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, December 5, 2023

Urim and Thummim in General Conference

The question of U&T vs SITH (stone-in-the-hat) persists for several reasons, including but not limited to these:

- Prominent LDS intellectuals/organizations (in concert with LDS critics) continue to promote SITH in movies, videos, podcasts, articles, illustrations, etc., all without educating Latter-day Saints about the all the relevant historical evidence that establishes and corroborates what Joseph and Oliver taught about the translation with the Urim and Thummim.

- The Gospel Topics Essay doesn't even quote Joseph and Oliver, apart from one truncated excerpt, but instead relies on statements by others and the speculations of scholars. See https://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/2023/04/gte-on-translation-again.html

- The Saints book, like Rough Stone Rolling, omits what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation in favor of what others said, along with the speculations of scholars, stated as fact. (See the next section for a discussion of Saints.)

Another reason may be the treatment of the translation in General Conference.

There was a spike in references in the 1870s-1880s. 


During 1870s-1880s, David Whitmer gave interviews in which he claimed Joseph never used the U&T, but instead used the stone in the hat (SITH) to produce the Book of Mormon. Emma's "Last Testimony" was published in October 1879 in The Saints' Herald

On November 15, 1879, The Saints' Herald published an interview with J.L. Traughber, Jr., who referred to the "Last Testimony." 

Why did not Mrs. Bidamon [Emma] not [sic] say that Joseph translated by aid of Urim and Thummim? The reason is obvious in the light of the facts, to which I have briefly alluded: because he translated with a stone, a Seer Stone; not two clear stones set in the rims of a bow. Thus we see that Mr. Morse and Mrs. Bidamon both agree that Joseph Smith used a stone and not Urim and Thummim, nor Interpreters either.

Will those who hold the Urim and Thummim story to be correct, still continue to give the lie to David Whitmer, Michael Morse, and Mrs. Emma Bidamon? Or will they have the courage to admit that those who have held high positions have been guilty of gross fabrication?

The response of Church leaders in General Conference was to reaffirm what Joseph and Oliver taught, while never agreeing with the SITHsayers such as Traughber.

In the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, you can see a list of all the General Conference statements here


and here.


We can see that, having reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver taught in the 1870s and 1880s, Church leaders made references to the Urim and Thummim in General Conference regularly but less frequently for many decades.

Until lately.

See the end of this post for the most recent reaffirmations in General Conference of what Joseph and Oliver taught about the translation with the Urim and Thummim.


Traughber's rhetorical questions are mimicked in our day by both critics and LDS intellectuals who teach that Joseph and Oliver intentionally misled everyone when they claimed Joseph translated the engravings on the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Not ironically, the Saints book, the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation (GTE), and the writings of our LDS intellectuals regularly cite the "Last Testimony." The GTE cites it 3 times. Saints cites it twice, as we'll see below.

What our scholars don't tell their readers/viewers is that Joseph Smith III, who recorded and published his mother's "Last Testimony," published an article about the translation in 1886 in The Saints Herald. Although this was seven years after he published the "Last Testimony," he didn't quote or cite or even mention his mother's statement. Instead, he refuted David Whitmer's SITH claims and concluded that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. (See pages 38-55 in By Means of the Urim and Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration by Lucas and Neville.

Thus we have the bizarre situation in which LDS scholars, joined by LDS critics, heavily rely on Emma's "Last Testimony" to support SITH, yet Joseph Smith III, who conducted the interview and published his own mother's "Last Testimony," didn't quote or cite it in his own extended article about the translation in which he rejected SITH.


Because few Latter-day Saints study Church history beyond what is found in the Saints books, the content of those books has become foundational. People frequently quote and cite Saints as if they are canonized scripture--even when the original sources in the footnotes contradict the narrative given in the text.

Latter-day Saints who don't understand English rely on Saints exclusively because they don't have meaningful access to the Joseph Smith Papers, let alone the more obscure references such as "Last Testimony of Sister Emma."

We realize that Saints is a compromise between accuracy and accessibility--the actual history is probably too complicated for most people to follow in a narrative format--but that doesn't justify creating a narrative that contradicts both the authentic historical record and the teachings of Joseph, Oliver, their contemporaries and successors in Church leadership.

