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, February 21, 2020

The Rise and Revenge of the SITH

Since January 3, I've been on 27 airline flights and visited 10 countries. I attended church and/or visited with members and missionaries in five of those countries. I regularly hear from members from around the world.

One issue that frequently arises is the nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon, especially with respect to the stone-in-the-hat vs. the Urim and Thummim. Because there are always new readers of this blog, I'm going to provide a brief overview today.

Here's my bias: I still believe what Joseph and Oliver taught. But apparently fewer and fewer other people do.

The SITH (stone-in-the-hat theory) was set out in the book Mormonism Unvailed in 1834.

I call this the "Rise of the SITH."

The author of Mormonism Unvailed sought to discredit Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I've discussed this book before, such as here.

Mormonism Unvailed explained that there were two alternative explanations for the translation of the Book of Mormon: SITH and the Urim and Thummim (U&T).

SITH. According to Mormonism Unvailed, one explanation was that Joseph Smith used a "peep" stone that he found in a well years before he obtained the plates from the hill in New York. Joseph placed the stone into a hat. Words appeared on the stone. He put his face in the hat to block the light and read the words to his scribes (primarily Martin Harris for the 116 pages and Oliver Cowdery for the Book of Mormon we have today).

U&T. According to Mormonism Unvailed, the alternative account held that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim that Moroni provided along with the plates themselves in the stone box on the Hill Cumorah. This is the explanation that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery gave. They set it out in a series of essays about Church history, published in response to Mormonism Unvailed as letters in 1834-5 and republished many times since. Portions of Letter I are contained in the Pearl of Great Price as a note to Joseph Smith-History. In that History, Joseph explains that he used the Urim and Thummim to translate (see the verses at the end of this post).

When Joseph wrote the Wentworth letter in 1842, he reiterated his testimony. "With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims 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 Oliver Cowdery rejoined the Church, he reiterated his witness and again refuted the teachings of Mormonism Unvailed, as quoted by President Hinckley in General Conference.

“My name is Cowdery—Oliver Cowdery. In the history of the Church I stood … in her councils. Not because I was better than other men was I called … to fill the purposes of God. He called me to a high and holy calling. I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and he translated it by the power and gift of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, ‘Holy Interpreter.
“I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was translated. … That book is true, Sidney Rigdon did not write it; Mr. Spaulding did not write it; I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. …

(1989, April, Gordon B. Hinckley, ‘Magnify Your Calling,’ Ensign, May 1989, ¶ 26–27)

The clear, unambiguous teachings of Joseph and Oliver were, as Oliver explained, based on fact. The translation with the Urim and Thummim was taught and re-taught in General Conference and throughout the Church.

Historians and Church leaders were well aware of the claims made in Mormonism Unvailed and other sources, including the "Last Testimony" attributed to Emma Smith and the statements of David Whitmer.

Nevertheless, Church leaders repeatedly reaffirmed the testimonies of Joseph and Oliver.

For over 150 years, LDS Church leaders reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver taught, over and over.

Until recently.

In recent years, SITH has made a comeback.

We can think of it as "The revenge of the SITH." Why?

Back in 1834, Mormonism Unvailed used SITH as a tool to oppose and defeat Joseph Smith. 

The SITH has the same impact today.

The slowing growth of the Church in recent years is well known. The decline started in the late 1990s, but has gotten worse since about 2003.

There are many factors to consider, but one of the most obvious is the Revenge of the SITH. After all, if people can be convinced that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery misled the world about the translation of the Book of Mormon (as well as the location of Cumorah), how credible are the rest of their claims?
Revenge of the SITH: Church growth vs world population growth

Remember the essays, published as letters in 1834-5, that Oliver and Joseph wrote in response to Mormonism Unvailed?

Today, those essays are largely unknown to members of the Church. They are disbelieved by our revisionist Church historians and M2C intellectuals.

Groups such as Book of Mormon Central actively teach Church members to disregard the essays.

We can't say we have not been warned about the Revenge of the SITH.

In October General Conference in 2003, Elder Robert D. Hales reaffirmed the testimony of Joseph and Oliver, referring to Joseph Smith-History 1:66-67.

After four years of continued obedience, Joseph received the plates on September 22, 1827, at the age of 21. He also received an ancient instrument for translating them, called the Urim and Thummim. Using this sacred interpreter, along with the Holy Ghost, Joseph began the work of translation in December of that year. In time he was joined by a schoolteacher named Oliver Cowdery, who acted as his scribe.
(2003, October, Robert D. Hales, ‘Receiving a Testimony of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ Ensign, November 2003, ¶ 22)
South Park introduces SITH
The next month, on November 19, 2003, an episode of South Park brought SITH to the attention of the world.

