Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon scholars debate Joseph Smith’s role in translation

Faith Matters Foundation

L to R: Jared Hickman, Sam Brown, Jana Riess, Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, and Rosalynde Frandsen Welch.


In March I was privileged to be part of a conference at USU on “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation,” taking on some of the latest scholarship on Smith’s role in translating the Book of Mormon and other sacred works. (That’s me templing my fingers in the center of the photo, as if to say, “Bwahaha. Everything with this conference is going according to plan.”)

The videos from the various sessions of the conference are now being uploaded to the website of Faith Matters, the foundation that sponsored the discussion. So you can hear papers by Richard Bushman (who is speaking in the  photo), Terryl Givens, Sam Brown, and Jared Hickman; there are also responses by Roslaynde Frandsen Welch and yours truly.

If you’d like to receive updates as the videos are made available, you can sign up to do that here.

One of the things I appreciated most about the conference was that everyone came at the topic from their own area of expertise–Richard as a historian; Terryl, Rosalynde, and Jared as literature scholars; Sam from his POV as an ICU physician who deals daily with life and death. (He connects that to the translation of the Book of Mormon. I can’t do the argument justice; you just have to hear it for yourself.)

At the end of the day, no one had come up with a Grand Unified Theory about how Joseph Smith translated, but we had raised some important issues that show the inadequacies of the old model (Smith translating from one language to another without any of his own input, or what Skousen called the “tight control” model). Lots of interesting questions arose:

  • What would a “loose control” model look like? How much of Joseph is in this text?
  • What is the significance of the BOM’s atemporality, or its tendency to regard chronological time as irrelevant? (Jared’s paper is especially keen on this question.)
  • And why, if it took Joseph four arduous years to get hold of the plates from which he could translate the Book of Mormon, did he not use them in actually translating the Book of Mormon? As Rosalynde put it, were the plates merely like Dumbo’s feather, empowering Joseph psychologically in some way? Or were they more — and if so, what?

Like I said, it was a privilege to be part of this. Everyone who presented (including Philip Barlow, who organized the conference) is a faithful member of the LDS Church, trying to understand Mormon history and scripture through a more expansive lens of what translation means. We have more questions than we have answers, which is an honest position to adopt here at the beginning of these efforts. Let’s hope there are many more discussions to come.



About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • Oops–looks like you forgot to complete the sentence on that final bullet point: “As Rosalynde put it, were the plates like” …?

  • He did use the plates for translation…. He read off of them with the seer stones and translated it to English…. You said if it took him four arduous years to get the plates why didn’t he use them in translation????

  • Am I the only person who thought this article was intended as humor? Because it sure struck me as funny!

    All of these swirls of debate, contention, and even expertise (!) on a subject that is based upon one glaring assumption underpinning everything, and for which there is absolutely no proof whatsoever:

    That whatever Joe produced, that it was a translation of ANYTHING! Yes, he claimed it was. Yes, there were those golden plates, the EXISTENCE of which was attested to my witnesses, but certainly, not their contents, which were not translated then. And he didn’t use the plates in the translation. Yes, witnesses saw him with Harry Potter and the magic hat– sorry, getting my stories confused– and he said he was translating, but there is no proof he was doing that, either. We have no idea what was on the plates, let alone if joe translated it loosely or tightly, let alone if joe just warn’t spinnin’ a yarn.

    Ok. I’m done.

  • Jana – has anyone discussed or contrasted the title page of the Book of Mormon to the rest of the text?
    Joseph Smith’s comment from History of the Church makes it explicit that the title-page is a literal translation (perhaps leaving open the door that the rest of the book is not purely literal?). Thanks for this – I eagerly await the other videos.

  • Nathan, you are misunderstanding what that article is saying. I will give Joseph’s OWN words-

    Joseph smith In Book of Mormon- “By this
    timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and February.

    Letter to James Arlington Bennet, 13 November 1843

    truth is a matter of fact— and the fact is, that by the power of God I translated the book of Mormon from hieroglyphics;
    (Off of what? The plates)

    Joseph Smith
    1832. [Martin Harris] imediately came to Su[s]quehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to new York City with some of the c[h]aracters so we proceeded to coppy some of them and he took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the blates [plates] they would read it but the Lord had fobid it and he returned to me and gave them to translate and I said [I] cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prop[h]icy of Isah was fulfilled. (History, circa Summer 1832;

    Joseph Smith

    1838. Moroni, who deposited the plates 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. (History of the Church, 3:28)

    He used the plates in conjunction with the seer stones. They went hand in hand. Bruce r mcconkie discredited those references that article you recerenced, uses in his Book of Mormon translation talk, saying that Emma Smith’s account and David Whitmers accounts are inaccurate and false of him looking into the hat and only using the Seer stones etc because 1.) they were given 30 to 50 years after and 2.) both had apostatized and had bitter feelings towards a lot of Joseph’s doctrines that God restored through him. If you read in D&C The plates and stones were given together, used together, and were taken away together when he gave the 116 pages of manuscript to Martin Harris when he was translating.

