Joseph and Oliver said, as well as what the scriptures say. 

The assertion underlying #3 that Joseph meant the seer stone when he referred to the U&T contradicts the historical evidence.  Here context is critical.  Oliver's account (in which Joseph was clearly involved, and which is now extensively noted in JS-H) followed the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, which described the two narratives (#2 and #3) as distinct alternatives (contra #4). Oliver wrote Letter I (JS-H, note 1), which emphasized that Joseph translated with the U&T, in response to Mormonism Unvailed.  

Faced with the cherry picking approach adopted by the Stoddards (#4) and the historians who either teach SITH (#2) or try to wash over the differences (#3), in A Man that Can Translate I go through the evidence in detail, both the SITH witness testimony and the manuscripts (original and printer's). I conclude that David Whitmer accurately explained that:

(i) it took Joseph 8 months to translate the plates (not the 3 months most scholars claim) and 

(ii) Joseph conducted a demonstration in the Whitmer home with SITH. 

I argue that the demonstration which gave rise to the SITH witness accounts was just that, a demonstration, and not the actual translation process, which used the U&T.  In describing the demonstration event which occurred in his home before many witnesses whose recollections would much later serve as the basis for the SITH accounts, David explained that three scribes were present, taking turns writing as they became tired when Joseph dictated. That is obviously much different from the normal translation process, which was "laborious" and occupied the entire day from sunrise to sunset. Scribes would write for days on end during the actual translation, but during the demonstration Joseph dictated so fast three scribes had to take turns. Why?

I propose it was because on that occasion, Joseph was not translating. He conducted the demonstration to resolve a dilemma and help explain what he could not otherwise show; i.e., he was forbidden from letting people see either the U&T or the plates, but his supporters wanted to know how he was translating. The evidence indicates that during the demonstration, Joseph recited some of the Isaiah passages from 2 Nephi from memory. I show the evidence of this in the text itself as well as in the eyewitness statements. 

The demonstration scenario reconciles what Joseph and Oliver (and Lucy Mack Smith) said, what the scriptures say, and what eyewitnesses say. In my view, all the evidence points to the demonstration explanation. I don't have to ignore or reject any of the evidence.

Next, I discuss the reasons why David, Emma and others focused on SITH decades later. I argue that their motivation in inflating their recollections of the SITH demonstrations into #3, was to refute the Spalding theory. If many witnesses saw "translation" using SITH, then Joseph couldn't have been reading from a hidden manuscript as per the Spalding theory.  This becomes obvious when we read their statements in context instead of as excerpts. Every other analysis I've seen has ignored the context, probably because of the modern consensus that the Spalding theory had no basis. But in the 19th century, the Spalding theory was widely accepted by unbelievers as "the" explanation for the Book of Mormon, so believers had to refute it. Unlike the Stoddards, I respect the SITH witnesses' motives, but argue that, unfortunately, their well-intended inflation of the SITH demonstration into the primary method of translation (#2) has led in our times to confusion, and explanation #3, which contradicts both the facts and the fundamental nature of what Joseph said the BoM was - a translation of a historically authentic record of ancient peoples.  (The book examines all of the primary sources in detail, but I won't get into that here.) 


  1. This is very thought provoking and good a discussion of points. I took an institute class that did talk about the seer stone and translation. It mentioned that Joseph used both and that he used the seer stone and urim and thumim. My question is couldn’t he just have done direct revelation. Wasn’t the Joseph Matthew in the Pearl of great price written with no ancient text? I’ve met a few people that was concerned about translating in a hat, but I met far more people in college were concerned about the book of Abraham as the papyrus was the book of the dead. I read there was a fire that burned some of it. My next question is some early leaders I think prophet smith in early 1900s said peep stones is of the devil. If a seer stone is of the devil why did Joseph own several? Didn’t he find a horse using it once? I think it was in D&C that talks about how another member found a seer stone. That was supposedly of the devil because the revelation was for the whole church and not just for the persons own revelation or position of stewardship. I can get that caused confusion and tried to destroy hierarchy of leadership. But if the seer stones are of the devil why did Joseph own some? Is it true he had one with a hole in it from native Americans? I’ll have to get your book and read it. I did find it interesting that like dowsing was looked down in by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago. I think I read they believed divining was the same as divination or that seeking hidden things was the same as seeing the future. I find it interesting cause I also read in the Bible in was it genius the story of a prophet dowsing with his cup or something. I thought was weird. Maybe you could explain if seer stones are of the devil why Joseph owned some. And if dowsing is bad why did a lot of members even do it or it was never like sought out and punished like the Catholics did. Cause I know a few people and heard many stories of water dowsing.

    1. Zenas Gurley interviewed several early Church member, including John and David Whitmer. He concluded that Joseph Smith showed the seer stone to people to "satisfy their awful curiosity." John Whitmer, who was one of the actual scribes, explained that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate with the plates. David admitted that he was not present for most of the translation, but he related an experience downstairs in the Whitmer home during which Joseph used the stone in the hat (SITH). That, in my opinion, was merely a demonstration. Sometimes people asked Joseph for a revelation and they asked him to use the stone. That's consistent with what Gurley concluded; i.e., that Joseph didn't need the stone but used it to satisfy people's curiosity because some people had more faith if he used a stone (including Hyrum).

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