FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Joseph Smith/Seer stones/"Rock in hat" used for Book of Mormon translation
Joseph Smith used the same "rock in hat" seer stone for translating that he used for "money digging"
Jump to Subtopic:
- Gospel Topics: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture"
- Question: Why would Joseph Smith use the same stone for translating the Book of Mormon that he used for "money digging"?
- Question: What role did Joseph fill in the community as a youth?
- Question: Didn't Joseph's 1826 Bainbridge appearance before a judge prove that he had previously been using his stone for nefarious purposes?
- Question: Why would Joseph Smith not continue to use the sacred interpreters provided with the Nephite record?
- Question: Did Joseph use his seer stone to view the location of the gold plates in the Hill Cumorah?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith use his own seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
- Question: Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite interpreters to translate? Or did he use his own seer stone?
- Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith say that it was not reasonable for Joseph Smith to use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
- Question: Why is the "white stone" that we are to receive upon entry to the Celestial kingdom not discussed extensively in Sunday School?
- Brant A. Gardner, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?"
Gospel Topics: "As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture"
"Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013):
Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the “interpreters,” is better known to Latter-day Saints today as the “Urim and Thummim.” ....
The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or “seer stone.” As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.
Question: Why would Joseph Smith use the same stone for translating the Book of Mormon that he used for "money digging"?
Would God approve the use of a "magic peep stone" in translating a sacred record?
Joseph was given a set of Nephite interpreters along with the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was produced. In addition, Joseph already possessed and utilized several seer stones. Although Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon using the Nephite interpreters, he later switched to using one of his seer stones to complete the translation. Critics (typically those who reject Mormonism but still believe in God) reject the idea that God would approve the use of an instrument for translation that had previously been used for "money digging."
Regardless of the perspective (believing or non-believing) from which we tell the story of the translation, the essential fact of the translation is unchanged
The conclusion that Joseph used a "magical" or "occult" stone to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon is entirely dependent upon one's own preconception that the use of such an instrument would not be acceptable by God. Believers, on the other hand, ought not to take issue with a distinction between one set of seer stones versus another. As Brant Gardner notes: "Regardless of the perspective from which we tell the story, the essential fact of the translation is unchanged. How was the Book of Mormon translated? As Joseph continually insisted, the only real answer, from any perspective, is that it was translated by the gift and power of God." 
- The point is not necessarily that the stone had the same ability, but that it provided a means for Joseph to exercise his spiritual abilities.
- If one stops assuming that Joseph was a liar and deceiver, we can consider the matter from Joseph's point of view:
- He's being called upon to reveal things that are hidden, and to translate an ancient record.
- Joseph is painfully aware that he cannot do these things.
- How could Joseph know that he wasn't going crazy or being delusional? Tying his early prophetic work to something with which he had already had objective success (the use of the seer stone) allowed Joseph to trust both God and himself.
- The Lord seems to have used Joseph's preexisting beliefs about how the world worked (including seer stones to reveal hidden things) to help Joseph gain confidence in his own abilities.
- The Nephite interpreters had been blessed and dedicated for the purpose of translating the Book of Mormon—this would have increased Joseph's faith, and they did help him receive revelation more effectively, initially. This is what excited Joseph more than even the plates themselves—he was able to do more with the Nephite stones.
- With time, Joseph was able to translate with his "original" stone—thus, his own ability had increased, because he no longer needed the "stronger" Nephite stones.
- Eventually, he did not require the "prop" or "crutch" of the stone at all—his faith and experience had grown.
- Critics of the Church often act as if the stone or Urim and Thummim were a type of "magic translator" that anyone could have looked through. They weren't. Joseph always insisted he was only able to do what he did "by the gift and power of God." It is probable that anyone else examining the stones would have found nothing unusual or different about them.
- The power to translate or reveal hidden things came from God—as Joseph's experience and spiritual maturity increased, his reliance upon a physical instrument became less and less.
- Joseph using this method to receive revelation bodes well with the Lord's words in Doctrine and Covenants 1:24
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding."
Question: What role did Joseph fill in the community as a youth?
Joseph acted as a "village seer"
Brant Gardner notes that Joseph filled the role of "village seer," and that the invitation of village seers to assist local treasure diggers was actually an English tradition. According to Keith Thomas,
There was not necessarily anything magical about the search for treasure as such, but in practice the assistance of a conjurer or wizard was very frequently invoked. This was partly because it was thought that special divining tools might help, such as the 'Mosaical Rods' for which many contemporary formulae survive.
