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.

Considering the “Mormon sect wars” and the Spaulding Manuscript theory, Emma Smith’s 1870 letter to Emma S. Pilgram can be understood in historical context. It reads:
Now the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost. After that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color.
The letter she is responding to is no longer available. Speculation about what the letter said is the best that can be done. Surely, the letter asked about the translation of T>he Book of Mormon, and Emma related what she knew. Emma’s letter does not stop there, but goes on to say:
I cannot tell whether that account in the Times and Seasons is correct or not because some one stole all my books and I have none to refer to at present, if I can find one that has that account I will tell you what is true and what is not.(quoted from A Man That Can Translate, Johnathan Neville, pg. 147-148).
Whatever the article she is referring to, she wants to compare the two versions of translation. She is not sure about her own recital of events. She could be recounting her own remembered experience, or what the current narrative is for that time. It seems her letter is ambiguous about the accuracy.

The apostate William E. McLellin latched on to stone in the hat soon after this letter was written. He went much father than Emma Smith did and declared there never was a Urim and Thummim. In an 1872 letter to Joseph Smith III, he wrote, “Now all L.D.Sism claims that Joseph Smith translated the Book with Urim and Thummim, when he did not even have or retain the Nephite or Jaredite Interpreters, but translated the entire Book of M. by means of a small stone.” He went on to say he had certificates or testimony from E. A. Cowdery, Martin Harris, Emma Smith (Bidamon), John Whitmer, and David Whitmer. He claimed, “The Urim was never on the Continent.” (Larson and Passey, Editors, The William E. McLellin Papers 1854-1880, pg. 492-493). Soon after this, the stone in the hat started appearing in the above listed individual's interviews. The Urim and Thummim was at times named as at least present for some of the translation. Other times the only tool was the stone in the hat. What was once understood, even by William E. McLellin, as translation with the Urim and Thummim by the Power of God had become the old stone in the hat opposing theory.

David Whitmer was a willing participant and probably influenced Martin Harris and Emma Smith to confirm. They were about 40 years from the translation and didn’t have first hand experience of anything other than living at the translation location. They often claimed Joseph Smith couldn’t be reading off a manuscript because they, thanks to the stone in the hat narrative, were watching him too closely. At the same time they could point to the narrative and challenge the authority of the “Utah Church” just like William E. McLellen. David Whtimer didn’t like the “Utah Church” because he questioned their authority, Martin Harris seemed to not want to cause friction, and Emma Smith wanted to protect her son. Others probably stepped in to support them when the stone in the hat narrative became contested.

Emma Smith’s Last Testimony is used the most as a major stone in the hat source. Her son Joseph Smith III interviewed her. Famously she wrote about how she would move the covered golden plates around the room when cleaning, often leafing them like a book. She said about the translation:
. . . 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 . . . . . . And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, "a marvel and a wonder," as much so as to anyone else.
This would seem an open and shut case, but it is more likely a way to argue against the Spaulding Manuscript theory than historical. Her words “wrote day after day” is similar to Oliver Cowdery’s Times and Seasons recital of the Restoration of the Church. Evidence in the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon doesn’t indicate she wrote much of the transcript; especially if day after day and hour after hour. Probably the most glaring problem with the letter as a whole is her claim that, “There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives,” and, “He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have,” (Saints Herold, Oct. 1, 1879). these statements are certainly not true. They caused an uproar in Utah with Brigham Young and no less than Eliza R.Snow both questioning if these were her real words, and condemning her if they were. No one seemed to mention her seer in the stone narrative, but polygamy was a far more pressing issue. The Utah LDS Church continued to preach the Urim and Thummim, paying no attention to anything else she said. More generous interpretations have her telling the truth with the use of carefully selected words. Perhaps the same can be said about the stone in the hat, where she isn’t exact on when, where, and what Joseph Smith actually translated. No matter what consideration, the history in the letter is suspect as full disclosure.

