A lot of people are learning Church history by reading Saints, volume 1. It's a long book, and mostly great. But some of it is revisionist history, so I'm offering this as an overview to help readers understand what they're going to read.
There is an important timeline that the book does not explain. In 1834, an anti-Mormon book titled Mormonism Unvailed was published near Kirtland, Ohio, that claimed Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon using a "peep stone" that he put in a hat. The book acknowledged an alternative explanation that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.
In response, Joseph and Oliver wrote a series of 8 letters about Church history. In Letter #1, they declared that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. Joseph made sure those letters republished several times so all Church members could read them. Plus, in the 1842 Wentworth letter, Joseph reiterated the U&T. In 1848, when Oliver rejoined the Church, he reiterated the U&T.
Nevertheless, Saints, Volume 1, adopts the Mormonism Unvailed approach by teaching that Joseph used the stone-in-the-hat, which I call SITH.
As if SITH wasn't bad enough, we have a shape-shifting resurrected being (Moroni as an old man visiting Mary Whitmer--he might as well be a salamander after all).
We have plates that were laboriously abridged and carefully preserved for 1400 years only to be kept under a cloth and never even opened, which surely was a surprise to Moroni who "sealed" a portion and warned Joseph not to read the sealed portion, apparently because he didn't know Joseph could "translate" the whole thing without even looking at the plates because he found a stone in a well that worked a lot better than the clunky old Urim and Thummim Moroni provided.
And, of course, according to Saints no one ever mentioned Cumorah, let alone the fact that the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is the same hill in New York where Joseph found the plates.
Saints teaches us that Joseph, Oliver, and all their contemporaries and successors were wrong about Cumorah and the Urim and Thummim until a handful of LDS historians, 190 years after the fact, figured out what really happened!
Sadly, this isn't even hyperbole.
People can believe whatever they want, but many people don't think this revisionist history is credible, whether or not they are members of the Church.
We hope people don't let the revisionist history cause confusion or lead them to doubt their testimonies of the Restoration.
There are still Church members who believe what Joseph and Oliver taught. We think the historical record left by Joseph and Oliver is credible, not to mention consistent with the scriptures (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price).We can still read their teachings in the Joseph Smith Papers, even if we can't read them in Saints.
We accept what Joseph and Oliver taught because they were the only witnesses to many of the critical events in Church history, they were the President and Assistant President of the Church, respectively, and they were entrusted with the keys of the temple.
We also recognize that their contemporaries and successors in Church leadership have consistently and persistently reaffirmed what they taught.
Until the revisionist historians took over.
Here's what makes sense to us.
We think Joseph actually translated the plates using the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.
We think Moroni sealed a portion of the plates because Joseph was translating the actual plates and could have translated the sealed portion if it had not been sealed.
We think Moroni was not a shape-shifter who appeared in the form of an old man to Mary Whitmer.
We think that messenger who showed the plates of Nephi was the same one who told David, Joseph and Oliver that he was taking the Harmony plates to Cumorah before he brought the plates of Nephi to Fayette.
We think there were two sets of plates: the abridged plates that Joseph translated in Harmony, and the plates of Nephi that Joseph translated in Fayette.
We think Joseph used a seer stone to provide a demonstration of the process, but not to translate the plates.
And we think the Hill Cumorah is in New York, not in Mexico.
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