Gardner continues by confirming that "[w]hat the modern world tends to know about the village seers is the result of only one of the ways in which their talents were put to use. Since they could see that which was hidden, local seers became involved in the mania of digging for lost treasure." Add to this the statements regarding Joseph's money digging activities mentioned in the Hurlbut affidavits, and it is easy to see why critics wish to make an issue regarding Joseph's utilization of the his "treasure seeking" seer stone to assist in the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Question: Didn't Joseph's 1826 Bainbridge appearance before a judge prove that he had previously been using his seer stone for nefarious purposes?
The actual evidence indicates a favorable outcome for Joseph Smith
Even Joseph himself noted that he was sought out by Josiah Stowell ("Stoal") to use the stone to find hidden valuables. (JS-H 1:55-56) Stowell "came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye."
Stowell eventually joined the Church; some of his family and community religious leaders, however, brought charges against Joseph in court for events related to this treasure seeking effort. This led to what is commonly referred to as Joseph's 1826 Bainbridge "glasslooking trial." Although this proceeding was used to accuse Joseph of being a "disorderly person" and attempting to defraud Stowell, it should be noted that Stowell actually testified in Joseph's defense. The report of the result of this proceeding varies depending upon who is telling the story. Some say that Joseph was found "guilty," or "condemned." Others indicate that he was "discharged." Constable De Zeng indicated that the proceeding was "not a trial." A synthesis of all the evidence indicates a favorable outcome for Joseph Smith.
Gardner concludes that "[t]he implication is that since Joseph used a peep stone, he must be seen in the same category as those who ran a scam with one. Clearly the 1826 court appearance tells us that some contemporaries considered him in that category....However, the fact that the communities would be willing to follow the confidence scheme simply tells us that there was an existing belief system in which seer stones were considered effective and acceptable." More recent critics, notably Dan Vogel, have suggested that Joseph belongs in the category of a pious fraud, a model that others have found incoherent and inadequate to explain Joseph's successes and failures as a village seer (and later prophet) and his tendency to polarize acquaintances into believers or debunkers.
For a detailed response, see: Joseph's 1826 glasslooking trial
Question: Why would Joseph Smith not continue to use the sacred interpreters provided with the Nephite record?
Ultimately, it was more convenient for him to use the seer stone
Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes "for convenience" during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.
The Nephite interpreters which were given to Joseph along with the plates consisted of two stones set in a bow, resembling a pair of "large spectacles." Martin Harris described the Nephite interpreters as being "about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre.... They were joined by a round bar of diver, about three-eights of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which with the two stones, would make eight inches."
The Nephite interpreters, therefore, were yet another set of seer stones. It is unsurprising that Joseph would be completely comfortable with these instruments, given his experience with the use of seer stones up to that time.
Latter-day Saints associate the term "Urim and Thummim" with these interpreters. Gardner notes,
We all know that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon—except he didn't. The Book of Mormon mentions interpreters, but not the Urim and Thummim. It was the Book of Mormon interpreters which were given to Joseph with the plates. When Moroni took back the interpreters after the loss of the 116 manuscript pages, Joseph completed the translation with one of his seer stones. Until after the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim belonged to the Bible and the Bible only.  The Urim and Thummim became part of the story when it was presented within and to the Great Tradition. Eventually, even Joseph Smith used Urim and Thummim indiscriminately as labels generically representing either the Book of Mormon interpreters or the seer stone used during translation.  
After the loss of the 116 pages, contemporary accounts are very clear that Joseph continued the translation using his seer stone. In later years, the term "Urim and Thummim" was retroactively applied to both the Nephite interpreters and to Joseph's seer stone. Thus the use of "Urim and Thummim" tends to obscure the fact that two different instruments were employed.
For a detailed response, see: Chronology of statements regarding translation methods used for the Book of Mormon
Question: Did Joseph Smith use his seer stone to view the location of the gold plates in the Hill Cumorah?
There is an account which indicates that this may have happened
Joseph's seer stone may even have played a role in the location of the plates and the Nephite interpreters themselves. There is considerable evidence that the location of the plates and Nephite interpreters were revealed to Joseph via his second, white seer stone. In 1859, Martin Harris recalled that "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase...It was by means of this stone he first discovered the plates."
