Monday, August 16, 2021

Taking the Stone Out of the Hat

For several generations the story of how the Book of Mormon came about was taught the same way as Joseph Smith presented the translation. He was worried about religion and decided to pray for answers. A vision of the Lord and God appeared and instructed him not to join any church, but remain worthy of more knowledge. A short time later while again praying to know his standing with the Lord, an angel named Moroni visited him three times in the night before instructing him where a set of gold plates could be found. He searched and found the plates buried in a nearby hill, along with other objects. One of those objects was a set of spectacles to be used in translating the ancient gold plates with ancient engravings. About four years later he took the gold plates and spectacles home, and with the help of a writer taking down what he read translated the words into The Book of Mormon. Three witnesses were shown the gold plates, spectacles, and other objects by an angel of God. Another group of eight witnesses were shown the gold plates with no divine company. Now after so many years this narrative is challenged. Not by non-Mormons, but Mormon academics who think they know better. Instead of an ancient book translated by Holy instruments, its at least part of the time just a common rock put into a hat found in a well. This was a complete fabrication probably built around rumors. Despite their sophisticated words, the academics are wrong. The ancient Interpreters placed with the gold plates was the only instrument that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.

Any believing Latter-day Saints familiar with the Book of Mormon text knows there was only one set of instruments set aside to translate the ancient language on the gold plates. Book of Mormon prophecy explains in detail where the Interpreters came from and why they exist. God touched two white stones that The Lord gave to The Brother of Jared specifically to translate ancient records by the Power of God. They were handed down from generation to generation used at times, with a prophecy that they would be the means to translate the Nephite records. To claim any other instrument would be used is to speak against the Word of God. At around the time of the Tower of Babel a righteous man and his family were commanded to leave into a new promised land. They built eight boats to cross the waters, but they were sealed tight enough not to let in light. Concerned about this, a man known as "The Brother of Jared" went to a high mountain and prayed to God for guidance. When asked by God how he wanted to resolve the problem, the Brother of Jared suggested The Divine touch white stones and make them glow in the dark. Impressed with his faith, God showed Himself as the pre-mortal Jesus Christ. Along with this amazing vision, The Lord fashioned two stones "For behold, the language which ye shall write I have confounded; wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write" (see Ether, chapter 3). Several generations later in the Book of Mormon these same blessed stones were used to translate mysterious 24 gold plates found with other artifacts (see Mosiah, chapter 8), "and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men." The white stones touched by the Hand of the Lord are handed down, along with sacred writings that must be interpreted by them, to each generation (see Mosiah 28). These are the same stones specifically prophecied that Joseph Smith would use for interpretation of the ancient "gold plates" record.

Consider all the Scriptural history behind the Interpreters and then wonder why any other instrument would be used. The Lord wouldn't accept any old rock found in a stream or a well, or any other place, after all that time and effort for preservation. No other objects would be Holy enough to translate a record that was protected by God for the Last Days. For a thousand years they were used to translate ancient unknown languages. Another thousand years they were kept hidden to be revealed by an Angel. No matter what kind of "mistakes" were made, it is unreasonable that another instrument takes their place. The interpreters would either be returned because of repentance (as did happen), or the gold plates and Interpreters given to someone (or nobody) else more worthy. By itself the translation of the Book of Mormon with white stone Interpreters touched by the Power of God is strange enough. Try to claim a regular smooth dark brown stone thrown into a hat was the translation device and it changes the whole thing into near blaspheme. The first is a high religious concept while the other a common magic trick. Those who try to reconcile the two are forcing a square peg into a round hole. Admittedly, the mention of a hat existed almost from the start, but a dark seer stone found by the prophet used to interpret the gold plates was an addition years later. The first known secular account from Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829 sounds close to LDS Church teachings:
. . . and after penetrating “mother earth” a short distance, the [Golden] Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles! He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, “under no less penalty” than instant death! They were therefore nicely wrapped up and excluded from the “vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals!” It was said that the leaves of the bible were plates of gold, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hyeroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters
How much information Joseph Smith "said so" is arguable. The point is the hat was mentioned, but only the white stone Interpreters in Spectacles were described as the translation device. Most of the records read like this throughout the first few years of reporting, with minor differences. Some weren't sure if a hat or a box was present, and list both. Others mention a sheet draped between the translator and the scribe. The sheet was almost exclusively alone with the Spectacle stones when discussing the process. Joseph Smith is said to have used the spectacles or “Interpreters” with no mention of any other stone item. Those reporting are never sure if it was one or two of the white stones he used while others simply said the Spectacles. Whenever any stones were described it is white or clear. Even when a single stone is mentioned, it was a “white” stone.

