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.

Some may wonder why it is important to establish that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery used the Urim and Thummin for the translation exactly as they always explained, and not a seer stone in a hat. Consider the scholar Royal Skousen in his preview book Volume III: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, pg. 22, where he writes Joseph Smith’s translation claims are “only partially true” and Oliver Cowdery “intentionally misleading” even though they are the ones directly involved with the translation. Those are some serious accusations against a Prophet of God and his scribe and mouthpiece.

The incompatibility can be seen with two separate witness statements, who both were at the Whitmer home during part of the Oliver Cowdery portion of the translation. A Utah Mormon Oliver B. Huntington interviewed Sarah "Sally" Conrad in 1897 when she was an old woman. She worked as a servant during the time of translation:
I conversed with one old lady 88 years old who lived with David Whitmer when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were translating the Book of Mormon in upper room of the house, and she, only a girl, saw them come down from the translating room several times, when they looked so exceedingly white and strange that she inquired of Mrs. Whitmer the cause of their unusual appearance, but Mr. Whitmer was unwilling to tell the hired girl, the true cause as it was a sacred holy event connected with a holly sacred work which was opposed and persecuted by nearly every one who heard of it. The girl felt so strange and unusual [about] the appearance, she finally told Mrs. Whitmer that she would not stay with her until she knew the cause of the strange looks of these men. Sister Whitmer then told her what the men were doing in the room above and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly endure it; at times angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them. This satisfied the girl and opened the way to embrace the gospel. (quoted in the Improvement Era 1970, April 1970, pg. 21)
On the other hand, William E. McLellen claimed the widow of Oliver Cowdery, Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, gave him an 1870 affidavit. It reads:
I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith’s translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father’s house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read?] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him. (cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, pgs. 233-34)
There are noticeable differences between the two witness statements. The description of Sarah Conrad’s is not an ordinary experience that allows for watchful spectators. It includes a holy transformation of the men and visits by angels. Hers wasn’t, and in context no one beyond those directly involved with translation could be, a first hand witness. The Elizabeth Cowdery version has no supernatural or religious elements to it other than the translation. She could come and go any time without any spiritual presence. To be accurate, she mentions a “director” that could be interpreted both as one of the Interpreters or a common seer stone. Either source can be used as evidence, but it takes a lot of twisting to have them conform to each other.

Before moving forward, it needs to be clarified that at no time was the Urim and Thummim confused for the seer stone in the hat, even if the hat was mentioned. No one, other than David Whitmer after he was constantly questioned, ever considered them interchangeable names. When the "Urim and Thummim" is mentioned it was meant the two white stones in a spectacle buried with the gold plates. Modern historians and some Saints have made the assumption that earlier writers used them interchangeably. However, it is the moderns that confuse the Urim and Thummim with the seer stone in order to reconcile desperate views on the Book of Mormon translation; and their view of Joseph Smith. This can be demonstrated with the Joseph Knight reminiscence years after his friend Joseph Smith’s death:
After breakfast Joseph called me into the other room and he set his foot on the bed, and leaned his head on his hand and said, "Well I am disappointed." "Well," say I, "I am sorry." "Well," says he, "I am greatful disappointed; it is ten times better than I expected." Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates, and said he, "they appear to be gold." But he seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates, for, says he, "I can see anything; they are marvelous. Now they are written in characters and I want them translated."
Here is Joseph Knight claiming a direct quote from Joseph Smith about what he was given by the Lord for translation. He writes about "the glasses" and then explains with adding "or" that he means the Urim and Thummim. The recollection goes on to say Joseph Smith was told to show no one "those things" unless granted by God to be a witness. Later in the document Joseph Knight explains the translation process as he understands it:
Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummmim into his hat and darkened his eyes. Then he would take a sentence and it would appear in bright Roman letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. (Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History, Dean Jesse, 1976)
He goes on to say when the words were written down, the next words would appear until satisfied. This would continue for each section of words. Compared to the first quoted part of Joseph Knight’s recollection, this is not said directly by Joseph Smith. It is also important to note that Joseph Knight was not, and could not be, a direct witness of the translation. He and everyone else was not allowed by God to see the gold plates or Urim and Thummim unless given exact permission. He was told by someone, but it can’t be determined who gave the description. It would be out of character for Joseph Smith to describe the translation in this way. Joseph Smith at no time so much as mentions a hat in the translation process. In other words, this is all heresy. Despite that, we can know that when Joseph Knight says Urim and Thummim, he doesn't mean seer stone. It was established earlier that the Urim and Thummim was the glasses with the plates. Joseph Smith was very excited about them. It would be hard to imagine him replacing them to use an inferior product.

