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.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Peep stones vs. Urim and Thummim - part 2

This is a continuation from Part 1, found here:

Faced with the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, how did Joseph and Oliver respond?

They prepared essays about the history of the Church. They published these as letters in the Messenger and Advocate newspaper. I consider these to be the first Gospel Topics Essays, with the significant difference that unlike today's anonymous Gospel Topics Essays, these 1834-5 essays were signed by President Oliver Cowdery, the Assistant President of the Church (senior in authority to the two counselors in the First Presidency).

After the eight essays were published, Joseph had his scribes copy them into his journal as part of his life story. You can read them in the Joseph Smith Papers (see links below).

To make sure all members of the Church were familiar with these essays, Joseph had them republished in every Church newspaper during his lifetime: the Times and Seasons, the Prophet, the Millennial Star, and the Gospel Reflector. They were published as a separate booklet in England, and thousands of copies were sold. Later, Joseph F. Smith republished them in the Improvement Era in Utah. Part of essay #1 has been canonized in the Pearl of Great Price.

The essays are important because they address doctrinal and historical issues that are just as pressing today as they were when Joseph and Oliver wrote the essays in 1834-5.

Sadly, most Church members today are unfamiliar with these important essays, which have never been published in the Ensign.

Consequently, members of the Church are uninformed about what Joseph and Oliver taught and are therefore more easily persuaded by M2C intellectuals and revisionist Church historians. 

[BTW, I had trouble finding illustrations for this section because most of them show Joseph

(i) simply looking at the plates (the older ones) or

(ii) staring at a stone in a hat (the newer ones).

Tomorrow in part 3 we'll look at the artwork and how the stone-in-a-hat theory is being forced on the youth of the Church today.]

Now, let's take a look at the original sources.

Oliver introduced the essays with this explanation:

That our narrative may be correct, and particularly the introduction, it is proper to inform our patrons, that our brother J. Smith Jr. has offered to assist us. Indeed, there are many items connected with the fore part of this subject that render his labor indispensible. With his labor and with authentic documents now in our possession, we hope to render this a pleasing and agreeable narrative, well worth the examination and perusal of the Saints.—
To do Justice to​ this subject will require time and space: we therefore ask the forbearance of our readers, assuring them that it shall be founded upon facts.


Rare historically accurate
depiction of the translation
In the very first essay, Oliver wrote this:

These were days never to be forgotten—to ​sit​ under the voice sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites should have said, “Interpreters,” the history, or record, called “the book of Mormon.”

Also found in JS-H, footnote.

Oliver's observation, when read in the context of Mormonism Unvailed, constitutes a refutation of the stone-in-a-hat theory.

Recall that Mormonism Unvailed had juxtaposed the two alternative theories: a seer stone (peep stone) vs. the Urim and Thummim. Oliver assured his readers that he was conveying facts, and one of those facts is that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim.

There are over 200 records of historical accounts about the translation. You can read them at Book of Mormon Central here: https://archive.bookofmormoncentral.org/content/miraculous-translation-book-mormon.

If you take the time to read those accounts, compare and contrast what Joseph and Oliver said with what everyone else said.

The current Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation

The current version of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation includes two quotations from Oliver that predate what he wrote in the Messenger and Advocate but affirm the same facts.

The principal scribe, Oliver Cowdery, testified under oath in 1831 that Joseph Smith “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraven on the plates.”31 In the fall of 1830, Cowdery visited Union Village, Ohio, and spoke about the translation of the Book of Mormon. Soon thereafter, a village resident reported that the translation was accomplished by means of “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.32

In both cases, Oliver explains that Joseph used the Nephite stones to look on the engraving on the plates.

When Oliver rejoined the Church in 1848 he reaffirmed his testimony about the Urim and Thummim as he spoke to an Iowa conference. I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.”8


This is another rejection of the stone-in-a-hat theory.

Oliver's rejection of the stone-in-a-hat-theory was obvious to his listeners, but would not be obvious to today's readers (except those who are familiar with the details of the changes in the text of the Book of Mormon). The explanation is a little detailed so I'm making it a footnote (*) to this post for those interested.

Note also that if you read footnote 8 in the Ensign article I quoted above, it refers to a BYU Studies article which you can read here:

However, the BYU Studies article omitted Oliver's statement about the Urim and Thummim by replacing it with ellipses: I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon save a few pages as it fell from the lips of the prophet... I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold
plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the interpreters....

