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Translation or Divination?

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Translation or Divination?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published many pictures of Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon. These depictions invariably show Joseph seated at a table, carefully examining the gold plates which are in front of him on the table.1 The impression given is that the dictation process involved Joseph’s direct visual contact with the plates.

However, this scenario does not square with the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon. These witnesses include all three of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon (the same individuals whose testimony appears in the front of every copy of the Book of Mormon), as well as Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma Hale Smith. They tell a similar story of Joseph dropping a magical seer stone into his hat, then burying his face in the hat and proceeding to dictate the Book of Mormon. Joseph claimed to see in the darkened hat the words he dictated. Several of the witnesses comment that the gold plates were sometimes not even in sight as Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon. This evidence of the actual Book of Mormon translation method has been discussed in at least six different scholarly articles and several books by Mormon historians over the past 30 years.2

Divination (div-i-nay-shun): "Discovery of what is hidden or obscure by supernatural or magic means."  — Oxford English Dictionary

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the LDS Church wishes to distance itself from the compelling evidence that Joseph Smith both discovered and produced the Book of Mormon in a context of magic/ divination/ clairvoyance. We encourage all members of the LDS Church and others who are interested in the LDS Church’s claims, to carefully review this important evidence. Here is the eyewitness testimony to Joseph Smith's dictation procedure, followed by some brief observations and conclusions.

Emma Hale Smith

, Joseph's wife, was the first person to serve as his scribe. Here is her testimony as recounted to her son Joseph Smith III:

"In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us."3

David Whitmer

was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The majority of the translation work took place in the Whitmer home.

"I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. 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." 4

"I, as well as all of my father's family, Smith's wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation .... He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation"5

Martin Harris, also one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, provided this information to his friend Edward Stevenson, who would later become part of the LDS First Council of Seventy.

"Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. 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, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say "Written," and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used."


Oliver Cowdery

was Joseph's principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, and another of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

"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, or, as the Nephites would have said, 'Interpreters,' the history, or record, called 'The book of Mormon." (spelling and emphasis preserved from original)7

As described later in this article, Cowdery's use here of the terms "Urim and Thummim" was a common designation among Mormons after 1833 for Joseph's seer stone.

Other Eyewitness Testimony

The testimonies of Emma Smith, Whitmer, Harris and Cowdery are corroborated by other eyewitnesses.

Isaac Hale, the father of Emma Hale Smith, stated in an 1834 affidavit: "The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods."8

The first-hand account of Michael Morse, Emma Smith's brother-in-law, was published in an 1879 article in the RLDS publication Saint's Herald:"When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph's placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes — Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down."9

Joseph Knight, Sr., an early member of the Church and a close friend of Joseph Smith, wrote the following in a document on file in the LDS Church archives: "Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes then he would take a sentance and it would appear in brite roman letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it then that would go away the next sentence would come and so on. But if it was not spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated." (spelling preserved from original)10

Joseph Used a Magic "Seer Stone" Years Prior to Publication of the Book of Mormon

It has been well documented by Mormon historians that for a number of years before he produced the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith was heavily involved in various magic-occultic practices, including the use of a magic "seer stone" or "peep stone."11 Perhaps the most complete account of this evidence is given by former Brigham Young University history professor D. Michael Quinn in his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988). Indeed, in 1826, four years before the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph was arrested, jailed, and examined in court in Bainbridge, New York on the charge of being "a disorderly person and an impostor" in connection with his use of a peep stone to search for buried treasure. While the evidence indicates he was found guilty of this charge, the young Joseph was apparently released on the condition that he leave the area.12

Prior to the 1971 discovery of the original court record of these charges, Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley, of Brigham Young University, wrote that "if this court record is authentic, it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith."13 This court examination (now proven) is indeed damning and most unseemly: For it means that Joseph Smith was engaged in fraudulent money-digging with the same magic "seer stone" method in 1826 — the very time period in which, according to his First Vision story, Joseph was receiving yearly visits from Moroni (1823-1827) regarding recovery of the Book of Mormon plates. This surely raises the question of whether, in his story of locating and translating the gold plates, he was simply trying to legitimize his use of an occult "seer stone" by carrying it over to a religious context.

Excerpt from 1826 Bill of Justice Albert Neely. (Courtesy Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, Chenango County Office Building, Norwich, New York.) Click to see entire document..


Transcription of 1826 Bill of Justice Albert Neely
Samuel May
March 22, 1826
Assault & Battery

To my fees in this cause

Joseph Smith
The Glass looker
March 20, 1826

To my fees in examination
of the above cause


What Was the "Urim and Thummim"?

The term "Urim and Thummim" is mentioned seven times in the Old Testament (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65; Deuteronomy 33:8; Numbers 27:21; 1 Samuel 28:6 — in the latter two passages "Urim" is used alone.). In these passages the Urim and Thummim are presented as a means of divine revelation, and are frequently associated with the vestments of the High Priest, in particular the ephod and breastplate. The Bible gives no description of the object(s) that constituted the Urim and Thummim, nor of the manner of their use. The Urim and Thummim was not used after the time of David (about 1,000 B.C.): "The basic reason for their demise seems to have been that God was weaning His people away from a physical means of revelation to a greater dependence on His word as written or as spoken by the prophets," according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (2nd ed., pp. 957-59).

