Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Taking the Stone Out of the Hat Part 3: Rescuing the Urim and Thummim

The history behind The Book of Mormon translation is based on the written record. Who writes the history and what they have to say has a strong impact on how the events are understood. The Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates has a lot of evidence, where the stone in the hat a few strong statements. It is assumed that history comes fully formed in a textbook or what was written by an author who did the studies. For the modern historian, no history exists unless it is written down and somehow explained. Some physical evidence can be used to corroborate or refute the written record, but only words explain human thoughts and experience. People can only write from their perspective, and sometimes they lie or remember incorrectly. What can be known about the translation of the Book of Mormon depends on who and what to believe.

Previously the stone in the hat discussion focused mostly on David Whitmer with many interviews. Each one brought up more questions than answers about the Book of Mormon translation. He claimed to have witnessed more than the angel revealing the gold plates, Urim and Thummim, and other objects. He said the translation of the Book of Mormon happened in front of him and others. Sometimes he said he witnessed the use of the Urim and Thummim, while other times he denied that and said only a seer stone. This is in direct opposition to what Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, ,and Lucy Mack Smith wrote. Seeing the Urim and Thummim and the gold plates before the translation was finished would be a death sentence for both him and Joseph Smith, according to commands of the Lord. He was one of the Three Witnesses that an angel showed the plates, Urim and Thummim, and other holy objects after the translation. A generous reading might include he saw a non-translation demonstration, misinterpreted what he saw or was misinterpreted about what he said, got frustrated with the resulting discussions, and finally ended up sticking with the stone in the hat to be more consistent.

Another of the Three Witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, always testified the few times he did that the Urim and Thummin found with the plates was the translation instrument. He never mentioned a stone in the hat. One report around 1830 of an interview has him describing Joseph Smith looking on the gold plates engravings with transparent stones in the spectacles, “and afterwords put his face into a hat, and the interpretation flowed into his mind.” (quoted in The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Vol. 1, xxxi-xxxii). It is hard to determine if this was all Oliver Cowdery or a mix from other stories attributed to him. Nothing apparently is put in the hat other than Joseph Smith’s head, and the words come into his mind. There is no other report like this from any other source, even if many of the elements are present. Regardless, there is no dark colored seer stone, with the inclusion of a hat out of the ordinary for all other reported Cowdery statements.

Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses, is perhaps the first to talk with newspapers.It is hard to say early on how much of the very first reports actually came from Martin Harris or Joseph Smith, or the newspaper editorial opinions. They rewrote articles based on the Palmyra Freeman, 11 August 1829 report, with strong hostile slants. The Rochester Advertiser and Daily Telegraph August 31, 1829 article said, “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!’,” that is less than an actual quotation. Another newspaper, Rochester Gem, September 1829, claims to paraphrase Martin Harris. The supposed interview statement reads, “He states that after the third visit from the same spirit in a dream he proceeded to the spot, removed earth, and there found the bible, together with a large pair of spectacles. He had also been directed to let no mortal see them under the penalty of immediate death, which injunction he steadfastly adheres to . . .” What the actual first report said was most likely similar to this one. Both of them, and others that also use the same report, describe the gold plates’ dimensions, engraved hieroglyphics, and placing spectacles in a hat. That last part is not possible considering the descriptions of the size of the spectacles and the white or transparent stones. As explained in another post, this is most likely rumors combined with what believers said.

Another newspaper more local to the events claims to have talked with a few of the Witnesses, including Martin Harris. It writes he stated, “that when he acted as amanuenses, and wrote the translation, as Smith dictated, such was his fear of the Divine displeasure, that a screen (sheet) was suspended between the prophet and himself.” (The Reflector, Palmyra, 19 March 1831). Perhaps it is only a very short quote from a longer explanation Martin Harris gave, but there is no “seer stone” or “hat” present. He couldn’t even see what Joseph Smith was doing because there had to be some kind of cover. In this case, the sheet or screen. The same warnings, although including a hat and not a curtain, were included in the previous reports.