More than anyone else, David Whitmer is the person who spread the stone in the hat theory of translation the most. David Whitmer was one of the three witnesses to the gold plates and Urim and Thummim as shown by an Angel. His testimony is fixed with Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris to the published translation of the Book of Mormon. During the Kirtland years he had a serious disagreement with Joseph Smith and the Church, leading to his ex-communication. Long after Joseph Smith died he began interviewing with news reporters. His most famous quoted version of the translation comes from An Address to All Believers in Christ, an 1887 pamphlet critical of Joseph Smith and the Utah Church. He argues that there was no Spaulding manuscript present to copy, and then explains:
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.
This is far from the first time he described how the translation of the Book of Mormon took place. One of the very first interviews seems to be a traditional description. The interviewer is “I” and “He” is David Whitmer in a question and answer format:
I–Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim when he translated? He–The Urim and Thummim were two white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find it in spectacles. Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Emma and my brother John each at different times wrote for Joseph as he translated. ( P. Wilhelm Poulson, Deseret Evening News, August 16, 1878).
On the surface it seems a direct statement, but there is some hesitation. He describes the Urim and Thummim and who participated in writing for Joseph Smith as a scribe. However, he doesn’t give a yes or no answer. The reader is left inferring from his words the answer to the question. Perhaps this is because the interview comes from a Utah Mormon newspaper. There were at least a hundred sermons in Salt Lake City that preached the translation using the Urim and Thummim with the gift and power of God. None of them hinted at other methods, and would sometimes be in response to those who said otherwise.

Interview responses by David Whitmer over the 1870s and 1880s were full of discrepancies and historical inaccuracies. Sometimes he would claim it was a seer stone and other times the two white stones attached to spectacles. Perhaps it could be blamed on a misunderstanding of the reporters, but there were times the discrepancies happened within the same interview, such as this 1885 example:
In order to give privacy to the proceeding a blanket, which served as a portière, was stretched across the family living room to shelter the translators and the plates from the eyes of any who might call at the house while the work was in progress. This, Mr. Whitmer says, was the only use made of the blanket, and it was not for the purpose of concealing the plates or the translator from the eyes of the amanuensis. In fact, Smith was at no time hidden from his collaborators, and the translation was performed in the presence of not only the persons mentioned, but of the entire Whitmer household and several of Smith’s relatives besides. The work of translating the tablets consumed about eight months, Smith acting as the seer and Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s wife, and Christian Whitmer, brother of David, performing the duties of amanuenses, in whose handwriting the original manuscript now is. Each time before resuming the work all present would kneel in prayer and invoke the Divine blessing on the proceeding. After prayer Smith would sit on one side of a table and the amanuenses, in turn as they became tired, on the other. Those present and not actively engaged in the work seated themselves around the room and then the work began. After affixing the magical spectacles to his eyes, Smith would take the plates and translate the characters one at a time. The graven characters would appear in succession to the seer, and directly under the character, when viewed through the glasses, would be the translation in English.
According to this the plates and the spectacles make an appearance, and they are not hidden. The blanket is only to keep visitors from viewing the “proceeding” of the translation. Of course, it is well established that no one other than divinely appointed witnesses would be allowed to see those objects. Destruction would be the punishment for both Joseph Smith and anyone who saw them. This same interview goes on to say:
. . . Smith’s offense of tattling the secrets of the work among his neighbors was less readily condoned [than Harris losing the 116 pages], and for a long time the work was suspended, the angel being in possession of the plates and spectacles. Finally, when Smith had fully repented of his rash conduct, he was forgiven. The plates, however, were not returned, but instead Smith was given by the angel a Urim and Thummim of another pattern, it being shaped in oval or kidney form. This seer’s stone he was instructed to place in his hat, and on covering his face with the hat the character and translation would appear on the stone.(“The Book of Mormon,” Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1885, 3).
Telling the story of Joseph Smith losing both the plates and the Urim and Thummin at the end completely contradicts the first part. It could be the reporter filling in what they understood was the history. The language used is uncommon to David Whitmer, but this is how he often described the reason for Joseph Smith using a seer stone in a hat.