Martin Harris has at times the same, if not worse, problem with telling a straight story about the Book of Mormon translation. Emma Smith once and David Whitmer many times both claim Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim until he lost the 116 pages. Martin Harris lengthens the time Joseph Smith used the seer stone in a hat back to when he was the scribe. Like David Whitmer, he isn’t always consistent with the timeline. In an early source Martin Harris is said to explain:
The way that Smith made his transcripts and transcriptions for Harrris was the following. Although in the same room, a thick curtain or blanket was suspended between them, and Smith concealed behind, pretended to look through his spectacles, or transparent stones, and would then write down or repeat what he saw, which when repeated aloud, was written down by Harris, who sat on the other side of the suspended blanket. (Gleanings By the Way, John A. Clark, 1842, pg. 230-31)
Many years later, despite some of the strange stories that were quoted by Joel Tiffany in an interview, Martin Harris states:
Joseph did not dig for these plates. They were placed in this way: four stones were set up and covered with a flat stone, oval on the upper side and flat on the bottom. Beneath this was a little platform upon which the plates were laid; and the two stones set in a bow of silver by means of which the plates were translated, were found underneath the plates. . . . The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that "no man could see God and live," and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind. And beside, we had a command to let no man look into them, except by the command of God, lest he should "look aught and perish." ( Tiffany's Monthly, Mormonims II, 1859)
Notice that, other than a slight change in the color scheme, the "Urim and Thummim" is listed as the only instrument used in the translation. It might be an error either on the part of Martin Harris or the reporter, but there is discrepancies about finding the plates. He first said that by the seer stone he found the gold plates and then later as quoted above that he did not dig for them. The implication of "not dig for these plates" is the seer stone wasn't used to find them. Most of his stories here about a seer stone seem to be a need to increase his own credibility and quotability. It is a mix up of folk tales told about Joseph Smith, a mistreatment of the Josiah Stowell dig, and his own need to try and prove Joseph Smith didn't deceive him. More could be said about the problems with the seer stone elements of the interview, but they aren't as important compared to his translation statements. Whatever was said, the seer stone was not the same item as the spectacles. And the two stones were used for the translation.

The most famous quote of Martin Harris is the one used as proof that Joseph Smith used a stone in the hat. After moving to Utah and re-baptized, he says in a sermon:
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 then used the seer stone . . . Martin said that after continued translation they would become weary and would go down to the river and excercise in throwing stones out on the river, etc. While doing so on one occasion, Martin found a stone very much resembling the one used for translating, and on resuming their labors of translation Martin put in place the stone that he had found. He said that the Prophet remained silent unusually and intently gazing in darkness, no trace of the usual sentences appearing. Much surprised Joseph exclaimed: "Martin, What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt." Martin's countenance betrayed him, and the Prophet asked Martin why he had done so. Martin said, to stop the fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them, etc. (Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881)
It seems strange that Joseph Smith would use such a common stone in translation when he had the God provided Urim and Thummim, or by another name Nephite Interpreters. There would be nothing more convenient than a Holy Item. Anything less would have to be, by definition, not Holy or sanctified. Besides, this goes against both Emma Smith and David Whitmer who said the stone was used after Martin Harris lost the 116 page manuscript. Also, it goes against everything that Martin Harris was quoted as describing in all his other accounts. He mentioned a seer stone in one other major interview, but he doesn’t connect it to the translation. The Urim and Thummin, even if discolored with streaks as is claimed in that interview, is the translation instrument. Here is actually the first time the stone is mentioned by him as a translation device.

The event of the seer stone switch can still be true, but with some revision to the usual understanding. How much is memory and how much is embellishment cannot be fully known. He might have switched a stone with an assumed seer stone Joseph Smith had in his possession at this time. Martin Harris grabbed a similar looking stone and tested if that was what Joseph Smith used, instead of the claimed stones in the Spectacles. Recognizing almost immediately what Martin Harris had done, Joseph Smith went along with the trick. He acted as if something terrible had happened to ease Martin Harris’ curiosity. They had a good laugh and let the incident rest, at least until Martin Harris remembered it some forty years later. This continues the theme of Martin Harris’ longer interviews of giving evidence he wasn’t deceived. He might also have used this story to try and ease the relationship between the “Utah Church” he rejoined and his break-off friends in the East. It “conveniently” answers the question if the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone was used in the translation by saying both whenever Joseph Smith wanted.

Another bit of information from the sermon is that he made sure to make clear that the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone were not the same. He states, “the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates . . .” He describes the Urim and Thummim as two stones in a pair of Spectacles. The seer stone was apparently darker colored. With the exception of David Whitmer on at least one occasion in his ongoing seer stone in a hat crusade, none of the more valid claimants confused the two kinds of instruments. It is equally likely no one else of importance to the discussion did either.

