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, May 8, 2020

Evolution of seer stone narrative - Benjamin Winchester

I'm sitting in my home office, watching the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash, thinking about how intellectual fads come and go until they crash into oblivion on the shore.

In recent years, influential LDS scholars have claimed the critics were right after all.

According to them, Joseph produced the Book of Mormon by reading words off a seer stone. He didn't really translate anything. We "need to change the definition of the term translate." He didn't use the Urim and Thummim. He didn't even use the plates!

Despite what the scholars say, many active LDS still believe what Joseph and Oliver taught. We're fine with the scholars saying whatever they want. We're fine with people following them. We just think some of their conclusions are not credible and contradict what the prophets have taught.

The evolution of the seer stone narrative parallels the evolution of M2C. The historical record shows that Joseph and Oliver taught that Cumorah was in New York. Scholars dispute that record--Church historians even changed Church history to censor Cumorah in the Saints book--but the record persists and those interested can read it for themselves. We think extrinsic evidence supports the teachings of the prophets. We think M2C persists because of confirmation bias, but we don't insist others agree with us. We oppose the efforts of the M2C citation cartel to censor and suppress alternative faithful perspectives.

It's the same thing with the seer stone narrative.

The historical record shows that Joseph and Oliver taught that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. From as early as 1834, when Mormonism Unvailed set forth the seer stone ("peep" stone) narrative as an alternative to the Urim and Thummim narrative, critics pushed the seer stone while Joseph and Oliver reiterated the Urim and Thummim narrative throughout their lives.

The other day our friends at Book of Mormon Central posted an article about seer stones that articulated the latest LDS scholarly fad. It included this comment:
Joseph using peep stones
to produce the
Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite Interpreters and his individual seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon. The practice of using stones or glass to receive divine revelation is found in many cultures, including among the ancient Israelites and Maya. Though we may ultimately never fully understand the nature of the Book of Mormon’s translation, Joseph repeatedly testified that he translated the plates by the gift and power of God.


Notice how they threw in the "Maya" reference. That's the confirmation bias we see in everything produced by the M2C citation cartel.

Notice also that last clause in bold. It's a classic example of diversion because it's a half-truth.

Joseph did say he translated the plates by the gift and power of God. But he also said he did so by the means of the Urim and Thummim he obtained with the plates.

E.g., in the Wentworth letter, Joseph wrote: 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.



Today I'll refer to Benjamin Winchester to illustrate the evolution of the seer stone narrative. Our M2C scholars followed Benjamin Winchester's lead by focusing on Central America. (Winchester wrote the anonymous 1842 Times and Seasons articles that remains the basic rationale for M2C. We discussed that yesterday here.)

Now scholars are following Winchester's lead on the seer stones vs Urim and Thummim.

In 1841, Benjamin Winchester published a newspaper in Philadelphia. At the time, he was a zealous missionary, a close friend of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, etc. In the March 15 issue, he wrote:

Moroni was then commanded to deposit this record in the earth, together with the Urim and Thummim, or as the Nephites would have said, Interpreters, which were instruments to assist in the work of the translation, with a promise from the Lord that it should be brought to light by means of.a Gentile Nation that should possess the land; and be published to the world, and go forth to the Lamanites, and be one of the instruments in the hands of God for their conversion.

A few pages later, with Joseph Smith's express permission, Winchester republished Oliver Cowdery's eight essays on Church history (the original Gospel Topics essays). These include the passage now found in the Pearl of Great Price:

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.” 

Also this passage: "[Moroni] said this history was written and deposited not far from that place, and that it was our brother’s privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain, and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record."

Winchester was on solid ground. Not only did Joseph give him permission to republish Oliver's essays, but he gave them to his brother Don Carlos to publish in the Times and Seasons. He had his scribes copy them into his own journal as part of his life history. His brother William republished them again in 1844 in New York City.

Winchester continued to publish books and articles defending the Church. He refuted the Solomon Spaulding theory. He went on a mission to promote Joseph Smith's candidacy for U.S. President.

But then he became disgruntled, partly over polygamy and partly over disputes with his old friend William Smith (Joseph's brother). He was excommunicated.

Later in life, he changed his version of his experiences with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Here's what he wrote about the peep stones and the Urim and Thummim. This article was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, September 22, 1889.

In regard to Joseph's literary work -- his "translations" -- I well remember some of it at Kirtland. They had there in the temple some Egyptian mummies, four of them I am positive. From one of them Joseph had taken a scroll lettered over with what purported to be Egyptian characters. It was kept on exhibition in a glass case. To this scroll Joseph applied his peep-stone or "Urim-Thummim" and made out a translation purporting to be a vision of Abraham in which the modern theory that the world is round and that it revolves was sustained against the ancient theory prior to the time of Galileo.

Just like some of our LDS scholars today, Winchester put quotation marks around "translation" and equated the seer stone with the Urim and Thummim.