Arguments back and forth questioned what David Whitmer claimed he had seen with the translation. Whitmer would say he didn’t actually see Joseph Smith use the Urim and Thummim (fair enough), with other interviewers arguing they clearly heard him say he did. The more he interviewed over the years, the more the stone in the hat became the primary translation device. In at least one reported interview there is frustration about the question of exactly what Joseph Smith used to translate and his own version:
Joseph was separated from the scribe by a blanket, as I remember; that he had the Urim and Thummim, and a chocolate colored stone, which he used alternately, as suited his convenience, and he said he believed Joseph could as well accomplish the translation by looking into a hat, or any other stone, as by the use of the Urim and Thummim or the chocolate colored stone. David expressed absolute faith in the Prophet’s power to get any information he desired, and by any means he should adopt for the purpose. I mean he appeared to have absolute faith in the Prophet’s power with God, to get any information he wished for. And he did not think that either the Urim and Thummim or the stone he had were essential, or absolutely essential, to the obtaining of the information. (Nathan A. Tanner Jr. to Nathan A. Tanner, February 17, 1909, photocopy of typescript, 5, Church Archives. May 1886 intervew)
If this can be assumed a reasonably accurate interview, it goes against David Whitmer’s other versions where Joseph Smith translated in front of other people and the Urim and Thummim never given back. It goes on to say Joseph Smith would look at the plates through the Urim and Thummim or a stone, without mentioning a hat introduced earlier. A group calling themselves Joseph Smith Foundation has an article that questions David Whitmer as a translation witness to the Book of Mormon. He was never one of the scribes. They do make a few mistakes, such as ignoring the time when David Whitmer tried to correct “sun stone” to read “seer stone” in an article. Overall, the article does make a good case that he is not the best source of translation information. Even a member of what was previously called The Reorganized LDS Church once agreed with that assessment:
The statements of David Whitmer in his pamphlet are palpable and plain contradictions of the accepted facts of history. . . . I feel impressed to admonish those who are boosting the “Seer Stone” theory, that one sure way of destroying the value of testimony is to have the witness cross himself, thereby impeaching his own evidence, and thus have their testimony thrown out of court as not reliable. (M. Elvin,The Saints’ Herald, May 12, 1888)
For those who want to believe David Whitmer is telling some version of the truth, without believing Joseph Smith used the stone in the hat, there is a possible solution. Researcher Jonathan Neville, in his book A Man That Can Translate, explores the theory that what really happened was a set of demonstrations. Because Joseph Smith was forbidden to show the plates and Urim and Thummim, he was left using a stone in a hat to approximate the translation process. Some of the witnesses to the demonstration came away believing they were present for the actual translation of the Book of Mormon. This wouldn’t be the first time Joseph Smith used an object lesson, with a ring representing eternity his most famous example. What the stone in hat observers were shown and the explanation became one and the same.

The idea that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim and gold plates for the actual translation and the stone in the hat for an example is not new. At least one of the interviewers of David Whitmer, Zenus H. Gurley implied this idea. He reviewed the history of the Urim and Thummim anciently, the loss and return of it to Joseph Smith for use in translation, and remarks of David Whitmer to himself and others. He recalls from his own David Whitmer interview:
In January 1885, the writer visited Elder David Whitmer at Richmond, Missouri, and among other questions asked: "Were the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated in Joseph Smith's possession while translating, and seen and handled by several different persons? If not, where were they? Answer: "I do not know." Question: Did you see the Urim and Thummim? Answer: "I saw the Interpreters in the holy vision; they looked like whitish stones put in the rim of a bow; looked like spectacles only much larger." Question: Had you seen the plates at any time before the angel showed them to you? Answer: "No."
His answers to the questions are vague, but it seems historically accurate. By the Lord’s very command no one was allowed to see the plates or any other item deposited with them unless given permission. Revelations to Joseph Smith, and early interview reports with Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, corroborate this fact. Gurley goes on to state:
Joseph Smith declares that he soon found out why he had received such strict charges from the angel, as "every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to," to get the plates and Urim and Thummim away from him, even endangering his life, for that reason on the one hand, and still greater on the other--that no person except permitted by command of God should view them. That Joseph had another stone called seers' stone, and "peep stone," is quite certain. This stone was frequently exhibited to different ones and helped to assuage their awful curiosity; but the Urim and Thummim never, unless possibly to Oliver Cowdery . . . (Zenas H. Gurley, "The Book of Mormon," Autumn Leaves 5, 1892)
He doesn’t come out and state the theory that Joseph Smith used a seer stone as a demonstration object. However, in the context of the rest of his article such a use of them can be implied. He spends the entire time talking about and explaining the Urim and Thummim, never more than once mentioning the seer stone. When it is named, the seer stone is used as an exhibit to help “assuage their awful curiosity” because the real items couldn’t be displayed.

There are many considerations that can refute this theory, mostly because of how much David Whitmer changed his story. Martin Harris, one of the Book of Mormon scribes, and Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, can be counter sources to the demonstration theory. Although Jonathan Neville deals with both of them in his book, it seems he mostly proves they too were inconsistent with their versions of the Book of Mormon translation. Perhaps they used the demonstration, if it arguably happened, for their own agenda advantage. It could also be they were just plain not telling the truth. They will be discussed at a later time.

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