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, March 6, 2020

SITH and "translation instruments"

We visited the Priesthood Restoration Site in Harmony, Pennsylvania, the other day. It is a wonderful site in every respect. I've visited many times, starting with the day before the official opening. It's one of my favorite Church history sites.

Because the site is on a small road far from the main freeway and not well publicized, we assume most visitors are Church members. However, the day I was there, local non-member residents were visiting for the first time.

On this visit, I noticed some new terminology about the translation of the Book of Mormon that I thought readers would be interested in.

Home in Harmony, PA,
where Joseph translated the abridge plates
Background. After Joseph obtained the abridged plates (see the Title Page) from Moroni's stone box in the hill Cumorah near Palmyra, NY, he and Emma moved to Harmony, PA, where Emma had grown up. There, he translated all of the abridged plates (except the sealed portion) with Martin Harris (the 116 lost pages) and Oliver Cowdery (Mosiah through Moroni) acting as scribes. Before leaving Harmony for Fayette, NY, Joseph gave the plates to a divine messenger.

The messenger took the abridged plates back to the hill Cumorah. He then took the original (unabridged) record of Nephi (see D&C 10) to Fayette, showed them to Mary Whitmer, and gave them to Joseph Smith, who translated the record as 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.

Translation. Because Harmony is such an important location for the translation of the Book of Mormon, you might think that visitors would learn all about what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation.

You would be wrong.

You might also think that Joseph Smith translated the Nephite records with the Urim and Thummim that Moroni put in the stone box with the abridged plates. This would be understandable; that is what Joseph reported in Joseph Smith-History 1:35, 42, 52, 59 and 62. Oliver Cowdery was a second witness of these events, as he described in Note 1.

If you grew up in the Church before about a decade ago, this is what you learned. (It's still what you learn if you actually read the scriptures.)

You might also remember Joseph's 1842 letter titled Church History, better known as the Wentworth Letter. (Remember, if you want to read the full Wentworth Letter you need to go to this link or the Joseph Smith Papers, because the manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith actually deleted key passages from the original letter.) Here is what Joseph taught about the translation 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 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.

Now for the take-away lesson from the visitors center at the Priesthood Restoration Site.

Forget whatever you thought you knew about the Urim and Thummim. That idea, as they say, is now apparently the "old" history. 

In the revised history, Joseph used "translation instruments," mainly (or exclusively) a seer or "peep" stone that he put into a hat. This is SITH, for the "stone-in-the-hat" theory. 

Here is the exhibit on the translation at the Priesthood Restoration Site.

If you look closely, this exhibit about the translation doesn't even use the words Urim and Thummim. The phrase has apparently been de-correlated.

In fact, the exhibit never quotes the teachings of Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery about the translation.

Instead of quoting Joseph or Oliver, the exhibit quotes David Whitmer!

Why? Because David described the seer or "peep" stone:

"oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat"

Look at the entire quotation in context.

By fervent prayer and by otherwise humbling himself, the prophet, however, again found favor, and was presented with a strange oval-shaped, chocolate-colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat, which, it was promised, should serve the same purpose as the missing urim and thummim (the latter was a pair of transparent stones set in a bow-shaped frame and very much resembled a pair of spectacles). With this stone all of the present Book of Mormon was translated.*

When read in context, the Whitmer quotation from the Priesthood Restoration Site Visitors Center directly contradicts the claim of the exhibit that Joseph used multiple "translation instruments" to translate the plates.

David claimed the entire Book of Mormon was translated with SITH.

Actually, all the statements cited to support SITH claim Joseph did not use the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon we have today. Yet we keep being told in exhibits such as this, as well as in the Saints book, volume 1, that Joseph used both "translation instruments," a version of events that is supported by no historical sources.

Here's how the placard in the Visitors Center, to the left of the photo of the seer stone, explains the translation.

Joseph Smith was inspired by God in his effort to translate the ancient record. At times when exercising the gift of revelation, Joseph used sacred physical objects to translate. He used the translation instruments buried with the record. And at other times, he used a seer stone, which he placed inside a hat to block out light.