  • Ughh, we are a gullible people. Golden tablets and seer stones,…wonder if somebody could get away with that now in the 21st century?

  • The plates were used to translate the first 100 Pages which were subsequently lost by Martin Harris. From that oint on, Joseph Smith did not use the Plates for any of the translation but rather use the Stones. This means that the entirety of the Book of Mormon we process today was translated via seerstone without the use of the plates.

  • So not only we do not know if the translation was a translation, but we also don’t actually know if it was a translation of the plates.

  • So much for a “lively yet respectful and edifying discussion.” Interesting thing is the Book of Mormon is the only book on earth of which people can write a critique without reading.

    BTW, the use of the name “Joe” was only used by those who killed him and drove my ancestors out of the country at the point of a bayonet (raped women and girls, burned houses and farms, etc). I’m sorry that this type of rhetoric still exists – it saddens me that or tolerance for other’s religions hasn’t progressed much since 1846.

  • Persecution complex much?

    “the Book of Mormon is the only book on earth of which people can write a critique without reading.”
    Many decreed the Harry Potter books to be evil, demonic etc. based on their non-reading of any of them, some will tell you how every word in the Bible is true without having read many of them etc. etc. . I suspect many of those who condemn “Mein Kampf” or the “little red book”) haven’t read them – doesn’t make their point of view invalid does it?

    As to tolerance – if people” tolerated” everything we’d still be permitting slavery, having public executions and discriminating against those whose sexual orientation is different to ours (ooops – twoish out of three?). If people don’t speak out against that which they perceive to be bad, be it harmful at the personal, local, national or global levels we would (nearly) all be much worse off, physically and mentally. Surely we all have a responsibility to speak out against ideas that we consider silly and harmful, just as those who hold them should be allowed to defend those ideas.

    Toleration does not mean not criticising – it actually means the endurance of pain (mental or physical) – there is no real or implicit commitment within that to not trying (respectfully where appropriate) to escape the pain.

  • Good points on the meaning of tolerance. Too often we have discussions using words that often have different meanings for the participants.

  • A friend asked me what I learned in church and I told him about a biblical story of Joseph in Egypt and when I was done he turned and told me, “You Mormons are weird.” I think that makes my point. The question is… what is the difference in criteria between what you do belive, and what you don’t? How do you make the distinction? Is it tradition? Is it familiarity with the good parts of your system but ignorance of the good parts of others? What is the criteria you use?

  • For my LDS friends, I am curious about one issue Jana alludes to:
    How does the new understanding of the origin of the Book of Mormon that the church has now, change they way its read?
    The new understanding of the Book of Mormon that we have is that it was revealed into the mind of Joseph Smith as he looked at a seer stone. One person receiving revelation at one time. This is very different from an understanding of the Book of Mormon as revealed to many Prophets, in ancient times, written, with significant editing and transmission, and subsequent reading and translation by Joseph Smith.
    How does this different understanding change the way the book should be read and interpreted? I ask because I read it shortly before the new understanding of the origin of the Book of Mormon.

  • Apparently, joe was able to give a translation of that book without actually ever having read it, or even having it front of him. amazing.

    Puts a totally different light on things, doesn’t it?

  • Bang on. I’m going to borrow a bit of this to respond to someone else on a different topic– why people who are not Christian should have a thing to say on the christian attitude towards gay people.

  • Facts, logic, and experience. But ultimately, you make a decision on whether those are sufficiently convincing.

  • I don’t think anyone could base a new religion on a resurrection that happened yesterday either…guess that’s progress?…But maybe a zombie apocalypse TV show.

  • Do theologians in other faiths who discuss any number of metaphysical topics similarly waste their time?