Had Church members heeded what Elder Hales taught, they would not have been misled by South Park.

In April 2007, Elder L. Tom Perry reaffirmed the testimony once again.

Oliver wrote of this remarkable experience: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the 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 … the history, or record, called ‘The book of Mormon’” (Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 14; see also Joseph Smith—History 1:71, note).
(2007, April, L. Tom Perry, ‘The Message of the Restoration,’ Ensign, May 2007, ¶ 28)

Later that year, Richard Bushman published Rough Stone Rolling, which established SITH as a historical fact, contrary to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

"When Cowdery took up the job of scribe, he and Joseph translated in the same room where Emma was working. Joseph looked in the seerstone, and the plates lay covered on the table." RSR, p. 71.

Since 2007, the testimony of Joseph and Oliver about the Urim and Thummim has never been reaffirmed in General Conference. 

Their testimonies have been replaced by a confusing mixture of the two alternatives set forth in Mormonism Unvailed

The book Saints, Volume 1, put it this way.

Sometimes Joseph translated by looking through the interpreters and reading in English the characters on the plates. Often he found a single seer stone to be more convenient. He would put the seer stone in his hat, place his face into the hat to block out the light, and peer at the stone. Light from the stone would shine in the darkness, revealing words that Joseph dictated as Oliver rapidly copied them down.

The Come Follow Me manual describes it like this:

How was the Book of Mormon translated?
The Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God.” We don’t know many details about the miraculous translation process, but we do know that Joseph Smith was a seer, aided by instruments that God had prepared: two transparent stones called the Urim and Thummim and another stone called a seer stone. Joseph saw in these stones the English interpretation of the characters on the plates, and he read the translation aloud while a scribe recorded it. Each of Joseph’s scribes testified that God’s power was manifest in the translation of this sacred work.

The January Ensign says this:

The “interpreters” used by Joseph during the translation process included the “two stones in
silver bows” that were deposited by Moroni with the plates (see Joseph Smith—History 1:35.) In
addition to these two seer stones, Joseph used at least one other seer stone that the Lord had

My favorite explanation, in terms of obfuscation, is in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation.

Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way such that, in the course of time, Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters.21 ... Latter-day Saints later understood the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer exclusively to the interpreters. Joseph Smith and others, however, seem to have understood the term more as a descriptive category of instruments for obtaining divine revelations and less as the name of a specific instrument.

Of course, we can all read what Joseph and Oliver taught and see for ourselves that they never said anything like this. They always said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. So did their peers and successors, all of whom were perfectly familiar with Mormonism Unvailed.

The mixture of the two theories makes no sense because those who claimed Joseph used SITH also said he never used the Urim and Thummim after the 116 pages were lost.

Even Mormonism Unvailed recognized that the two theories were alternative explanations.


We all recognize that there are historical accounts by others to the effect that Joseph used SITH instead of the Urim and Thummim.

One book by Church historians, titled From Darkness unto Light, sought to reconcile the accounts by claiming that when Joseph and Oliver used the term "Urim and Thummim" they actually meant the seer stone. That's the claim of the Gospel Topics Essay. Of course, that claim flatly ignores the historical context and the distinction made in Mormonism Unvailed. Unsuspecting readers don't know that, however, because the authors simply omitted facts that contradicted their theory.

Another way to reconcile the accounts is my proposal that Joseph conducted demonstrations with the seer stone because Moroni had forbidden him from showing the plates and the Urim and Thummim to anyone. I explained this in detail in my book, A Man that Can Translate.

Others think there is no need to reconcile the accounts because one or the other is simply a lie.

Many members think that, because of the lesson manuals and other materials, we're supposed to believe SITH instead of what Joseph and Oliver taught.

We're all free to believe whatever we want. As the data above shows, though, it seems that the adoption of SITH, along with the adoption of M2C, are not leading to growth of the Church.

Fortunately, the prophets teach us to rely on the scriptures, not the lesson manuals and the speculations of historians and M2C intellectuals.

Let's review what the scriptures say. Especially when read together with the other testimonies provided by Joseph and Oliver, it is difficult to imagine how Joseph could have been more clear about this.

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.
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. 
52 Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger.
59 At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. 
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.

These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the 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 would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’
(Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

1 comment:

  1. I think you have demonstrated really well why President Nelson has directed us to read the story of Joseph Smith that is contained in the Joseph Smith History.