In 1900, Winchester dictated a final testimony.

[Joseph] carried what he called a 'Peep stone' through which he claimed to see hidden treasure & etc. This is what he afterwards called his 'Urim and Thummem.' Finally he took the notion to get up a book. Then he claimed to have made the discovery of the plates. Then he got Cowdery, Harris and Whitmer into it."

"Cowdery was his scribe, or the writer of the book, as Smith dictated it. It was done this way.... Smith was behind the blankets in the dark with this 'peep stone' in his hat and then his face in the hat. As he looked into the hat there would come sentence after sentence upon the stone, and he would dictate it to Cowdery, and Cowdery would write it down.

Benjamin Winchester's claim is exactly what some scholars today say we're supposed to believe. It's in Saints, it's in the Ensign, and it's in Book of Mormon Central.

Back in 1889, just two weeks after Winchester's article came out in the Salt Lake Tribune, President Wilford Woodruff stood up in General Conference and delivered this re-affirmation of what Joseph and Oliver always taught.

And, as has been stated during this Conference, he brought forth the Book of Mormon-the stick of Joseph in the hands of Ephraim-in fulfillment of the testimony of Isaiah, translating that record through the Urim and Thummim, thereby revealing to us the history of the early inhabitants of this Continent. 

(1889, October, 6th Session, President Wilford Woodruff)

President Woodruff could have said, "Well, Benjamin Winchester was correct. Joseph didn't really translate the Book of Mormon. He merely read words that appeared on a seer stone."

There is a long history of Church leaders defending and reiterating what Joseph and Oliver claimed. Here's one of over 100 examples from General Conference addresses: "This book, that has been so despised by the world, was testified to by the Prophet Joseph when asked: "How and when did you obtain the Book of Mormon? Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from which the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates, and thus came the Book of Mormon."
(1896, October, 4th Session, Elder Franklin D. Richards)

There are many sources in Church history that support what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation. There are also sources, such as Benjamin Winchester's final testimonies, that contradict what Joseph and Oliver said.

We can all choose what we want to believe. For now, let's just consider a final passage.

34 He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants;
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.
(Joseph Smith—History 1:34–35)


  1. I've read through some of the sourced articles in that BOMC link. They use a lot of David Whitmer interviews, to support the use of the seer stone, which really just seems to complicate things. None of this is helpful, everything feels only half-substantive. The reasoning is all good and fine with use of quotes and references-- but then an interesting thing happens almost always at the end of the essay or article. It's The Excuse, as I see it, defeats all of the evidence. In their conclusions, they say in effect, "We have all this stuff, and it seems confusing to have conflicting accounts... But what difference does it make? He used interpreters, he used a seer stone, God can do whatever he needs to do to get stuff done." And they end it. At first it seems deep, but these guys are still just wading in the kiddy pool. Can somebody be comfortable with this much cognitive dissonance and un-resolve?

    Reminds me of when we went to see stonehenge. Everyone could explain what it was used for, how they built it, why it looked the way it did. Then without fail, every explanation would conclude with something like, "But... nobody really knows." So what did I learn? These guys don't know much about stonehenge. In one conversation with an employee there, I said that there are henges and mounds all over North America like this. She looked at me curiously and said, "Oh! I saw that on TV, that man made a stone henge replica out of junk cars, just stood them up and stacked them on top of eachother." Yeah... nevermind.

  2. Went through the sources of the article you linked. One paper by R. Nicholson is called, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation" The title alone suggests something that should seem alarming. What changed here? He writes,

    "In 1956, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith knew of the seer stone, but did not believe that Joseph actually used it during the translation of the Book of Mormon.

    "SEER STONE NOT USED IN BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION. We have been taught since the days of the Prophet that the Urim and Thummim were re-turned with the plates to the angel. We have no record of the Prophet having the Urim and Thummim after the organization of the Church. Statements of transla-tions by the Urim and Thummim after that date are evidently errors.

    "Like Kirkham, Joseph Fielding Smith simply refused to accept accounts of Joseph having utilized his seer stone for the purpose of translation as having any validity. In his opinion, such accounts were simply erroneous."

    In effect, the author seems to be trying to discredit a general authority who by this point had been working in the Church history department for 50 years. By saying things like, "In his opinion," and "he did not believe." That's not a good look for somebody trying to present a neutral stance.

    These kinds of phrases can take their toll on the subconscious of any reader if they read enough of this stuff. They create an image of a man who was merely holding a bias independent from the facts. But let's be real-- a man in Joseph Fielding Smith's position in his time and place could know more by association than anyone now working in Church history presently.

    It's like we've seen scholars do to Joseph Smith. "It was all his opinion, and he didn't say much. David Whitmer knew what was up. But, at the end of the day, we don't really know."

    I don't see this rhetoric as helpful.