Hey guys, so today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Joseph Smith translated the ancient Book of Mormon plates by the gift and power of God through the aid of the Nephite “interpreters” and at least one of Joseph’s own personal seer stones. Sources indicate that Joseph would place the stone or stones in a hat, bring his face close to the hat to block out ambient light, look at the stone or stones and dictate to his scribe. The single seer stone in a hat method of translation is pretty well-known today, but frankly, that hasn’t always been the case. And there are some people who are upset about that and feel like past church leaders have been intentionally hiding this embarrassing truth from members. So, let’s look at the history. I’ll give you my take on this, and you can come to your own conclusions.
There are lots of early friendly references to the Book of Mormon being translated through the Nephite interpreters, which came to be referred to as the Urim and Thummim. References to the seer stone in a hat method first show up in antagonistic sources, such as E. D. Howe’s 1834 book, “Mormonism Unveiled.” It’s not really until the 1870s and 80s that we get pro-seer stone statements from individuals who were close to Joseph during the translation and who actually believed in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. People like David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Emma Smith, and others. I encourage you to pause and read some of those accounts.
As these sources start popping up, we start to see Latter-day Saint scholars and leaders talking more about this translation method. George Q. Cannon agrees with it in his 1888 biography of Joseph Smith. By 1899 it seems that even President Lorenzo Snow was showing off Joseph’s seer stone. Scholar B. H. Roberts was an early advocate for the seer stone method, though in 1903, he called attention to the challenge of interpreting some of the evidence:
“There will appear between this statement of David Whitmer’s and what is said both by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery a seeming contradiction. Joseph and Oliver both say the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim … while David Whitmer says that the translation was made by means of a ‘Seer Stone.’ The apparent contradiction is cleared up, however, by a statement made by Martin Harris … He said that the Prophet possessed a ‘Seer Stone,’ by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience, he then … used the Seer Stone.”
In the first few decades of the 1900s, we get several pro-seer stone statements from B. H. Roberts in various church publications, including the Church’s comprehensive history and some teaching manuals. Church history professor John Henry Evans supported this theory in this 1905 publication, which carried the endorsement of the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, along with future Church president Joseph Fielding Smith. Evans’ statement about the seer stone even shows up again in 1920 in the Church’s official children’s magazine.
Pro-seer stone teachings also show up in at least a few Sunday School manuals in the 1930s. We also see one in 1945 during a KSL radio Sunday broadcast by apostle Joseph F. Merrill, a transcript of which was published in the Deseret News the following week.
Clearly, during about the first half of the 20th century, this information was out in the open. But not everyone agreed with this interpretation of the evidence. For example, pause and read what scholar Francis Kirkham had to say on this in 1939.
By 1956 it seems that then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith had changed his mind on the matter. He wrote that “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. … 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.”
Notice that this is his personal belief, and he acknowledges that he might be wrong. I don’t think he was maliciously trying to mislead members, I think he just disagreed with how others had interpreted the evidence. There seem to be precious few pro-seer stone statements in official sources in the 1950s and 60s. I don’t know if this is correlation or causation, but things start to pick up again after Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1972 death.
We get one mention in a 1974 issue of the Church’s Friend magazine. Scholar Richard L. Anderson brings it up in a 1977 Ensign and again in a 1984 BYU Studies publication. A reference shows up again in a 1988 Ensign article by a Church Education System area director. We get a reference in 1992 in this Deseret Book publication. Elder Russell M. Nelson taught it to new mission presidents in 1992, and his remarks were then published in the Ensign in 1993. Elder Neal A. Maxwell also talks about it in the Ensign in 1997. And, of course, over the last couple of decades, knowledge about this method of translation has become mainstream.
Now, I don’t want to gaslight you here. As we’ve seen, there have been quite a few seer stone references in the past, but the dominant narrative in past decades has been the Urim and Thummim explanation—probably because that’s how Joseph described the translation. It does look like the seer stone method was downplayed in the mid-1900s. But why was this the case? What was the motive? It seems to me that some leaders and scholars simply didn’t think the seer stone method was accurate. There are some members today who still don’t think it’s true. And I get that. I personally agree with the Church’s current stance, but the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly straightforward. If I die and find out that Joseph never used his seer stone to translate, I’m not going to lose any sleep. Frankly, I don’t really care which stones Joseph used. It’s a great historical question, but not one that I feel has dramatic implications for my testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Anyway, I hope this information has been useful. It’s not comprehensive by any means, and there’s plenty of stuff we didn’t get to talk about yet — Church artwork and analyzing the sources and all of that good stuff, but if you want to learn more, check out the resources in the YouTube description, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, don’t forget to subscribe, and have a great day!
— “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics Essay: https://bit.ly/2vaHUVu
— Video: “The Book of Mormon Is Tangible Evidence of the Restoration” feat. President Russell M. Nelson: https://bit.ly/410BMbz
— “Book of Mormon Translation Methods” via Mormonr (over 200 sources): https://bit.ly/3HBaB08
— “Book of Mormon Translation Methods [Q & A]” via Mormonr: https://bit.ly/3HBaB08
— “Standard of Truth Podcast,” Episode 13: Translation of the Gold Plates Part 1: https://bit.ly/3HG7ROP
— “Standard of Truth Podcast,” Episode 14: Translation of the Gold Plates Part 2: https://bit.ly/416Cq7a
— “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” dissertation by Mark Ashurst-McGee, USU: https://bit.ly/4264Sr9
— Recommended reading:
- “From Darkness unto Light,” by Michael MacKay & Gerrit Dirkmaat
- “Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon,” by MacKay & Dirkmaat
- “Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones,” by Michael MacKay & Nicholas Frederick