At first Joseph copied characters from the plates before trying to translate them. Over time he often worked without referring to the plates, which were covered or hidden close by.

The much different alternative version is found in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith-History 1:62. For example, Joseph did not merely "try" to translate the characters. He did translate them.

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.

It seems to me that a historical display about the translation would be more accurate and informative if, instead of the revisionist historians' interpretation of the claims of critics, it quoted the scriptures and other teachings by Joseph and Oliver.

But that's just me.

We've discussed before that the historical record shows that SITH was an explicit alternative to the Urim and Thummim narrative taught by Joseph and Oliver. Until recently, there was always a clear distinction between what Joseph and Oliver taught (the Urim and Thummim) and what critics claimed (SITH).

And yet now, our own visitors centers not only don't teach what Joseph and Oliver taught, but they teach what only the critics used to claim.

To see how this issue was handled in the late 1800s, when David Whitmer's statement first surfaced, read the 1888 article below.*

In my view, that article is a far more persuasive explanation of the various accounts than the narrative provided by the revisionist Church historians.

(For those interested, I've provided much more detail in my book, A Man that Can Translate.)

One more thing to notice. To support SITH, the exhibit also includes excepts from a statement from Lucy Mack Smith involving Joseph's activities before he got the plates, as if that is relevant to the translation.

More later.


*The references for this statement include "Mormon Relics,” The Sunday Inter-Ocean, Vol. 15, No. 207 (Chicago, Illinois, 17 Oct. 1886), and Saints’ Herald 33 (13 November 1886).

See, e.g., https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/note-on-seer-stone-images

Let's look at what the 1888 Saints' Herald had to say about David Whitmer's SITH claim.

INDEPENDENCE, Mo., Feb. 12th. 

Bro. Blair:-In Herald for February 11th is an article from the Richmond Democrat concerning the death and testimony of David Whitmer, is the following: “The result of this vision was a proclamation setting forth the facts enumerated. The "urim and thummim,” mentioned in the account of the vision were a pair of transparent stone spectacles, Smith would put on the spectacles, when a few words of the text of the Book of Mormon would appear on the lenses. When these were correctly transcribed by Cowdery, who acted as his amanuensis, these words would disappear and others take their place. 

When one hundred and sixteen pages were completed, Smith entrusted them to Martin Harris, to take to his home with a view to convert his family to the new faith. They were placed at night in a bureau drawer and next morning were missing, having been stolen. They were never found and never replaced, so that the Book of Mormon to-day is short that number of pages of the original matter.

As a chastisement for his carelessness [in losing the 116 pages], the urim and thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord, and was presented with a strange oval shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat, which it was promised should answer the same purpose. 

With this stone all the present book was translated. The prophet would place the stone in a hat, then put his face in the hat and read the words that appeared thereon. This stone is the only relic of the prophet's work in existence which is not in possession of Mr. Whitmer. It was confided to Oliver Cowdery and preserved by him until his death in 1852. After that event Phineas Young succeeded in getting it from Cowdery's widow and it is now among the sacred relics preserved at Salt Lake City.” 

Now there must be a mistake somewhere, for history informs us that about April or May, in 1828, Martin Harris took the manuscript home to his family and they were lost, and Joseph lost the gift of translation for a time.

We find on pages 34 and 35 Life of Joseph the Prophet, that the gift of translation was restored to Joseph, and that in April, 1829, he had a revelation to Oliver Cowerdy, through the Urim and Thummim; also history informs us that through the Urim and Thummim several revelations were given, among them the revelation concerning John the beloved, (Doc. Cov. Sec. 6), and the revelation to Hyrum Smith, May 1829, (Doc. Cov. Sec. 10). 

All this happened before any of the Whitmer's joined the church, for Hyrum Smith, David Whitmer and Peter Whitmer, were baptized the same day in June, 1829. 

This article purports to come from David Whitmer, and it states that Joseph did not have the Urim and Thummin restored to him at all, but that in its stead a strange oval shaped chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg was given him. 

For one I would like to know which is correct.” 

I would like that some one through the columns of the Herald would give us the straight of this matter, also if there is any truth in the statement. Is that strange, oval shaped, chocolate colored stone in Salt Lake City ? R. MAY. 