This is important: If you read the current version of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation, you will see that the anonymous authors were unable to find a single quotation from either Joseph or Oliver to the effect that Joseph (i) used a seer stone (or peep stone) that he found in a well, or (ii) simply read words that appeared on such a stone without even using the plates.

Nevertheless, the anonymous authors of the Gospel Topics Essay preferred the stone-in-a-hat explanation over what Joseph and Oliver stated.

Worse, they omitted what Joseph and Oliver taught.

For example, when they quoted the passage above ("days never to be forgotten") they omitted Oliver's statement that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim.

They also omitted Joseph's own statement in JS-H 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."

The essay does not mention the injunction Joseph was under that led him to conduct the demonstration with the stone in a hat:

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.

The essay omits Joseph's account of translating with the Urim and Thummim: JS-H 1:62 By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following.

The essay omits Joseph's explanation about Moroni's first visit: also that the Urim and Thumim, was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it, with the assistance of this instrument.


Notice this: there is no record that Joseph or Oliver ever said Joseph had power to translate the plates with anything other than the Urim and Thummim.

In the Wentworth letter, also omitted from the essay, Joseph declared the following: 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.


When read in the context of the times, when his audience was familiar with the difference between the stone-in-a-hat theory and the Urim and Thummim narrative, the Wentworth letter is a definitive declaration of how Joseph translated the plates.

We wonder, why do the revisionist Church historians prefer the stone-in-a-hat theory over the definitive, consistent explanations from Joseph and Oliver?

We can't read minds, and so far as I know the intellectuals have not articulated the rationale for their preference, but it is deliberate, as we've just seen from the selection of quotations in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation.

One possibility is that the revisionist historians think they have discovered something in Church history that was "covered up" for decades. In the interest of openness, they have brought forth the stone-in-a-hat theory.

That makes sense from an academic perspective. To get a PhD and have a career, historians have to contribute something new to their field, and because the prophets have consistently taught that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim, the idea that Joseph "really" used a seer stone instead would have appeal to an academic.

The problem, of course, is that the stone-in-a-hat theory is 185 years old. Those familiar with Church history have always known about Mormonism Unvailed.

Rather than contributing something new, these revisionist historians have resurrected an old, discredited claim made by critics to undermine faith in the accounts of Joseph and Oliver.

True, there are plenty of accounts of the stone-in-a-hat process, but as I've pointed out, a careful reading of these accounts is consistent with a demonstration, not the actual translation of the plates.

BTW, if Church historians want to write about something new, I recommend that they republish President Cowdery's eight historical essays in the Ensign so members of the Church can see how he and Joseph responded to the critics. Those eight essays provide a far more effective response to the critics than the current Gospel Topics Essays that largely embrace the arguments of the critics instead of refute them.

Another possible rationale for the stone-in-a-hat theory is good old academic arrogance. There's nothing an intellectual enjoys more than showing that he/she knows more than the prophets. IOW, the revisionist historians have "discovered" that the teachings of the prophets about the translation, consistently taught for 180 years, were "incomplete" or even "misleading."

Depiction of Emma's unbelievable account
from Fairmormon and Book of Mormon Central
Among other things, the historians usually cite statements from Emma Smith, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, which I've discussed in detail in my upcoming book on the translation.

To summarize, David was never a scribe; he could only have witnessed a demonstration, not the actual translation with the plates and Urim and Thummim. He didn't even see the plates until after the translation was complete and he became one of the Three Witnesses.

Martin Harris' statements are consistent with the demonstration explanation. He, too, never saw the plates or the interpreters until he became one of the Three Witnesses. If he knew those objects weren't even used for the translation, why would he have been so insistent on seeing them?

Emma's statement is not believable for several reasons that I'll discuss in part 3.

Like modern revisionist historians, Mormonism Unvailed greatly preferred the stone-in-the-hat theory.

Here's an observation from p. 77-8 of Mormonism Unvailed. If you look at the Internet, you'll find plenty of memes that make the same point today.

Now, whether the two methods for translating, one by a pair of stone spectacles "set in the rims of a bow," and the other by one stone, were provided against accident, we cannot determine — perhaps they, were limited in their appropriate uses — at all events the plan meets our approbation 

We are informed that Smith used a stone in a hat, for the purpose of translating the plates. The spectacles and plates were found together, but were taken from him and hid up again before he had translated one word, and he has never seen them since — this is Smith's own story. Let us ask, what use have the plates been or the spectacles, so long as they have in no sense been used ? or
what does the testimony of Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer amount to ? They solemnly swear that they saw the plates, and that an angel showed them, and the engravings which were upon them. 