  • Um, what references do you have to sustain that? There is no evidence that sustains that. The Joseph Smith history as told by Lucy Mac Smith his mother says otherwise. And I am going to believe her and him more than your opinion. Because if he only used them as you stated then why didnt Moroni keep the plates? Why did he give them back to Joseph after the 116 pages of manuscript if joseph didn’t need them or use them? The moment translation was done and Joseph didn’t have any use for them they were taken as Joseph Smith stated when he gave them back to the possession of Moroni. God wasn’t going to give him the plates for no reason and let him keep them for no reason through translation. Moroni gave them to him for a purpose and God let him keep them through translation until the book of Mormon was translated off of them. The book of Mormon even states how the plates were needed to be translated off of them for the benefit of their brothers the Lamanites.

  • I don’t know that these scholars reject the fundamental assumptions of the first model, just secondary assumptions. That is, I don’t think most (if any) of these people reject the notion that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets on gold plates that Joseph Smith actually had possession of. The real shift is the way of thinking how it got from those plates onto paper in English.

  • Sure they do. Every argument they make for the the truth of their own faith vs. the falsity of other faiths is such an argument,

    Bet let’s look at it another way. If Someone told you I was sleeping with your wife, you would demand evidence of that. If you told me of the accusation, I would First demand evidence that you have a wife, second evidence that I knew her, and finally, the evidence that I slept with her. but since I am a gay man, I would know that every bit of it is false. If I told you that, and you still insisted that I had slept with your wife because another person had told you so, I would rightly show you the door,

  • Sometimes we miss the forest because of the trees. The Book of Mormon is a revealed book of scripture. God can choose any way he wants to reveal His mind, His will, & His words through His prophets to us. The literal mechanics of the process of one revelation vs. another is irrelevant. The “proof” comes only to those who (after reading and pondering The Book of Mormon), pray, with sincere hearts, with faith in Christ, and with real intent – to our Father in Heaven and ask if it is true. That person will then – in the Lord’s way and on the Lord’s timetable – receive an answer to his/her prayer. I know. I did and continue to receive the sweet confirmation from the Holy Spirit that the book is true. I invite others to follow the words in Moroni 10:3-5, near the back of The Book of Mormon and learn for themselves. Peace.

  • Right, I understand your argument, but the purpose of this conference wasn’t to convince the non-believer to believe. It was a group of believers operating under a common assumption. I don’t walk into a conference of astrophysicists discussing the effects of a black hole on distortions in space-time and demand that, in that conference, they prove the existence of both black holes and space-time.

  • Personal choice has to exist before anyone can be right or wrong. I am less concerned with what someone’s belief system is than if that belief makes them closer to God. Doubt is for faith, what fear is for courage… it isn’t a lack of opposition that makes courage what it is. It’s what we do when we only have evidence that make faith what it is. In some ways, courage and faith are the same thing. Proof doesn’t require courage or a belief in anything bigger than us. Now, I get that as a story it’s pretty unusual… but religion is usually like that. I had a friend who thought I was weird because I believed a bible story, and he was a Christian too! I care more about the ultimate effect on people than how they get there, as long as they are doing their best to do the right things along the way. I dont call other belief systems down for their differences, but I try to build on common ground and see where our interests can create a win-win. For all the good other churches have been in building hospitals and so many other things, we wouldn’t be where we are today without them. All of them. Even the ones I disagree with. Even some that have long since died out.

  • I am far less concerned about people’s belief systems than I am about what they do with them. As a gay man, and later as an atheist, I have been concerned about that my entire life. As for doing the right thing– I’m not saying this is you– “doing the right thing” has resulted in centuries of attacks on gay people for the crime of existing, and the Mormon Church is far from exempt in this matter of the number of bodies antigay theology has left in its wake.

  • Except all of my life “The Church” has clearly sold a story that isn’t true. They have only started acknowledging the actual history as people (historians, truth seekers etc.) have uncovered records that contradict many of their teachings. “I was told I was being sold a Cadillac, but instead under the hood is a Volkswagen…”

  • Except it was never taught this way until recently. So it was big lie before? Yes.

  • Sure they could. They did. Enough people in the flyover states believed that Trump, who treats his own employees like Russian Empire serfs, was the “man of the people” who would make their lives so much better. Trump has a lot of “qualities” in common with charismatic preachers, like Joseph Smith. It’s like the old Cher song:

    “My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw
    Papa would do whatever he could
    Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of doctor good…
    They’d call us gypsies, tramps, and thieves
    But every night all the men would come around
    And lay their money down

    Preachers, politicians and “travelers” have more in common than you know.

  • As with the mythical Gabriel which makes Islam and Christianity jokes, mythical Moroni continues the idiocy.

  • > “…In some ways, courage and faith are the same thing….”

    No. Faith is nothing more than a reason to believe — when no other good reasons exist for that belief. Courage is something very different.