Hostile reports at first were very clear what instrument was used, even when mocking. The very hostile 1830 The Reflector articles included a satire called "The Book of Pukei" published before The Book of Mormon. A printer grabbed a few non-published actual Book of Mormon pages and printed them, forcing Joseph Smith to defend his copyright. Angry at this, the printer posted satire instead. Despite the grand opportunity, there is no mention of a hat or seer stone in the translation process, although Smith is accused in the introduction of using them as a money digger. Instead it tells how Joseph Smith, “obtained the 'Gold Bible,' Spectacles, and breast plate–will they not be faithfully recorded in the book of Pukei?” This could be the perfect time to push the stone in a hat because of the comedy (think of the South Park episode), but it is missing. According to some later reports Joseph Smith wasn't even in possession of the gold plates or Interpreters after Martin Harris. Once again the satire doesn't go that direction and has Oliver Cowdery write down what silly things were read from the plate's translation.

Martin Harris was rather inconsistent later in life with his description of the translation process, but Oliver Cowdery remained firm in his recitations. Sometimes Martin Harris said there was a curtain and other times a hat. What he related seemed to imply he saw how Joseph Smith interpreted the Book of Mormon. No matter what Martin Harris said early on, lacking was the use of a seer stone other than the white Interpreters. The other scribe Oliver Cowdery always claimed it was done with the traditional understanding of the Urim and Thummim by the Power of God, even if he called them by the "Interpreters" name. According to Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate in an April 1831 article, he spoke under oath:
One of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the formed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.
This same article also seems to be one of the first to connect the translation of the Book of Mormon to magical arts, but by related powers and not the same materials. The evolution of Joseph Smith from translator of gold plates to common seer and magician can be traced through early news reports. The previously mentioned "Book of Pukei" mockingly turned the Angel Moroni into a magician by the name of Morgan. News reports that talked about money digging and stone lookers speculated what powers were used by Joseph Smith. None of them made a direct link to the instruments or proccess of translation. They were seen as similar, not the same. Wicked use of magic was leveled against Jesus Christ in a similar fashion.

Descriptions of how the Book of Mormon was translated as related by Oliver Cowdery remained consistent. One report by a non-Mormon skeptical of the LDS Church published a short interview he had with the former transcriber. The date of the report is 1831, although reprinted in 1841 for the newspaper The Evangelist to relate Kirtland events. The reporter Josiah Jones was antagonistic, accusing the Saints of self-deception and bad behavior. The stone in the hat would have made for a great attack. Instead we read:
A few days after these men [Mormon Missionaries] appeared again, a few of us went to see them and Cowdery was requested to state how the plates were found, which he did. He stated that Smith looked onto or through the transparent stones to translate what was on the plates. I then asked him if he had ever looked through the stones to see what he could see in them; his reply was that he was not permitted to look into them. I asked him who debarred him from looking into them; he remained sometime in silence, then said that he had so much confidence in his friend Smith, who told him that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead.
This is a straight forward "traditional" description of the translation of the Book of Mormon. It is very clear that the Interpreters were used for the process with Cowdery writing down what was read from the plates. Assuming the interview report is correct, There is nothing indicating he didn't see the Interpreters. It is only mentioned he couldn't look in them or it would be death. Some earlier news reports have Martin Harris saying the same warning. There is, as usual, no mention of a dark or brown stone within a hat. There is only the one or two stones that are transparent, like other reports describing them as white.

Early Mormon missionaries were equally sure in their descriptions how the Book of Mormon was translated. An example is a report by W.W. Phelps in the 1833 The Evening and Morning Star newspaper:
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 . . .
No mention of a hat. No mention of a seer stone, especially of a dark color. There was not even a speculation of the use of those tools like the most recent Mormon intellectuals. At most it introduced the idea that the Jaredite Interpreters were the same as the "Teraphin, or Urim and Thummim" like prophets used in the Bible. Joseph Smith perhaps picked up on this and confirmed the Interpreters were a set of Urim and Thummim, keeping the name.

