Book of Mormon/Translation/Urim and Thummim

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The "Urim and Thummim" used by Joseph Smith to translate the "gold plates"

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Question: Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite interpreters to translate? Or did he use his own seer stone?

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone, and both were called "Urim and Thummim"

Joseph Smith used both the Nephite Interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation process, yet we only hear of the "Urim and Thummim" being used for this purpose.

  1. He described the instrument as ‘spectacles’ and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim.
  2. He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called ‘seer stones’ because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones.
  3. Records indicate that soon after the founding of the Church in 1830, the Prophet stopped using the seer stones as a regular means of receiving revelations. Instead, he dictated the revelations after inquiring of the Lord without employing an external instrument.

Emma Smith confirmed that Joseph switched between the Nephite interpreters and his own seer stone during the translation

Emma Smith Bidamon described Joseph's use of several stones during translation to Emma Pilgrim on 27 March 1870 (original spelling retained):

Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”[1]

Joseph Smith's small, egg-shaped seer stone. Emma said that "he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color." Photograph by Welden C. Andersen and Richard E. Turley Jr. Copyright © The Church Historian's Press.


Question: What are the Nephite interpreters?

The Nephite interpreters are two seer stones set in a framework resembling a set of "spectacles"

The Lord provided a set of seer stones (which were formerly used by Nephite prophets) along with the plates. The term Nephite interpreters can alternatively refer to the stones themselves or the stones in conjunction with their associated paraphernalia (holding rim and breastplate). Some time after the translation, early saints noticed similarities with the seer stones and related paraphernalia used by High Priests in the Old Testament and began to use the term Urim and Thummim interchangeably with the Nephite interpreters and Joseph's other seer stones as well. The now popular use of the term Urim and Thummim has unfortunately obscured the fact that all such devices belong in the same class of consecrated revelatory aids and that more than one were used in the translation.

The manner in which the interpreters were used was never explained in detail

The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn't take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest's breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel), the Nephite breastplate was apparently non-essential to the revelatory process.


Question: Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?

Many eyewitness accounts confirm that Joseph employed his seer stone during part of the translation process

Joseph Smith translates using the seer stone placed within his hat while Martin Harris acts as scribe. Image Copyright (c) 2014 Anthony Sweat. This image appears in the Church publication From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, by Michael Hubbard Mackay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Religious Studies Center, BYU, Deseret Book Company (May 11, 2015)

Martin Harris states that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters and then later switched to using the seer stone "for convenience." [2] In fact, Elder Nelson refers to the use of the seer stone in his 1993 talk:

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.) [3]


Question: Has the Church tried to hide Joseph's use of a seer stone?

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School

The stone is mentioned occasionally in Church publications, but is rarely (if ever) discussed in the 21st century in venues such as Sunday School, nor is it portrayed in any Church-related artwork. Part of the reason for this is the conflation of the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone under the name "Urim and Thummim." In church, we discuss the Urim and Thummim with the assumption that it is always the instrument that Joseph recovered with the plates. Only those familiar with the sources will realize that there was more than one translation instrument.

That said, the Church has been very frank about the seer stone's use, though the product of the translation of the Book of Mormon is usually given much more attention that the process. Note the mention of the stone in the official children's magazine, The Friend (available online at lds.org):

"To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone."
—“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7 off-site

Text translated with the Nephite interpreters was lost with the 116 pages given to Martin Harris—see DC 3:. The Church's Historical Record records Joseph's use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text:

As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of 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 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. [Note that the chronology of Joseph's acquisition of the stone is here somewhat confused. The use of the stone, however, is clearly indicated.][4]

References to the stone are not confined to the distant past. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Twelve Apostles described the process clearly in an Ensign article:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.[5]

It would be strange to try to hide something by having an apostle talk about it, and then send the account to every LDS home in the official magazine!


Gospel Topics: "Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat"

"Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument. [6]


Question: Did Joseph ever place the Nephite interpreters ("Urim and Thummim") into his hat?