Nor does it justify (i) citing dubious sources as authoritative for SITH, (iii) omitting relevant authentic sources that contradict the SITH narrative, and (iii) misleadingly citing sources that not only don't support the SITH narrative but directly contradict it, while making access to those sources difficult so readers cannot tell how misleading the citations are.


Let's look at this excerpt from Chapter 6 of Saints, Vol. 1, and the accompanying notes to see how misleading the narrative is and how manipulative the notes are.


Meanwhile, Joseph and Oliver started translating. They worked well together, weeks on end, frequently with Emma in the same room going about her daily work.24 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.25 


Naturally, one would think that the Saints editors would readily quote and cite Joseph and Oliver about the translation. But they don't. Instead, they quote and cite sources that promote SITH.

The notes show how much Saints depends on the "Last Testimony" and other dubious sources, along with citations that not only don't support the narrative but contradict it, together with the circular citation to the GTE which cites the same sources and makes the same claims as Saints.

Note 24 references: 

Joseph Smith History, 1838–56, volume A-1, 15, in JSP, H1:284 (draft 2); 


[Comment. This reference says nothing about Emma being in the same room.]

[Comment. This reference contradicts Emma's claim in "Last Testimony" and explains that Joseph was using the Urim and Thummim, contrary to SITH. "Emma had so much of her time taken up with her work that she could not write but little for him...They <​were​> soon deeply engaged in the work of writing and translation, and progressed rapidly; one morning however they sat down to their usual work when the first thing that presented itself to Joseph was a commandment from God that he and Oliver should repair to the water each of them be baptized they immediately went down to the susquehanah river and obeyed the comn mandate given them through the urim and Thumim" ]

Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 290. 

[Comment. Saints doesn't give a link. People can search for it online, but the point here is that Emma's own son didn't consider her statement to be credible enough to cite when he subsequently wrote about the translation. But our LDS scholars (along with LDS critics) deem it credible enough to resurrect it from obscurity and give it prominence in Saints, the GTE, and other published work, including illustrations.]

Note 25 references:

“Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, topics.lds.org; 

[Comment: the circular reference that cites the same sources and describes the same SITH theory as Saints does.]

Joseph Smith History, 1838–56, volume A-1, 15, in JSP, H1:284 (draft 2); 

[Comment. This is the same reference as in Note 24 that, despite the false implication by citing it in this paragraph, says nothing about a seer stone or hat. To the contrary, the citation has Joseph using the Urim and Thummim! Yet Saints never uses that term in connection with the translation.]

Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, Sept. 7, 1834, LDS Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 1:14 (see also later version, in JSP, H1:41); 

[Comment. Inexplicably, this link goes to archive.org, and not to the page but to the front cover, adding an additional impediment to checking the source. 

Also inexplicably, they don't give a link to the reference in the JSP. They could have provided this link:

Even more inexplicably, they don't mention that this passage is canonized in JS-H, note 1.

However, none of these obvious omissions are as inexplicable as they seem. The cited passage by Oliver Cowdery not only contradicts the SITH narrative in Saints, but declares that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. No wonder the Saints editors made the cited passage so difficult for readers to find. Think how different the Saints narrative would be if the editors had simply quoted the actual historical source instead of giving readers their own imaginary narrative.

Here is the passage Saints never quotes and which the notes obscure. 

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)

Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald, Oct. 1, 1879, 290; 

[Comment. Again with the "Last Testimony" and all its problems, here enshrined as authoritative and accurate.]

“Golden Bible,” Palmyra Freeman, Aug. 11, 1829, [2]. 

[Comment. This gratuitous citation to the Jonathan Hadley article implicates a false narrative promoted by certain LDS historians. For a fuller discussion, see 

Topic: Book of Mormon Translation

[Comment. Yet another reference to the GTE in the same note!]

The most recent General Conference reaffirmations of what Joseph and Oliver taught.

“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.’

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



If the content of the book did not doom it to remain obscure, the account of where it came from certainly would. Imagine an angel directing a teenage boy to the woods where he found buried a stone vault and a set of golden plates.

The writings on the plates were translated by use of a Urim and Thummim, which is referred to a number of times in the Old Testament and described by Hebrew scholars as an instrument “whereby the revelation was given and truth declared.”

(2001, October, Boyd K. Packer, ‘The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ,’ Ensign, November 2001, ¶ 6–7)


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)


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’”

(2007, April, L. Tom Perry, ‘The Message of the Restoration,’ Ensign, May 2007, ¶ 28)

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