  • I see homosexual activity, in legal and many social arenas, as a freedom of religion issue. And even if it isn’t created for religious purposes, it is a religious choice because it faces religious descrimination, and should be protected as such. People should have freedom of religion. Period.

    There’s more to the topic than that, but that common ground should resolve many of the problems and alleviate a lot of ignorance and targeting in the world. As far as where society is, it’s going to take time to sort it all out and find how everything fits. There are still a lot of unknowns here.

    What I do know is that we are both valuable and loved by God; I can fit everything else in around that.

  • My friend, I can see why you might feel that way, but I respectfully don’t embrace the assertion that the Church “sold a story that isn’t true.” If the Prophet of the Restorarion prayerfully gazed at any number of the characters on the plates to produce even so much as a page of text in English, that constitutes him using the plates. If he, then, became more accustomed to receiving the words as dictated by the Spirit into his heart and his mind, thus abandoning reliance on visually looking at the ancient characters on the plates, good for him…and good for us!
    The point is that we are in possession of the content of the unsealed portion of a remarkably precious, ancient Judaeo-Christian record of immeasurable worth to individuals who receive its message, namely, that “Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” (Title page of the Book of Mornon). I wish you well as you sort this out for yourself and receive your own confirmation, as I have, that there is much to be thankful for…no matter the details of the process(es) used to get those Reformed Egyptian words from the plates onto paper in English…then, into our hearts as powerful testimonies. Best regards, brother.

  • Many decreed the Harry Potter books to be evil, demonic etc. based on their non-reading of any of them, some will tell you how every word in the Bible is true without having read many of them etc. etc. . I suspect many of those who condemn “Mein Kampf” or the “little red book”) haven’t read them – doesn’t make their point of view invalid does it?

    You would say many, I would say a vocal few. It certainly didn’t affect book sales, did it? I’ve read Mein Kampf, and the Red Book as well as HP. I neither condemn the books nor the translators, however, MK in German better gives the feel of the monster than the English; same for the movie Das Boot – some things don’t translate well from German. The RB is fascinating in its ability to convey the philosophy of another monster in a more literary way – Mao merely murdered many times over the numbers of AH. Interesting how two of the three examples you gave were mass murderers.

    Yet, the authors of the BoM were none of these. They were prophets, metal fashioners, self supporting kings, and honorable warriors who protected family and home.

    The BoM, when read, offers much more than words on a page. From a purely secular standpoint it provides interesting glimpses into ancient life in both the Levant and Mesoamerica. Language, culture, military thought – it’s all there.

    But since you decry it as a fake then it must be fakable. And if it’s been done once then it must have been done before and since. Please name me an internally consistent book that accurately describes an ancient culture, which at the time, was thought to be completely different than originally written in the book but now, year by year, looks more and more like the actual ancient inhabitants. A modern piece of fiction that contains fragments of ancient poetry, literary styles, (then) unknown names (now found and substantiated). That accurately describes (then) unknown places that have now been found.

    My guess is that you haven’t read any of the books you cited and certainly not the Book of Mormon. But you’re right, tolerance isn’t the word I was looking for. Instead I really had in mind the intolerance of those who posted before. The word i was looking for was bigotry.

    Good day, sir.

  • Oh, one more thing:

    Persecution complex much?

    No, just making some interesting correlations. As a Green Beret for 20 years, I don’t cower much. I don’t hide behind a silly little name from a silly little nursery rhyme.

  • What about the people who pray on it as you describe, and come out with god telling them it isn’t true? Sincere question.

  • “Sometimes we miss the forest because of the trees.”

    Sometimes you miss the forest because it’s not there.

  • Genetics has disproved that no ancient Israelites came to America. So once you remove a few foundation stones, your building can collapse.

  • Although some stories in the bible are out there, scholars debate wether they are metaphoric or not, but the big differrence between the bible and the bom is that the places in the bible exist, were places in the bom dont, and the time frames in the bible are accurate, and in the bom theres just alot of anachronisms.

  • Bigotry? Intolerance?

    Those are common cries when some disagrees with or criticizes a religion and its teachings. If the criticism is based on reason and logic then neither of those terms apply. Ideas have to earn respect – religious ideas are no exception. If I prevent you from practicing your religion or attack you personally, that’s different.

  • And it disproved a very racist part of the BoM concerning Native Americans…but only one of the very racist LDS dogmas.

  • Wrong. All your references are not from the source or those close to him.
    Joseph’s history explains that “by the wisdom of God, [the plates and interpreters] remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day” (Joseph Smith—History 1:60).

