Margaret J. Stoddard
A New Narrative
Progressive LDS historians are trying to change the historical narrative regarding the translation process. They claim:
- For most of the translation, Joseph Smith used a seer stone which he placed in a hat.
- Joseph obtained his “seer stone” years before he obtained the plates. Before he used his seer stone for translating the gold plates, he used it to find hidden objects and buried treasure.
- The gold plates were not used during most of the translation, but lay covered with a cloth on the table or concealed somewhere in the house, or even outside.
Following the Facts
However, the only two authoritative witnesses of the translation who solely understood the process of translating the Nephite plates, were the Lord, and the Prophet Joseph Smith, the translator. Therefore, it seems logical that we should look to them to know positively how Joseph Smith translated the gold plates, which translation became The Book of Mormon.
The Lord’s teachings on the translation process
The words of the Lord are found in the scriptures. In D&C 10:1-3 the Lord talks about the part of the translation that was lost, because of Martin Harris:
Now behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.
And you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened.
Nevertheless, 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.
The Lord states that Joseph Smith translated “by the means of the Urim and Thummim”.
Here the Lord explains to the Prophet Joseph why his gift to translate was taken from him for a short time, but that it was restored to him. The Lord definitively states that Joseph Smith translated “by the means of the Urim and Thummim,” and he would continue the remainder of the work of translation, “as [he had] begun“, with the Urim and Thummim.
In Doctrine and Covenants Section 17, which revelation came from the Lord “through the Urim and Thummim,” the Lord explains to those who would become the Three Witnesses:
Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.
Here the Lord informs the Three Witnesses that the Urim and Thummim by which Joseph translated the gold plates was the same “Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared.” Then in verse 6 of that section, the Lord declares His witness of Joseph’s translation:
And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true. (D&C 17:6)
The Prophet Joseph Smith on the translation process
The Prophet Joseph Smith gave at least six accounts telling of the translation. One of his accounts was recorded in the Elders’ Journal published July 1838, at Far West, Missouri. The Prophet Joseph Smith answered questions pertaining to the translation of The Book of Mormon. The Prophet stated:
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. 1
Joseph Smith himself wrote his own history, which is included in our scriptures—Joseph Smith History 1. He includes in his narrative the visit of the angel Moroni:
34. He 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—History 1:34-35, 42)
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 “that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
President Joseph Fielding Smith also gave this explanation of the instrument that had been prepared to translate the Book of Mormon in Doctrines of Salvation.
JOSEPH SMITH RECEIVED JAREDITE URIM AND THUMMIM
The people of Limhi brought to Mosiah a record, ‘engraven on plates of ore,’ (Mosiah 21:27) which record Mosiah translated, by the aid of ‘two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow,’ and which gave an account of the Jaredites. (Mosiah 28:11-19)
Joseph Smith received with the breastplate and the plates of the Book of Mormon, the Urim and Thummim, which were hid up by Moroni to come forth in the last days as a means by which the ancient record might be translated, which Urim and Thummim were given to the Brother of Jared.” 2
Another of the Prophet Joseph’s very significant accounts was written to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat, because Joseph wanted to guarantee that a correct version of the coming forth and translation of the Book of Mormon was given, due to all the spurious accounts and rumors circulating. Joseph was assured that his entire version would be published, as he requested, “ungarnished, and without misrepresentation.” The following is part of this account:
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. “ 3
In all of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s accounts regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon, he never varied from his narrative that the gold plates were translated by the gift and power of God, using the Urim and Thummim.
Oliver Cowdery’s understanding of the translation process
Oliver Cowdery was the witness who had the closest relationship to the Prophet Joseph Smith during the translation period, because, as he stated, he was his scribe for all of it “save a few pages.”
Oliver Cowdery wrote a series of eight letters to W.W. Phelps, which are invaluable as they tell of the translation of the Book of Mormon.
This oft-quoted statement is included in one of these letters:
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 “The book of Mormon.” 4
Watch Oliver Cowdery’s testimony, as portrayed in the film “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (1999), produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another oft-quoted account by Oliver Cowdery is his testimony given at a conference held at Council Bluffs, Iowa:
Friends and brethren my name is Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery, In the early history of this Church I stood Identified with her. And [was] one in her councils. . . .
I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the prophet Joseph Smith. As he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book “Holy Interpreters.” I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr [Solomon] Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the prophet.” 5
There are other accounts given by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but these are the most significant.
A careful reading of all of their accounts reveals no information regarding the manner of translating the Book of Mormon, except that it was translated by the gift and power of God by the aid of the Urim and Thummim.
In answering the question, “How did Joseph Smith translate the plates from which the Book of Mormon came forth?” should we not trust what the Lord, Joseph Smith, the translator, and Oliver Cowdery, his scribe, stated over and over again?
Answers to the claims made by progressives LDS historians will be forthcoming in upcoming articles.
- Where did the idea that the Book of Mormon was translated with a seer stone in a hat come from? Did Joseph Smith use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
- Did Joseph Smith use the Urim and Thummim (or Nephite “interpreters”) to translate?
- Did Joseph Smith use the Nephite plates to translate the Book of Mormon?
- Why did President Joseph Fielding Smith believe it was unreasonable to claim that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon?
- and more!
- Answers to Questions, Elders’ Journal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (July 1838): 43.
- Joseph Fielding Smith—Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, 224-225
- Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, March 1, 1842: 707
- Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Messenger and Advocate, October 1834
- Reuben Miller, Journal, October 21, 1848, holograph, microfilm, Church Archives.