There is evidence that indicates that Joseph did place the "Urim and Thummim" into his hat

The Church states that, "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." and "According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument." [7]

Contemporary accounts indicate that Joseph began the translation using the Nephite interpreters, and finished it using his own seer stone after the loss of the 116 pages of manuscript. Note this account from Martin Harris:

The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should “look aught and perish.” [8]

Martin Harris said that Joseph placed the interpreters in a hat

Harris states that Joseph used the "two stones set in a bow of silver" by "placing them in the hat." He is referring to the Nephite interpreters, what we today refer to as the "Urim and Thummim". Joseph may have therefore placed the Nephite interpreters into his hat - a method of receiving revelation that he was already quite familiar with.

Based upon these accounts, it appears that Joseph began the translation process using the Nephite interpreters, and that at some point he may have used them with a hat. After the loss of the 116 pages, he may have either switched to his own seer stone or continued to use the Nephite “spectacles,” again with the hat. In fact, given the consistent reports of the use of the hat during translation, it is not possible to know with certainty whether Joseph was using the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone in the hat during this period of time. One thing seems certain based upon witness accounts—during the period of the translation process after the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph sat in the open, without a curtain, dictating to his scribe while looking into his hat.[9]


Gospel Topics: "Joseph Smith and his associates often used the term 'Urim and Thummim' to refer to the single stone as well as the interpreters"

"These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable"

Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

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. In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumin[at]ed. 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. [10]


Ensign (Jan. 2013): "He...referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim...He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed"

Gerrit Dirkmaat (Church History Department - January 2013 Ensign):

Those who believed that Joseph Smith’s revelations contained the voice of the Lord speaking to them also accepted the miraculous ways in which the revelations were received. Some of the Prophet Joseph’s earliest revelations came through the same means by which he translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. In the stone box containing the gold plates, Joseph found what Book of Mormon prophets referred to as “interpreters,” or a “stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light” (Alma 37:23–24). He described the instrument as “spectacles” and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim (see Exodus 28:30).2

He also sometimes applied the term to other stones he possessed, called “seer stones” because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones. For example, shortly after Oliver Cowdery came to serve as a scribe for Joseph Smith as he translated the plates, Oliver and Joseph debated the meaning of a biblical passage and sought an answer through revelation. Joseph explained: “A difference of opinion arising between us about the account of John the Apostle … whether he died, or whether he continued; we mutually agreed to settle it by the Urim and Thummim.”3 In response, Joseph Smith received the revelation now known as section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which informed them that Jesus had told the Apostle John, “Thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory” (D&C 7:3).

Records indicate that soon after the founding of the Church in 1830, the Prophet stopped using the seer stones as a regular means of receiving revelations. Instead, he dictated the revelations after inquiring of the Lord without employing an external instrument. One of his scribes explained that process: “The scribe seats himself at a desk or table, with pen, ink, and paper. The subject of inquiry being understood, the Prophet and Revelator inquires of God. He spiritually sees, hears, and feels, and then speaks as he is moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”[11]


W.W. Phelps (1833): "through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim)"

W.W. Phelps wrote the following in the January 1833 edition of The Evening and The Morning Star:

The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the old scripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies.-It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles-(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) and while it unfolds the history of the first inhabitants that settled this continent, it, at the same time, brings a oneness to scripture, like the days of the apostles; and opens and explains the prophecies, that a child may understand the meaning of many of them; and shows how the Lord will gather his saints, even the children of Israel, that have been scattered over the face of the earth, more than two thousand years, in these last days, to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion. [12]

It appears that the seer stone was also referred to as the "Urim and Thummim" after 1833, indicating that the name could be assigned to any device that was used for the purpose of translation.[13]


Gospel Topics: "These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone—were apparently interchangeable and worked in much the same way"

Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

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. In ancient times, Israelite priests used the Urim and Thummim to assist in receiving divine communications. Although commentators differ on the nature of the instrument, several ancient sources state that the instrument involved stones that lit up or were divinely illumin[at]ed. 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.[14]


Question: Which method of translation was more "believable": seer stone or Nephite interpreters?

One must choose which seer stone is more "believable"

Joseph Smith always claimed that the translation was performed by the "gift and power of God." So which translation method is more "believable"?

  1. Joseph used the Nephite interpreters, which consisted of two seer stones mounted in a frame that resembled a set of "spectacles." He looked into the stones and somehow deduced the English text of the characters written on the plates. The assumption that many make is that Joseph was using the "spectacles" like a pair of glasses that converted the characters into English, and thus required a direct view of the plates. There is, however, indication that Joseph may have placed the Nephite interpreter into his hat. Here is what the Church says about it: "According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument." [15]
  2. Joseph placed the seer stone in a hat to block out the light, and somehow deduced the English text of the characters written on the plates. The plates remained covered by a cloth on the table, as reported by many witnesses.

So both methods use seer stones, and both methods may have used the hat to block out light.

Which method is more "believable"? Ultimately, one must accept or reject the idea that the text of the Book of Mormon was revealed to Joseph Smith through revelation, by the "gift and power of God," regardless of the rather unbelievable details of the exact instruments and method used to achieve this.


Question: What does the Church teach investigators and members regarding the method by which the Book of Mormon was produced?

Criticism of what the Church teaches regarding the translation process

One critical website offers the following:

Why doesn't the church be honest when teaching the method to investigators or even its own members? The short answer of course is that it would make the whole story sound unbelievable. Very few people in the 21st Century would likely join the church if the missionaries plainly taught that Joseph put his face in a hat with a common stone in it and translated the Book of Mormon when the plates were either covered so no one, including Joseph could see them or that the plates were hidden in the woods when he translated them. But that doesn't make it right to deceive innocent truthseekers. [16]

The Church teaches that the Book of Mormon was translated by the "gift and power of God" using the "Urim and Thummim"

The Church teaches that the Book of Mormon was translated by the "gift and power of God" using the "Urim and Thummim." The term "Urim and Thummim" was applied to both the Nephite interpreters that were recovered with the plates, and Joseph Smith's own seer stone. Both instruments were used in the translation process.

The Church states that, "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. [17]


Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation"

Roger Nicholson,  Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, (June 7, 2013)
This essay seeks to examine the Book of Mormon translation method from the perspective of a regular, nonscholarly, believing member in the twenty-first century, by taking into account both what is learned in Church and what can be learned from historical records that are now easily available. What do we know? What should we know? How can a believing Latter-day Saint reconcile apparently conflicting accounts of the translation process? An examination of the historical sources is used to provide us with a fuller and more complete understanding of the complexity that exists in the early events of the Restoration. These accounts come from both believing and nonbelieving sources, and some skepticism ought to be employed in choosing to accept some of the interpretations offered by some of these sources as fact. However, an examination of these sources provides a larger picture, and the answers to these questions provide an enlightening look into Church history and the evolution of the translation story. This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel.

Click here to view the complete article

Chronology of translation methods

Summary: We have a number of accounts of the translation process from the perspective of various contemporary second-hand witnesses who viewed the Prophet as he dictated to his scribes. The only person other than Joseph who attempted to directly translate was Oliver Cowdery. Oliver, however, did not record any details regarding the exact physical process that he employed during his attempt—we only have the spiritual aspect of the process.

Notes

  1. "Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870," Early Mormon Documents, 1:532.
  2. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:128–129. GospeLink (requires subscrip.) "[Martin Harris] said that the Prophet possessed a Seer Stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as with the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he sometimes used the Seer Stone."
  3. Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61. off-site
  4. The Historical Record. Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters (LDS Church Archives), 632.
  5. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887), 12; cited in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61.
  6. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013)
  7. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org
  8. “Martin Harris Interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859,” in Early Mormon Documents, 2:305.
  9. Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 5 (2013): 121-190
  10. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013).
  11. Gerrit Dirkmaat (Church History Department), "Great and Marvelous Are the Revelations of God," Ensign, January 2013. (emphasis added) off-site
  12. W.W. Phelps, "The Book of Mormon," The Evening and The Morning Star 1:58 .
  13. Stephen D. Ricks, The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, Featured Papers, Maxwell Institute, Provo UT. off-site
  14. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013).
  15. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org
  16. "Translation of the Book of Mormon," MormonThink.com
  17. "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org