Very nasty anti-Mormons introduced the common dark or brown "seer stone" rumors to muddy the faith waters. A few years after the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an bitter excommunicated Mormon named Doctor P. Hurlburt when to Palmyra to cause trouble. He interviewed some people who claimed to have known Joseph Smith with the intention of destroying his reputation. The few negative interviews he brought back were published by E.B. Howe in his 1834 Mormonism Unveiled anti-Mormon book. Anyone with discernment can laugh at the completely over the top descriptions and caricatures of the Prophet. It is amazing that modern intellectuals and so-called academics can take these seriously. Much of the stories read as if Mark Twain decided to write about back woods New England farmers. According to the interviews, Joseph Smith and family spent all of their time digging for treasure, practicing black magic at night, fighting at the drop of a hat, and generally running around hog wild in the countryside. Yet, for some reason, people continue to work with or hire the "lazy, indolent, ignorant, and superstitious" Joseph Smith and family to dig wells and do general labor. Another missed opportunity, if Joseph Smith was the leader of a roving magic money digging group, was interview members of his company. A few names are dropped as involved, but they never speak for themselves. From these stories come the new translation story of Joseph Smith finding a dark or brown stone and putting it into a hat or box. He then put his head into where the stone was placed and read words off the stone. Any historian arguing for the stone in the hat must, no matter where or who else they source, use these stories to bolster their claims. Up to this time the hat, if mentioned at all, was associated with the Interpreters' white stones. Neither the hat nor the dark stone ever made an appearance in early Church descriptions of the translation.

Unlike modern historians, E.B. Howe knew the stone in the hat and the Urim and Thummim were completely different stories. He deliberately used that as a way to belittle and attack the origin of the Book of Mormon. The most influential story, and probably the most hilarious to read, is Willard Chase claiming that he found a "singularly appearing stone" that Joseph Smith immediately put in his hat and looked for hidden objects. He gave it back to Chase, but then asked to borrow it again so he could pretend to see things. Chase was apparently so disturbed by Joseph Smith's claims that he went and got it back. The brother Hyrum Smith asked for the stone and Chase gave it to him to borrow. When he tried to recorver it in 1830, Hyrum and Martin Harris refused to give it back because it was used to translate. They both got angry and beat Chase up in order to keep the stone that Chase considered his property. All of this for a stone found in a well. The other story is from Professor Charles Anthon who wrote a letter telling of a visit by Martin Harris to verify a translation. His version is more straight forward, with a very detailed description of the plates and a pair of spectacles (Urim and Thummim) hidden behind a curtain. Far away as he was from Palmyra, Martin Harris must have given that information to him and not rumors from others. There is not even a hint of a stone in a hat that was supposed to exist from the beginning. These discrepancies are taken up by E.B. Howe to argue the stone in the hat renders the gold plates and witnesses meaningless, or the curtain a way to hide the true source of the Book of Mormon text. His own belief was the missing Spaulding Manuscript remained hidden behind a curtain while Joseph Smith read from its pages. Although for 100 years the Spaulding theory was predominant with the use of a curtain, the modern historian has the stone in the hat more predominant while morphing both versions.

Because the Willard Chase story is casually used to support the stone in the hat theory, one part is often ignored. Among the amusing main story is a recital about Joseph Smith and a friend finding the Interpreters using a seer stone:
Joseph believed that one Samuel T. Lawrence was the man alluded to by the spirit, and went with him to a singular looking hill, in Manchester, and shewed him where the treasure was. Lawrence asked him if he had ever discovered any thing with the plates of gold; he said no: he then asked him to look in his stone, to see if there was any thing with them. He looked, and said there was nothing; he told him to look again, and see if there was not a large pair of specks with the plates; he looked and soon saw a pair of spectacles, the same with which Joseph says he translated the Book of Mormon.
This isn't a statement about what Joseph Smith told him, but the claim by Willard Chase of an actual event. What he is trying to argue is Joseph Smith didn't translate the Book of Mormon using what became known as the Urim and Thummim. Joseph Smith did so using a strange stone stolen from him that was never returned. The question of the gold plates and Interpreters as real discoveries is left ambiguous in the story. More important is that Chase understood that Joseph Smith claimed the Spectacles were used in the translation, and not a "singularly appearing stone" placed in a hat. He is making a joke that Joseph Smith found the gold plates using a seer stone, then had to be shown by a better seer that another instrument was burried with them, but ended up using the questionably aquired magic stone instead of the Holy Instrument with the divine plates. Even those claiming the most that Joseph Smith used a common dark or brown seer stone knew that wasn't the instrument Joseph Smith taught he used.