The person who put the Book of Mormon together for printing, John H. Gilbert, many years after this sermon recalled what Martin Harris told him:
Martin was the main spoke in the wheel of Mormonism in its start in Palmyra, and I may say, the only spoke. In the fall of 1827, he told us what wonderful discoveries Jo [Joseph] Smith had made, and of his finding plates in a hill in the town of Manchester (three miles south of Palmyra), --also found with the plates a large pair of "spectacles," by putting which on his nose and looking at the plates, the spectacles turned the hieroglyphics into good English. The question might be asked here whether Jo [Joseph] or the spectacles was the translator? (Recollections of John H. Gilbert, 8 September 1892, Palmyra, New York, typescript, BY)
Despite more than 40 years after the events, John H. Gilbert's recollection of the publication is considered remarkably accurate to what the Orignal Manuscript indicates. There is no reason to believe his recollection of Martin Harris' statement is any less accurate, even with sarcasm. The year of 1827 is a little off, but could be referencing when the plates were found. At any rate, there is no mention of the seer stone in a hat for convenience. The details of this report are often ignored by those who like other explanations of the translation.

Joseph Smith possessing a “dark colored” seer stone, if any at all, is debatable. Any mention of a valid stone is related to the one found in Revelation 2:17 that is white in color. According to Doctrine and Covenants 130:10, it will become a Urim and Thummim to each person who receives one. Ex-Mormon Ezra Booth accuses the whole of the “Mormonites” in an 1831 letter of using a “dark glass” used for the translation to also search for treasure. In the same paragraph he says they did find the treasure and then that they were unsuccessful in finding the treasure (Ezra Booth to Rev. I. Eddy, Ohio Star, October 24, 1831). Except for that, all other pre-1834 accounts describe one or two white stones or the Spectacles that would have them included. At no time has a Prophet or Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its founding until today testified that Joseph Smith used any other instrument than the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates to translate. Joseph Fielding Smith who became Prophet like his father Joseph F. Smith who was the son of Hyrum Smith, and served for 69 years as LDS Church historian, wrote:
“While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet 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. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether 3:22–24. These stones, the Urim and Thummim which were given to the Brother of Jared, were preserved for this very purpose of translating the record, both of the Jaredites and the Nephites. Then again the Prophet was impressed by Moroni with the fact that these stones were given for that very purpose. It hardly seems reasonable to suppose that the Prophet would substitute something evidently inferior under these circumstances. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, 225-26)
Remember that no one other than Joseph Smith, and probably Oliver Cowdery, ever translated the gold plates. To see the Urim and Thummim and gold plates without permission of God was instant death; for both Joseph Smith and the viewer. He might have shown a seer stone to help others understand the translation process, but it is highly unlikely one was used for actual translation. Certainly the two who should know the most, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, mentioned only one instrument (the Urim and Thummim, or Nephite Interpreters). Joseph Smith’s testimonies, as there are several, that he was given the Urim and Thummim found with the plates to translate should be a top consideration. Even Martin Harris was faithful, until a comment in his later years, to the Urim and Thummim as the only instrument in the translation.

Those who want to continue believing the stone in a hat as a legitimate means of translating The Book of Mormon should be cautious. David Whitmer admits that he did not see the Urim and Thummim or the gold plates until an angel showed them, and wasn’t even a scribe. Whatever he experienced before then, he certainly didn’t look into a stone himself and do any translating. Like him, too many academics are sidelining the Nephite Interpreters (later called a Urim and Thummim) and thrusting forward the unauthorized dark stone theory. Martin Harris was a scribe who didn’t see them until the angel showed them after the translation. He too relied on the words of Joseph Smith, whatever they were, as to how the translation happened. Maybe he did believe the stone in a hat during the scribe years. If so, he was very consistent in describing what can only be the Urim and Thummim, until a talk in Utah with an amusing story. Emma Smith was there the whole time, but she never until later years wrote anything about the experience. More interesting is a lack of records that she was ever shown the Urim and Thummim or the gold plates. What she did write was ambiguous, deflecting, and loyal to her son. She said the translation was as marvelous to her as anyone.

Joseph Smith, his mother Lucy Mack Smith, and Oliver Cowdery testified many times only that the Urim and Thummim used to translate the gold plates. No other means were mentioned and possibly implied to be refuted. The second and main scribe Oliver Cowdery was supposed to have had the seer stone, with his wife passing it on. the Doctrine and Covenants chapters 8 and 9 hints he might have translated for a very short time. If so, he would know more than anyone other than Joseph Smith how the translation took place. Every statement of his testifies of the Urim and Thummim or the Nephite Interpreters. Never is it written that he mentioned or displayed a seer stone. Leadership of the main body of Saints in Utah who lived during Joseph Smith's life testified, and there were those who knew Joseph Smith personally, that the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates was used in the translation. They gave no hint there were other instruments and did not confuse them with other stones. Sometimes these testimonies were in response to David Whtimer and others who spoke of the stone in the hat. It would be wise to once again celebrate the Urim and Thummim, and put the stone in the hat back where it belongs as speculative.