Replying to the above we have to say that, David Whitmer was not a competent witness in respect to the Urim and Thummim having been taked from Joseph the Seer, for he was not personally acquainted with the facts, and could have no knowledge of them except by hearsay, as he did not meet with Joseph the Seer till in June, 1829, whereas it was in June, 1828, —one year before—that the Urim and Thummim was taken because Joseph had suffered the one hundred and sixteen pages of the manuscript to be lost through the importunities and carelessness of Martin Harris. 

Joseph the Seer, in his “History,” informs us that the Urim and Thummim was restored to him, and that he not only translated with it, but that he also obtained many revelations through it. 

And Oliver Cowdery, who became Joseph's scribe to write the Book of Mormon April 7th, 1829, about two months before David Whitmer first visited Joseph, states in his letters written to the Messenger and Advocate in 1834, as follows: 

“Near the time of the setting of the sun, Sabbath evening, April 5th, 1829, my natural eyes, for the first time beheld this brother. He then re sided in Harmony, Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania. On Monday, the 6th, I assisted him in arranging some business of a temporal nature, and on Tuesday, the 7th, commenced to write the Book of Mormon. 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, uninterruptedly 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.”—Letters of Oliver Cowdery, Page 2. 

Joseph the Seer states in the Times and Seasons, March 1842, vol. 3, p. 707, in reply to a letter written him by John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, as follows: “With the record [plates. Ed.], 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 breast plate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” 

Whoever will now turn to the Book of Mormon and read the following passages will learn clearly how the Lord provided “means” for the translation of the Book of Mormon: Mosiah 5: 10, 11; 12: 3; Book of Mormon 4: 2, 8. These texts show what “means” God had prepared “for the interpretation” of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. 

The testimony of these texts and that of Joseph the Seer and Oliver Cowdery harmonize, therefore we endorse it instead of that which purports to be the testimony of David Whitmer. 

David Whitmer, we repeat, was not a competent witness as to the “means” used by the Seer in translating the Book of Mormon. He did not meet Joseph the Seer until at least two months after Oliver Cowdery had been writing the Book of Mormon as the Seer translated it. 

David Whitmer never wrote a line of the Book of Mormon; and there is no evidence at hand to prove that the Seer ever showed him the “means” by which he translated. 

The purported testimony of David Whitmer as to the “means” by which the Book of Mormon was translated, is that of a man who had no direct hand in that translation, being neither translator nor scribe, but simply a “witness” after its translation, while, on the other hand, the testimony of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery is that of men who were the immediate agents in the translation, the first being the translator, and the other the one who wrote it, word by word, as dictatated [sic] by the translator. 

The testimony of Joseph and Oliver was given in the first years of the church, while these matters were fresh in the minds of these chief actors and the Saints; while that which purports to come from David Whitmer was given when he had became feeble with infirmities and multi plied years. One is the testimony of men who knew; the other is of one who did not personally know.

We can see no reason why Joseph and Oliver should say the translation was done by “means” of the Urim and Thummim— the “interpreters”—if in fact it was done by means of a “stone.” 

In either case it would be miraculous, and nothing special to be gained by alleging that it was translated by the Urim and Thummim if it was not. 

Whatever David Whitmer may or may not have said on this point, it should be remembered that he had little or nothing to do with the Church and its history since the spring of 1838—fifty long years—and it is not difficult, from this fact, to account for errors in memory and defects in judgment which have been painfully apparent of late. The fact that David Whitmer remained idle, comparatively, in ministerial matters, for about fifty years, should be accepted as clear proof that the Lord did not call him of late to set in order and correct either the history, the doctrine, the organization, or the government of the Church. 

And not having been called to that work, it is both vexatious, misleading, and dangerous to give heed to what purports to be his efforts in that direction. It is unpleasant to reply to inquiries coming to us relative to what David Whitmer has said or done; but when pertinent, proper inquiries are made, we must lay aside our personal preferences and attend on the duties of a vigilant, faithful “watchman.” Rumor has it that the “stone” in question went into the hands of Phineas Young.

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