Oliver Cowdery responded to these reports by expressing with absolute clarity that the "Nephite Interpreters" currently called the Urim and Thummim were used to translate the Book of Mormon by the Power of God. He never mentioned any other means or tools. A set of letters were written in 1834 addressed to W.W. Phelps and published in Messenger and Advocate newspaper:
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"
After the first letter was published, Joseph Smith responded to Oliver Cowdery, "I have been induced to give you the time and place of my birth; as I have learned that many . . . profess a personal acquaintance with me," although they represent Joseph Smith as someone different, "in age, education, and stature," from his true self (Messenger and Advocate, December 1834). He then helps Oliver Cowdery write the rest of the articles with no correction about the translation processes. The "Nephite Interpreters" and only those stand alone.

One claim that gets wide traction was that he used the Intepreters up until the lost 116 pages, when an angel took it away. The Interpeters, and perhaps the plates, were never returned. The above Oliver Cowdery quote seems to strongly refute that notion, especially as a response to the Hulbert interviews. Lucy Mack Smith in Chapter 27 of her 1845 history also testifies to a return of both the plates and the Urim and Thummim:
When he met us his countenance wore so pleasant an aspect, that I was convinced he had something agreeable to communicate, in relation to the work in which he was engaged. And when I entered his house the first thing that attracted my attention was a red morocco trunk, that set on Emma’s bureau; which trunk Joseph shortly informed me, contained the Urim and Thummim and the plates.
She continues by describing the backgound scene how an angel chastised Joseph Smith for giving in to the demands of a wicked man, having the plates and Urim and Thummim taken away. He is then told,"I would of necessity have to suffer the consequences of his [Martin Harris']indiscretion; and must now give up the Urim and Thummim into his (the angels) hands. This I did as I was directed. As I handed them to him, he said, ‘If you are very humble and penitent, it may be you will receive them again; if so, it will be on the 22d. of next September." She then quotes part of Doctrine and Covenants section 10, requesting to look up the rest. The most important part left out from her reciation of section 10 reads, "it is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun." According to all of the Mother Smith account taken together, more than the gift was returned. So was the Urim and Thummim.

Joseph Smith never wrote about any other object as the translation tool other what was contained with the gold plates. He described the Urim and Thummim as the Spectacles with the white stones and breastplate especially prepared by the angel. Never did he call anything else a Urim and Thummim unless it was a white or clear stone similar to the "Nephite Interpreters," and that only in Scriptural exegesis. The official Joseph Smith History first published in 1842 and considered Scripture, reads:
34. He [Angel Moroni] said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants; 35. Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and the use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book. . . . 42. Again, he told me, that when I got these plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed. While he was conversing with me about the plates, the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it.
Joseph Smith explained earlier in the 1838 Elder's Journal how the Book of Mormon was translated, after many people requested information:
I am answering these questions by publication for the reason they are asked me thousands of times. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom appeared unto me, and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.
When the Urim and Thummim are said to be found with the gold plates, it is not ambiguious what he is talking about. The Book of Mormon says the Interpreters would be burried with the plates. Other descriptions by the Prophet Joseph Smith clearly connects the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim with the scriptural Jaredite and Nephite stones. A more detailed explanation was given in the 1842 Wentworth Letter, with a charge that nothing be changed or taken out. The account reads:
These records were engraven on plates which had the appearance of gold: each plate was six inches wide and eight inches long, and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings in Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something over six inches in thickness, part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction, and much skill in the art of engraving. With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.
Notice that the letter directly associates the "curious instrument" contained with the gold plates as the Urim and Thummim he used for translation. He goes on in detail to explain what they looked like so there can be no confusion. No mention is ever made by Joseph Smith to a brown or black stone in the translation process. It is always the combined gold plates and its accompanied Urim and Thummim found with them. The idea that Joseph Smith used both the stone in the hat and the Urim and Thummim cannot be maintained without ignoring Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery's words.

It is true that Joseph Smith told his brother Hyrum that he didn’t want to get into the particulars of the Book of Mormon. That doesn’t mean he accepted or was letting the stone in the hat go unanswered. His descriptions were not downplaying a seer stone when talking about the Urim and Thummim. Joseph Smith was “owing to the many reports” downright repudiating the story. Why later witnesses such as Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, and others claim otherwise is another discussion. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery never changed their version of how the translation was done and with what. It seems inconceivable that a brown or dark seer stone, or any other tool for that matter, were used other than the Urim and Thummim as the "Nephite or Jaredite" white stone Interpreters were called. These were Scriptural, prophetic, traceable in the records, and specifically mentioned in detail by the Prophet and other early Mormons. Time to return the seer stone into the well, put down the hat, and go back to the original doctrine of the Book of Mormon translation. That is what Joseph Smith taught for a reason. That is what we should stick with for the same reason. Because it is the truth.

No comments: