Editor’s note: This blog post is the introductory section of Roger Nicholson’s June 2013 article in 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). The full article may be read on the Interpreter website.
In his 1916 book, The Birth of Mormonism, John Quincy Adams provided this rather colorful description of the Book of Mormon translation method.
The process of translating the “reformed Egyptian” plates was simple though peculiar. It was all done with the Urim and Thummim spectacles, but it was instant death for any one but Joe to use them. Even when he put them on, the light became so dazzling that he was obliged to look through his hat. Moreover, when so engaged, no profane eyes were allowed to see him or the hat. Alone, behind a blanket stretched across the room, Joe looked into his hat and read the mystic words.
Any Latter-day Saint will immediately be able to sort the familiar from the unfamiliar elements of this story. We see the Urim and Thummim and the blanket shielding the translator from others in the room, but what is all of this talk about a hat?
As an active Latter-day Saint, I cannot remember a time when I was not familiar with the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. The story with which we are quite familiar from Sunday School and Seminary describes Joseph using the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) to look at the gold plates while screened from his scribe by a curtain. Joseph dictated the entire text of the Book of Mormon to his scribe, picking up the next day right where he had left off the day before, and the text was written without any punctuation. Joseph never required that any of the previous text be re-read when the translation started again the next day. The bulk of the translation was accomplished within a roughly three-month period, and the resulting text is remarkably consistent not only with itself, but with the Bible. The circumstances surrounding the translation and production of the Book of Mormon can only be considered miraculous when considered by a believing member of the Church.
There is, however, another story with which many have become familiar in recent years. Modern portrayals of the translation process such as that shown in the popular animated television show South Park depict Joseph looking at a stone in the bottom of his hat and dictating to his scribe, without the use of a curtain. The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia displays a “twenty-first century artistic representation of Joseph Smith translating the golden plates by examining a seer stone in his hat.” A Google search of “Book of Mormon translation” or “seer stone Joseph Smith” produces a large number of such images, many of them hosted by websites that are critical of the Church’s truth claims. This is a method which I did not learn about in Seminary, and there are anecdotal stories of Latter-day Saints who, upon being presented with this portrayal, simply deny that this method may have ever been employed, attributing such depictions to “anti-Mormon” sources.
Depictions of the translation process by artists have also contributed to the confusion. Latter-day Saints are quite familiar with a variety of artistic portrayals of Joseph and Oliver as they participated in the translation process. Some depict Joseph and his scribe sitting at a table with a curtain across the middle. Others show Joseph and Oliver sitting together at a table, with no curtain in view and the plates clearly visible, yet we know that Oliver was not allowed to view the plates prior to acting as one of the Three Witnesses. One thing that these scenes have in common is that they do not depict the Urim and Thummim, despite the fact that we know that a translation instrument was used during the process. We see no crystal stones mounted in a set of “spectacles,” nor do we see the breastplate. We certainly never see Joseph gazing into the bottom of his hat while dictating.
The twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades. Now one must ask the question: Which of these portrayals is correct? In searching for an answer, we start with a modern Church manual in order to provide us with our first clue. The following description of the translation process appears in the 2003 Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual (hereafter referred to as the Student Manual).
Little is known about the actual process of translating the record, primarily because those who knew the most about the translation, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, said the least about it. Moreover, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith, who assisted Joseph, left no contemporary descriptions. The sketchy accounts they recorded much later in life were often contradictory.
It makes perfect sense that those who were directly involved in or observed the translation would have the most accurate information. What, then, did these witnesses say that appears to have been contradictory? Were there other witnesses that can shed light on these events? What did outside sources have to say about the translation process? As Latter-day Saint researcher Brant Gardner summarizes it, “What stories shall we believe? What stories of the translation could we or should we tell? Which stories are true? For this last question, I would suggest that they are all true. That is, they are true for the people who are telling them.”
To read the rest, please visit
on the Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture website.
 John Quincy Adams, The Birth of Mormonism (Boston: Gorham Press, 1916), 36.
 South Park Season 7, Episode 12, “All About Mormons” originally broadcast on 19 November 2003.
 Wikipedia article “Seer Stone (Latter Day Saints).”
 For example, the illustrated Book of Mormon Stories (1978) shows Joseph and a scribe separated by a curtain. Joseph is looking directly at the plates without using a translating instrument. The Book of Mormon Reader (1985) and Book of Mormon Stories (1997) both replace this scene with one of Joseph and his scribe sitting at a table in the open, with the plates clearly in view. No attempt by the artist is made to depict the Urim and Thummim. There exists one image that may be found on the Internet which depicts Joseph Smith using the breastplate and spectacles, which is claimed to be from a “1970s” edition of the Book of Mormon Reader. A collection of images representative of the various ways the translation process has been depicted may be viewed on Blair Hodges’ Life on Gold Plates blog, “The ‘Stone-In-Hat’ Translation Method in Art,” posted on October 27, 2009.http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/10/stone-in-hat-translation-method-in-art.html.
 Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 58.
 Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 8.