    When was that?

    As President Brigham Young (1801–77) exp “Joseph gave the Urim and T[hummim] back with the plates when he was done translating.”

    Minutes, Apr. 17, 1853, Church History Library.

    When was he done??? Get your facts from credible sources

  • Sincere response. If they pray as defined in the 10th chapter of Moroni on the subject of the Book of Mormon, the answer will be, “Yes, it’s true” because God cannot lie, and He is not the author of confusion. If a person is not faamiliar with the voice of the Spirit, they may misunderstand at first, but if they pray again and again until the answer comes, like I did, it speaks to the faithful, sincere, listener who exhibits real intent in a most understandable way. Best wishes to you.

  • Have you read the Book of Mormon cover to cover and sincerely prayed with real intent…with faith in Christ? The existence of the Book of Mormon is indisputable. It’s “there.” It is the reader that is being tested. Everyone CAN, if they will seek it with genuine motives, receive the answer from God Himself, because He keeps all His promises. He lets us choose what we will do and embrace. Feel free to come unto Him and feel His love.

  • It has been revealed to me that people with beliefs like yours are profoundly delusional.

  • Only if you insist that all the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas are descended from Lehi and Ishmael, and their wives and servants. But that particular belief has been fading away for generations, replaced by the theory that they arrived on a continent already occupied.

  • Pray and pray again until I get the answer I want? Why not just start with the answer I’ve chosen and save some time? Why is the assumption made that because the answer is “There’s nothing there”, that I am the one who misunderstood the Spirit? Never say never but for now at least. Best wishes.

  • Emma Hale Smith, Joseph’s wife, was the first person to serve as his scribe. Here is her testimony as recounted to her son Joseph Smith III:
    “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.”

    Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879 Published as “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (1 October 1879): 289-90.

    Robert N. Hullinger, in his book: Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism, cites a personal interview Emma Smith-Bidamon gave to a committee of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1879. He notes on pages 9-10: “Smith’s wife Emma supported Harris’s and Whitmer’s versions of the story in recalling that her husband buried his face in his hat while she was serving as his scribe.”

    David Whitmer was one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The majority of the translation work took place in the Whitmer home.
    “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.”

    I, as well as all of my father’s family, Smith’s wife, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, were present during the translation… . He [Joseph Smith] did not use the plates in translation
    Page 11 of his book An Address to All Believers in Christ, Part First, Chapter 1. Also, Interview given to Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881, reprinted in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Journal of History, vol. 8, (1910), pp. 299-300.

    Martin Harris, a Book of Mormon scribe for the lost 116 pages of the BOM, also one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, provided this information to his friend Edward Stevenson, who would later become part of the LDS First Council of Seventy.
    Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. 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 seer stone, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say “Written,” and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.
    Reported by Edward Stevenson, “One of the Three Witnesses,” Millennial Star, Volume 44, pp86-87.

    In his Comprehensive History of the Church (CHC), LDS historian and Seventy Brigham H. Roberts quotes Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses whose name is found in every edition of the Book of Mormon since its original edition. Harris said that the seer stone Smith possessed was a “chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum.” Harris went on to say it was by using this stone that “Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates” (CHC 1:129. Also found in B. H. Roberts’ Defense of the Faith and the Saints, p. 257.)

    Martin Harris was one of the scribes Joseph Smith used to record the writing on the plates. This enabled him to give a first-hand account of how Smith performed this translation. Harris noted:
    By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say ‘written;’ and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another appear in its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.
    (CHC 1:29. Also found in B. H. Roberts’ Defense of the Faith and the Saints, pp. 277 & 350.)

    Isaac Hale, the father of Emma Hale Smith, stated in an 1834 affidavit:
    The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods.
    Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), pp. 126-128.
    Michael Morse, Emma Smith’s brother-in-law, gave a first-hand account published in an 1879 article in the RLDS publication Saint’s Herald:
    When Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon [I] had occasion more than once to go into his immediate presence, and saw him engaged at his work of translation. The mode of procedure consisted in Joseph’s placing the Seer Stone in the crown of a hat, then putting his face into the hat, so as to entirely cover his face, resting his elbows upon his knees, and then dictating word after word, while the scribes – Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other wrote it down.

    Joseph Knight, Sr., an early member of the Church and a close friend of Joseph Smith, wrote the following in a document on file in the LDS Church archives:
    Now the way he translated was he put the Urim and Thummim 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 then that would go away the next sentence would come and so on. But if it was not spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated.
    (spelling preserved from original) Neal A Maxwell Institute

    Seer Stone or Urim and Thummim?