The very hostile 1843 Mormonism Unveiled paraphrases Martin Harris describing the “Urim and Thummim” and the sheet hiding the translation. E.D. Howe claims he was told that, “the presence of the Lord was so great, that a screen was hung up between him and the Prophet,” while at other times Joseph Smith went upstairs with Martin Harris in another room. This does seem to have parallels with the translation change to the Whitmer’s house, after Martin Harris lost the plates and the duty of scribe. The most famous apparent quote of Martin Harris in this book comes from Dr. Charles Anthon who states he was told “This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book.” Of course, how much was the actual words of Martin Harris, or personal paraphrasing is unclear. Regardless, at no time do they mention he talked about a stone in a hat. The book, as previously talked about in another post, wrote of the Urim and Thummim and the stone in the hat as two separate theories of translation. Both of them equally absurd to the author and editor.

By the 1870s Joseph Smith was no longer alive and the old Lost Spaulding Manuscript theory was invigorated. The “Mormons” had split into a large “Utah Church” and smaller Eastern U.S. claimants to the Restoration. The largest of these Eastern offshoots was The Reorganized LDS Church, who sent missionaries to Utah to gain converts. They were relatively successful, making Brigham Young not happy about their presence. He warned the Saints about them with some back and forth verbal hostilities. The “Utah Church” didn’t really care about the Spaulding Manuscript theory and continued to preach the Urim and Thummim translation. Back east the theory gained momentum. Along with it high profile statements about the stone in the hat to counter it and the LDS Church in the west. The past has become prologue as it is still used in an ever growing battle over history.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Taking the Stone Out of the Hat Part 2: A Convenient Inconsistency

Challenging the stone in the hat translation story can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the documents. For every quote supporting the Urim and Thummim as the only instrument used to translate the golden plates, some other quote will be used to justify the stone as at least a companion tool. Anyone with access to the documents will, with time, realize how confusing the whole becomes. These aren't complimentary recitations that can be reconciled. They are at odds with each other; sometimes within the same sources or interviews. Important evidence needs to be examined for context and agendas, and not only quotes, to come at least close to the truth.

Previously the stone in the hat discussion reviewed early recitations of the Book of Mormon translation. Although the hat, or box, or dark place was found in the earliest non-Mormon reports or interviews, they weren’t always included. None of the earliest believing Mormon writings, including Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery who would know the most, mentioned the hat or “seer stone” in any way. Both the earliest reports and the direct statements of early Mormons, yet again including Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, mention Interpreters or white stones in spectacles. Even the earliest accusation of Joseph Smith as a peep stone in a hat money digger doesn’t point to the same instrument in use for the Book of Mormon translation. That doesn’t show up until the 1834 anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unveiled examined the stone in the hat and the Urim and Thummim behind a curtain as two opposing translation theories. The book didn’t consider them one and the same, or that they were interchangeable in the translation process. Both were ridiculed by the author and publisher as equally questionable. The book writers preference was the curtain with the gold plates and Urim and Thummim or spectacles, because it fit the hidden Lost Spaulding Manuscript theory. Those critics who wrote earlier than the book conjectured or accused Joseph Smith of using occultic powers to translate while merely compared the Interpreters or Urim and Thummim to seer stones. Not until the death of Joseph Smith did some former Mormons, including important witnesses to the gold plates and Urim and Thummim, add the seer stone in a hat as part of the translation story.

Considering all the background information that puts the Urim and Thummin as the principle translation device, it might be surprising how prominent for modern Mormons the stone in the hat has become. Before this it was a peculiarity that might have some authentication, but not enough for inclusion in publications and talks. Artwork, although not entirely accurate, stuck with the Prophet Joseph’s and his scribe Oliver Cowdery’s version of translation methods. To wipe out those inaccurate versions of the translation and replace them with even more questionable versions is revisionist history; not sound doctrine.