Some critics have sought to create a contradiction here, since Joseph's history reported that Moroni revealed the plates to him (JS-H 1:34-35,42). This is an example of a false dichotomy: Moroni could easily have told Joseph about the plates and interpreters. The vision to Joseph may well have then come through the seer stone, as some of the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (e.g., Section X) would later be revealed. One account from Henry Harris in Eber D. Howe's anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed matches this theory well:
I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. he said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit.
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
Martin Harris states that Joseph used the Nephite interpreters and then later switched to using the seer stone "for convenience."  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.) 
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.
- He described the instrument as ‘spectacles’ and referred to it using an Old Testament term, Urim and Thummim.
- 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.
- 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.”
Question: Did Joseph Fielding Smith say that it was not reasonable for Joseph Smith to use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
Joseph Fielding Smith said "It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances"
Joseph Fielding Smith said the following:
While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. It may have been so, but it is so easy for a story of this kind to be circulated due to the fact that the Prophet did possess a seer stone, which he may have used for some other purposes. 
One critical website makes the claim: "So apparently even the 10th president of the Church thinks that using a stone to translate the Book of Mormon with 'hardly seems reasonable.'"  This is incorrect.
Joseph Fielding Smith did not say that it was not reasonable to use a stone to translate the Book of Mormon. After all, the Nephite interpreters were themselves comprised of two seer stones. Joseph Fielding Smith had no issue with that. What Joseph Fielding Smith thought was unreasonable was that Joseph Smith would use his own "inferior" seer stone instead of the Nephite interpreters.
Joseph Smith considered the Nephite interpreters a more powerful version of his own seer stone
When Joseph Smith first obtained the Nephite interpreters, he considered them a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. Joseph Knight recalled that Joseph appeared to be more excited about receiving the "glasses" than the gold plates themselves. After Joseph returned from retrieving the plates, Joseph Knight recalled,
After breakfast Joseph called me in to the other room and he set his foot on the bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, “Well, I am disappointed.” “Well,” say I, “I am sorry.” “Well,” says he, “I am greatly disappointed. It is ten times better than I expected.” Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates for, says he, “I can see anything. They are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated.” 
In the beginning, Joseph believed that the stone itself possessed some special quality
Joseph's belief that the stone or the Nephite interpreters possessed some quality that made them special was apparent:
The idea that the Nephite interpreters were a more powerful version of Joseph’s seer stone is interesting, since it implies that there was something special about the stones themselves. It is more likely, however, that it was Joseph’s own perception that the stones were superior because these stones had been consecrated by God for the purpose of seeing things.
Joseph Fielding Smith did not believe that Joseph Smith would substitute an inferior seer stone for the Nephite interpreters, which were themselves stones
However, the idea that the Nephite interpreters were superior to a common “seer stone” was accepted by twentieth-century apostle and Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith. In response to accounts that indicated that Joseph may have used his own seer stone during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Elder Smith flatly stated that he did not believe this to be true, since the stone was inferior to the Nephite interpreters. </blockquote>
Joseph Fielding Smith was entitled to his opinion, and he clearly stated that it was his opinion. He based this on scripture from the Book of Ether which indicated that the interpreters had been preserved for the purpose of translation. This is certainly a reasonable conclusion. However, statements made by Joseph Smith's contemporaries clearly indicate that the seer stone was used in the translation, and that by 1833 the title "Urim and Thummim" was later applied to the seer stone in addition to the Nephite interpreters.
Question: Why is the "white stone" that we are to receive upon entry to the Celestial kingdom not discussed extensively in Sunday School?
The "white stone" mentioned in D&C 130 ties into LDS temple practice and involves things which are held private and sacred
One critic of the Church asks regarding the "white stone" mentioned in D&C 130:
If seer stones, whether in the form of the Urim and Thummim or a peepstone, are so important that perfect, celestial beings would receive one, why did Joseph say they were only for beginners?
The "white stone" mentioned here involves things which are held private and sacred: it ties into LDS temple practice, which FairMormon and other believing members will not discuss in a public forum. So, part of the reason this is not discussed in more detail is because it involves temple doctrines. Those who attend the temple can reflect upon these passages and realize that they play a large role in LDS temple worship.
- Joseph seemed to regard his own seer stone as a "stepping-stone" to greater knowledge and revelatory experience. This is exactly what D&C 130 says the "white stone" given to the exalted will do: "things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known."
- LDS doctrine teaches that we will continue to learn and progress after this life, until we receive "all that the Father hath." A urim and thummim will, according to Joseph, play a role in that process. But, one would also expect that it too will become unnecessary when we, like Joseph, master the spiritual discipline and principles which the urim and thummim aids in developing.
Orson Pratt, who watched the New Testament revision (JST) and wondered why the use of seer stones/interpreters (as with the Book of Mormon) was not continued reported:
While this thought passed through the speaker's mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument. 
The manner of translation was as wonderful as the discovery. By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him. After delivering this to his emanuensi,[sic] he would again proceed in the same manner and obtain the meaning of the next character, and so on till he came to the part of the plates which were sealed up.
Truman Coe, Presbyterian Minister living among the Saints in Kirtland, 1836
I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him.
Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery’s wife, 1870
These two descriptions of Joseph Smith translating the golden plates paint radically different pictures of the same event. It easy to accept the finger-on-the-plates translation, but the rock-in-the-hat feels completely foreign. Nevertheless, it is a much better attested description of the process than the first.Why do we have both of these pictures if the second better fits the majority of descriptions? To answer that question, there are two stories that must be told: first–why would anyone think of translating with a rock in a hat?–and second–why we are so surprised at that?
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- "Book of Mormon Translation," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013)
- Brant A. Gardner, Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, 2009 FAIR Conference presentation.
- Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 234 quoted by Gardner in Joseph the Seer...
- Brant A. Gardner, Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?, 2009 FAIR Conference presentation.
- Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853),91–92.
- David Keller, The Bainbridge Conspiracy, Fair Blog, March 23, 2008
- David Keller, Not Guilty, Fair Blog, Dec. 17, 2008.
- Gardner, Joseph the Seer
- Trevor Luke, "The Scandal in the Practice: Joseph Smith as a Religious Performer" 2009 Sunstone Conference
- David Keller, Seer or Pious Fraud, Fair Blog, May 5, 2008
- See Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 320–326.
- Joel Tiffany, "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 165–166; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing'", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought vol. 15, no. 2 (Summer 1982):62, footnote 27.
- J. V. Coombs, Religious Delusions: Studies of the False Faiths of To-Day as cited in Gardner, Joseph the Seer. Van Wagoner and Walker note that "These stones could not have been the Nephite interpreters, yet Joseph specifically calls them 'Urim and Thummim.' The most obvious explanation for such wording is that he used the term generically to include any device with the potential for 'communicating light perfectly, and intelligence perfectly, through a principle that God has ordained for that purpose,' as John Taylor would later put it." as cited in Gardner, Joseph the Seer.
- Mormonism—II," Tiffany's Monthly (June 1859): 163, see also 169; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 286.
- Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290.
- 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."
- Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign (July 1993), 61. off-site
- "Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim, 27 March 1870," Early Mormon Documents, 1:532.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–26.
- "Translation of the Book of Mormon," MormonThink.com.
- 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.
- “Joseph Knight Sr., Reminiscence, Circa 1835-1847,” in Early Mormon Documents, 4:15. Spelling has been modernized and formatted for readability. Original spelling and formatting is as follows: “After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he set his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says well I am Dissop[o]inted. well, say I[,] I am sorrey[.] Well, says he[,] I am grateley Dissop[o]inted, it is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates[,] and[,] said he[,] they appear to be Gold But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummem then [than] he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[.] They are Marvelus[.] Now they are written in Caracters and I want them translated[.]" Cited in Note 40 of Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone".
- "Translation of the Book of Mormon," MormonThink.com.
- Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984). PDF link
Caution: this article was published before Mark Hofmann's forgeries were discovered. It may treat fraudulent documents as genuine. Click for list of known forged documents.
Discusses money-digging; Salem treasure hunting episode; fraudulent 1838 Missouri treasure hunting revelation; Wood Scrape; “gift of Aaron”; “wand or rod”; Heber C. Kimball rod and prayer; magic; occult; divining lost objects; seerstone; parchments; talisman ; citing Orson Pratt, "Discourse at Brigham City," 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, "Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City," Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499.