    Oliver Cowdery was Joseph’s principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, and another of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.
    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.
    (spelling and emphasis preserved from original) Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1:14.
    As described later in this article, Cowdery’s use here of the terms “Urim and Thummim” was a common designation among Mormons after 1833 for Joseph’s seer stone.
    Editor Comment: Oliver did not give any details of the translation process. His statement above only mentioned the use of the Urim and Thummim. Several readers have asked us why we don’t include a quote used by Fawn Brodie in No Man Knows My History where Oliver expressed doubts about the BOM translation as the plates were not present in the translation process. LDS historian Grant Palmer researched this quite thoroughly and could not find any evidence that Oliver said that. He said that it may have been said by one of the Whitmers, but not by Oliver. For this reason, we reject the quote, although for reference purposes, here it is:
    I have sometimes had seasons of skepticism, in which I did seriously wonder whether the Prophet and I were men in our sober senses, when he would be translating from plates, through ‘the Urim and Thummim’, and the plates not be in sight at all.
    (Dialogue, Volume 15, No 2 summer 1982, p 51)
    In volume two of “A New Witness for Christ in America,” LDS writer Francis Kirkham notes that Joseph Smith’s brother William also confirmed the use of the hat. His account is similar to the accounts given by Harris and Whitmer although he refers to the seer stone as the “Urim and Thummim.” He stated, “The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God” (2:417).
    1830 Newspaper Account
    The article from the Cincinnati Advertiser of June 2, 1830, supports the ‘stone in the hat’ translation method:
    A fellow by the name of Joseph Smith, who resides in the upper part of Susquehanna county, has been, for the last two years we are told, employed in dedicating as he says, by inspiration, a new bible. He pretended that he had been entrusted by God with a golden bible which had been always hidden from the world. Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed.
    The article corroborates the ‘stone in the hat’ version of the translation, as opposed to Joseph’s description of ‘two stones in silver bows.’ Considering the earliness of the article, June 1830, it is closer to the original method of the translation as told by Smith’s first scribes Emma, Harris, Whitmer, Joseph Knight, etc. before Cowdery became involved. Perhaps the original “seer stone” story evolved over time into the “Urim and Thummim” version.
    Artist’s depiction of the actual translation process:

    Image from Images Of The Restoration
    Editor comment: On the current [3/23/14] Church website there is a subsection called Joseph Smith Translates the Gold Plates. That section contains five pictures and one video of Joseph translating with the plates in front of him. The Urim and Thummim/Nephite interpreters and/or seer stone in the hat are all conspicuously absent.

  • You share a commonly-held, albeit unsupportable generalization. Feel free to visit for a view that opens a door to believing that, at least, some of the American natives do have haplotypes that are common among among the Druze in the Hills of Galilee in northern Israel and Lebanon. Even that doesn’t “prove” anything sweeping or general about all American natives pre-1492, but it certainly makes me raise an eyebrow of curiosity and inquiry. Enjoy a quick read on this interesting subject by visiting this non-LDS site that independently points the same direction of The Book of Mormon narrative. Respectfully.

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t articulate as clearly as I could have…I prayed again and again without obtaining any answer at all…until I had “gone the 2nd mile,” so to speak, in my efforts (several months of focused, prayerful investigation) before I received an unmistakable and unforgettable, “Yes.”

  • I guess I don’t understand bullet point #3. How could he translate the plates if he didn’t have them in his possession?
    Also, are we meant to understand how Joseph translated the plates? If so, wouldn’t there be a step-by-step somewhere? I just don’t see the point to this whole article. I guess its scholars being scholars.

  • Although you don’t explicitly say so your response accepts my initial point that the statement “the Book of Mormon is the only book on earth of which people can write a critique without reading” is wrong.

    The fact that you go on to say that you have read particular books is no more relevant than the statement that I own and have read the entire Discworld lexicon and all of Asimov’s Foundation series – and, please be suitably impressed, both in their original language.

    The rest of your comment is relevant how?

    “But since you decry it as a fake” – ??????? – I didn’t though, did I?.

    You then develop your need to convince – who? – yourself? that the BoM is valid?/legitimate?/accurate? by offering unsubstantiated (and unsought) generalisations that appear to have been vouchsafed to you but, so far as I’m aware, have somehow evaded mainstream academia. (By the way – if you want me to take your “glimpses into ancient life in both the Levant and Mesoamerica” and “accurately describes (then) unknown places that have now been found” etc. seriously I will do so if you supply me with specifics, and references to confirmation from sources other than fellow believers).