But if the plates were hid by the angel so that they have not been seen since, how do these witnesses know that when Smith translated out of a hat, with a peep-stone, that the contents of the plates were repeated and written down? Neither of the witnesses pretend that they could read the hieroglyphics with or without the stone; and, therefore, are not competent testimony....


For decades, Church leaders taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. If you search Journal of Discourses, for example, you get over 100 results that explain that Joseph translated the plates with the "Urim and Thummim" that he obtained from Moroni, which had been prepared for the purpose of translating the plates.

The speakers in Journal of Discourses were familiar with Mormonism Unvailed and Oliver's eight essays that cited facts to rebut the claims of the critics. They were familiar with all of the statements by Oliver and Joseph about how Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates.

Nevertheless, our intellectuals have persuaded members of the Church that the prophets were wrong because Joseph actually used the stone in a hat instead of the Urim and Thummim.

Based on the feedback I've received over the last few years, many members of the Church will be happy to know there is an alternative narrative that supports, instead of repudiates, the teachings of the prophets.

In part 3, we'll address these questions:

Why did Emma say Joseph used the stone-in-a-hat method?

How are revisionist historians (including BYU professors) teaching the youth that the prophets are wrong?

How does all of this implicate M2C?

* As noted above, Oliver Cowdery said "I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters."

I think it's safe to say that Oliver Cowdery knew what was written in the Book of Mormon. He not only wrote it as Joseph dictated the text, but he copied the entire manuscript for the printer.

Plus, he actually saw the Interpreters and specifically identified them as the Urim and Thummim.

[Here, I should mention that our revisionist historians claim W.W. Phelps was the first to call the interpreters the Urim and Thummim, but as I've explained elsewhere, all we can say is that the Phelps reference is the first extant published reference. The Phelps statement is consistent with prior use of the term by Joseph and Oliver.]

Oliver Cowdery certainly knew that the Book of Mormon refers to "interpreters" in only four verses.

Mosiah 8:13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.

Mosiah 8:19 And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words the king rejoiced exceedingly, and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men.

Mosiah 28:20 And now, as I said unto you, that after king Mosiah had done these things, he took the plates of brass, and all the things which he had kept, and conferred them upon Alma, who was the son of Alma; yea, all the records, and also the interpreters, and conferred them upon him, and commanded him that he should keep and preserve them, and also keep a record of the people, handing them down from one generation to another, even as they had been handed down from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem.

Ether 4:5 Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord.

Now, if you're checking up on me as you should, and you consult the current edition of the Book of Mormon, you'll notice that I omitted two references to the "interpreters" in Alma 37:21 and 25.  

21 And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, all their murders, and robbings, and their plunderings, and all their wickedness and abominations, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, and that ye preserve these interpreters.

24 And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:

In the 1830 edition, these verses read "yea, and that ye preserve these directors... And now my son, these directors were prepared..."

It wasn't until the 1920 edition that the term directors was changed to interpreters

IOW, Oliver Cowdery was not referring to the directors in Alma 37.

This is important because the revisionist historians always cite Alma 37 to support their stone-in-a-hat theory.

Why was the term changed in the 1920 edition?

One reasonable interpretation of Alma 37 is that when Alma referred to the directors, he was referring to the same objects called interpreters in Mosiah and Ether. That's the gist of an article in the Interpreter, which you can read here:

The comments below the article raise several interesting points and provide additional references for those who want to know more about all of this.

The article in the Interpreter magazine makes a point that in Chapter 37, Alma refers to the directors, plural, but Alma also discusses the liahona, a compass, a ball, or director (singular).

The article doesn't mention that, in today's editions of the scriptures, the only reference to directors is in D&C 17:1. That verse makes a clear distinction between the Urim and Thummim and the directors (plural).

Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.

Of course, it's possible that D&C 17:1 is simply an error; i.e., that it should have read "the miraculous director" (singular). On the other hand, it's possible that Lehi was given both a ball or compass, and an interpretive seer stone, and that Alma was referring to both when he used the plural, and then later focused only on the liahona. I won't get into the details of that here, but you can get some background on this in the comments to the article in the Interpreter magazine.

For purposes of this post, though, it seems obvious that Oliver Cowdery understood and made it clear that the interpreters referred to in the Book of Mormon, which he equated to the Urim and Thummim, had nothing to do with a seer stone Joseph found in a well. 

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