It is notable that the term "Urim and Thummim" is not found in the Book of Mormon and was never used by Joseph Smith with reference to producing the Book of Mormon until after 1833. In that year, a close associate of Smith, W.W. Phelps, speculated that the ancient Nephite interpreters mentioned in the Book of Mormon and by Joseph Smith might be the Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament. Phelps wrote in the LDS publication The Evening and Morning Star (Jan. 1833) that the Book of Mormon had been translated, "through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles — (known perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) ..."14 Phelps words, "known perhaps in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim" show that it was merely speculation on his part that associated Joseph’s magic seer stone with the biblical Urim and Thummim. Phelps' speculation gained quick popularity to the point where LDS writers used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to both the mystical interpreters Joseph Smith said were with the gold plates, and to the seer stone Joseph placed in his hat while dictating the Book of Mormon. As a result, many LDS writings used the term Urim and Thummim synonymously for seer stone. An example of this confusion of the terms is provided by the tenth President of the LDS church, Joseph Fielding Smith:

The statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is now in the possession of the Church.15

This overlap of terms is also reflected in the testimony of some of the witnesses to Joseph's dictation process, like that of Oliver Cowdery cited earlier in this article. However, according to David Whitmer, the entire Book of Mormon text we have today came through Joseph's seer stone and not through the Nephite interpreters. In an 1885 interview, Zenas H. Gurley, then the editor of the RLDS Saints’ Herald, asked Whitmer if Joseph had used his "Peep stone" to do the translation. Whitmer replied:

... he used a stone called a "Seers stone," the "Interpreters" having been taken away from him because of transgression. The "Interpreters" were taken from Joseph after he allowed Martin Harris to carry away the 116 pages of Ms [manuscript] of the Book of Mormon as a punishment, but he was allowed to go on and translate by use of a "Seers stone" which he had, and which he placed in a hat into which he buried his face, stating to me and others that the original character appeared upon parchment and under it the translation in English.16

These comments from David Whitmer regarding the loss of the "Interpreters" and Joseph’s subsequent use of his stone, help clarify some confusion regarding what exactly Joseph used to produce the Book of Mormon. When Joseph first announced the discovery of gold plates with strange engravings, he also claimed there were special spectacles called "Interpreters" that were with the plates. Joseph said these were to help in the translation process. However, after Martin Harris lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation that Joseph loaned to him, Joseph claimed that the angel took back both the plates and the Interpreters as punishment to Joseph. He would later get back the gold plates, but was told he would not receive the Interpreters, but instead was allowed to use his seer stone to produce all of the Book of Mormon we have today. As time went on, Joseph Smith and others would refer to the seer stone both as "Interpreters" and as the "Urim and Thummim." (Return to Cowdery testimony.)

Doctrine and Covenants 10:1

It should be noted that the mention of the Urim and Thummim in Doctrine and Covenants 10:1, dated "summer of 1828," was written back into this revelation at a later date. In its original form as Chapter IX of the 1833 Book of Commandments, the revelation makes no mention of the Urim and Thummim 17 (view scanned image of 1833 Book of Commandments, Chapter IX). The mention of Urim and Thummim in what is now designated D&C 10:1 first appears in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Commandments, where it is found as Section XXXVIII.


1. See, for example, The Ensign, January 1996, p. 3; July 1993, p. 62; November 1988, p. 45; also, missionary pamphlet, "Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ," (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987).

2. Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987; revised, expanded 1998, pp. 41-ff); James E. Lancaster, "By the Gift and Power of God," Saints Herald, 109:22 (November 15, 1962) pp. 14-18, 22, 33; Edward H. Ashment, "The Book of Mormon — A Literal Translation," Sunstone, 5:2 (March-April 1980), pp. 10-14; Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker in "Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:2 (Summer 1982), pp. 48-68; Blake T. Ostler, "The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 20:1 (Spring 1987), pp. 66-123; Stephen D. Ricks, "The Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon," Foundation for Ancient Research & Mormon Studies, official F.A.R.M.S. transcript of video lecture, 1994, 16 pages.

3. 8 vols. (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1951), "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," 3:356.

4. David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri: n.p., 1887, p. 12.

5. Interview given to Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881, reprinted in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Journal of History, vol. 8, (1910), pp. 299-300.

6. Edward Stevenson, "One of the Three Witnesses," reprinted from Deseret News, 30 Nov. 1881 in Millennial Star, 44 (6 Feb. 1882): 86-87.

7. Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocatee, (Kirtland, Ohio, 1834), vol. 1, no. 1, p.14.

8. Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), pp. 126-128.

9. W.W. Blair interview with Michael Morse, Saints’ Herald, vol. 26, no. 12 (June 15, 1879), pp. 190-91 .

10. Cited in Dean Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," BYU Studies, vol. 17:1 (Autumn 1976), p. 35.

11. D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987; revised, expanded 1998, pp. 41-ff); see also Ronald W. Walker, "The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting" in Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 24, no. 4 (Fall 1984), pp. 429-59, and Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), pp. 16ff.

12. Quinn, pp. 44ff.; and H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1994), pp. 70ff.

13. Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961), p. 142.

14. W.W. Phelps, Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1, no. 8, (Independence, Missouri, January 1833) p. 2., from photomechanical reprint of original.

15. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:225. J.F. Smith attempts to downplay the idea that Joseph Smith actually used the seer stone to produce the Book of Mormon. However, he does not identify the sources for the idea, nor does he offer alternative testimony, but instead asserts that all such information is "hearsay."

16. "Questions asked of David Whitmer at his home in Richmond Ray County, Mo. Jan. 14-1885 relating to book of Mormon, and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS by Elder Z.H. Gurley," holograph in LDS Church archives, cited by Richard S. Van Wagoner in "Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:2 (Summer 1982), p. 54.

17. A photomechanical reprint of the original 1833 Book of Commandments can be found in Joseph Smith Begins His Work, vol. 2 (Wilford C. Wood, 1962). View scanned image of 1833 Book of Commandments, Chapter IX.

Documentation Packet (6.35 MB) with photocopies of a number of the older, difficult to obtain, articles referenced in these notes. 

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