    From somewhere you introduce the concept of bigotry – I can’t see any logic as to why – could it be the product of a persecution complex?

    Finally (to cap it all?) you return and introduce a totally irrelevant bit of autobiography and display your, unsurprising, ignorance as to why I chose the nom-de-plume I did in a manner which ISTM is reminiscent of five-year olds in the playground. (FWIW – the reason has nothing to do with a children’s song which, as I learned it sixty+ years ago, included the line “Give a dog a bone”).

  • Looking at my comment 24-hours later, it looks snarkier than I intended. I apologize. I do believe that I had gone the 2nd, 3rd, maybe even the 4th mile but I appear to have arrived at a different place. So it goes sometimes. Best wishes for our respective journeys.

  • Sometimes we don’t know how long the hike is before we get to the top. Apology accepted. Glad our paths crossed! Happy trails to you. 🙂

  • Superficial factors of veracity, like how time was kept in a civilization don’t detract from the fact that I believe the bible, even if sometimes I don’t understand why they say Methuselah lives hundreds of years with inferior technology. I don’t think it’s reason to throw out the whole record. And it’s true there are a lot of cities we don’t know the location of in the bible, but we built in what we do know. And there is so much we don’t know, so I am not ready to discount anything based on evidences which don’t explain the main points of the book. Calendars and cities are irrelevant for explaining veracity and validity.

  • Yes. I am a returned missionary, child of faithful parents, parent of 4 fantastic adult children (one temple married, 2 out of the church fortunately) former member of bishopric, high council, seminary teacher for 4 years, scoutmaster, EQ pres, and all-around ticket-puncher, and now voluntarily resigned ex-mormon. (And mightily glad to be out. It’s a beautiful world out there. Think of the movie The Village as a metaphor for the LDS church.)

    Scott, the model the church promotes for finding truth is profoundly flawed. Your response to Ben infers a person who does not receive a positive answer to the BOM (because in your model no other answer can be correct) did not inquire sincerely. This is gaslighting. Your argument blames the person, not the model. No matter how lovingly you quote Moroni, the clear inference is any person who did not receive an answer was not faithful, sincere, or listening with real intent. To do so is to unfairly categorize and dismiss others who did not have the same experience as you.

    Ben quite rightly points out this model is used in other religions. You can only maintain your position by stating this model is correct for Mormons but produces false positives in all other religions. I don’t think I’m making a straw-man argument. My point is one logical end-point of your argument.

    In a sense, we are debating with no context. When I look at our basic inquiry (how does one find metaphysical truth?), I cannot examine this topic without being informed of (to me) major problems with the narrative.

    1) The changing by the church of the narrative of the translation process. There’s not enough room to give a history of these changes. But we go from Urim and Thummim to Joseph’s pet rock (sorry, couldn’t help myself), to not using anything because he got so good at it. Then why was a helpless Laban murdered if God who sees all knew they wouldn’t be necessary to translate the plates? You can say it was to help the Nephites at the time, but the BOM makes clear it’s main purpose is for us in these latter days. Why the whole escapade in retrieving the plates from the hillside if they weren’t necessary? Why did Moroni preserve the Urim and Thummim with the plates if ultimately they weren’t necessary? (Please no “God works in mysterious ways” response, thank you.

    2) The Book of Abraham is a Vietnam for Mormon apologists. Again, apologists have changed the story of the translation process. But doing so means that we have to ignore Joseph’s own words, “A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. – The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” Now turns out to be utter bunk. The alphabet he created supposedly in the translation process? Modern scholars have referred to it as “gibberish”. The papyri thought to be destroyed were in large part recovered and have nothing pertaining to B of A. Yes, I know the apologist response. Does not hold water, in my opinion.

    3) The same person who translated the Book of Mormon defrauded hundreds of people in his Kirtland Antibank scheme. Research this topic, and the fraudulent nature of Joseph’s actions become clear.

    4) The same person who translated the Book of Mormon gave us section 132 on polygamy except he was married way before the revelation came out. Got 16 year old Fanny Alger pregnant while she was his children’s nanny in Kirtland. He lied, and caused others to lie (Eliza R Snow, for instance) in a false affidavit published in a Nauvoo newspaper denying any polygamy was occurring. He also claimed, and the LDS church still maintains (see the essay on plural marriage in Nauvoo on an angel with a drawn sword appeared to him threatening him with destruction if he didn’t practice polygamy. This, despite the fact he was already polygamously married (and probably polyandrously married, too) at the time of this incident. It is not lost on me that this experience occurred while he was trying to convince yet another young girl to marry him.

    Once we start arguing from a bit of context, the notion that praying and fasting and pondering produces truth is the means for metaphysical truth seems unsupportable.

  • It is frustrating to educate someone who is so firm in their beliefs when they don’t bother verifying their facts or even a quick Google. How about you try learning for yourself. has numerous articles confirming what I said and additional articles trying to justify the need for the Plates when they were not used in the translation process.

    Your statements reveal your deep ignorance of the accepted facts (yes, the church accepts the facts I stated but draws a different conclusion from them than I do). Research the topic for yourself then come back and we can have a reasonable conversation.

  • Danny, I came to the same conclusion as you after being the Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward. Church history is an excellent spring board to the truth once you actually start researching outside of “the manual”. My curiosity about different topics in the manual, led me to read from many other sources which shed a whole new light on the teachings I grew up with. Like you, I served a mission, I held many leadership positions including President of all three women’s auxiliaries, and many other positions over 30 years. But, now I know the truth. I have struggled for two years now trying to figure out what to do. I had a conversation with my husband about some of the facts, well documented, which I had discovered. He told me I am reading from the wrong sources and if I can’t accept the B of M, I have to research from better sources. Problem is, the more I research the more I find the truth. I’ve prayed over and over and receive the same answer. JS was a very practiced con-man and a liar. The thing I don’t understand is how so many people of education and experience such as church leaders, actually believe all the teachings regardless of facts. Woe is me, I am sad.

  • Smith would place a ‘seer stone’ (basically a polished rock) into a hat, put his face into the hat, and read the translation out to a scribe. The plates were seldom, if ever, actually in the room at the time.

    The point?

    The church used to teach, and really still does, that Smith used a device called the Urim and Thummim to translate the plates. This is a breastplate with 12 stones – 1 for each tribe of Isreal – on the breast plate. From the breast plate come two wires that hold two seer stones. Smith would wear the breast plate, look through the seer stones sort of like looking through a pair of glasses. Thus equipped, he would look at the gold plates, the stones would translate the reformed Egyptian into Victorian English, which Smith would read off to the scribe.

    The church has recently been forced to admit (limitedly) that the official story was less true than the stone in a hat story. Which leads to the questions posed by the panel.

  • The panel:

    an historian
    3 “literature scholars”
    an ICU physician

    Not a single expert in middle eastern languages or culture. Not a single expert on Hebrew. Not a single expert on Egyptian. Not a single expert on reformed Egyptian.

  • Danny,
    I would have replied earlier, but my internet connection is giving me fits.
    You and I are both former scoutmasters – I did 3 national jamborees, etc. so I couldn’t pass on connecting with someone with whom I share some passion – also our oldest son is Danny.
    May I simply express a number of certainties?
    1. None of us have all the answers.
    2. I have no need to hold a carbon copy view in all things to like another person.
    3. Placing one’s self in a position of, as President McKay often said, “Communing with the Infinite” is the most certain place to be to obtain a true knowledge of all things.
    4. Our Heavenly parents simply, and infinitely, love each of their children and spare no effort to invite them back to enjoy Eternal Life with them, yet will never, ever, coerce them to do so.
    5. Each of us, no matter where our choices & paths in life have taken us will find a chair at God’s table with our name written thereon if we, in the end, choose to pursue a life like His.
    6. I choose to embrace the immaculate peace and joy that accompanied my first personal revelation (summer of ’68) certifying to me that the Book of Mormon is God’s word…and the countless times since then when I have had the same soft whisper of the Spirit say, “It is true.” Hence, I choose to stay on the “Old Ship Zion.”
    7. We all may choose whatever we will. The results of those choices will be chosen by our loving and merciful God.
    8. My best wishes to you and yours as we all travel this highway of life.
    9. By the way, “Welcome Back” if you should so choose.

  • Jane, you might ask him if the essays posted on are incorrect sources. All one has to do is read them and chase down the footnotes to get plenty of info. I’ve heard some members claim was hacked and the essays aren’t really church endorsed. That’s how cray-cray it gets.

    Especially interesting are the essays on Race and the Priesthood, and Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You will have to keep clicking links to get to the footnotes. Here are a couple of links because the essarys aren’t that easy to find on

    Don’t be afraid to share your story on r/exmormon Reddit. You aren’t an exmo yet. That’s ok. I think you will for the most part find an inviting and understanding group of people (over 40k subscribers as opposed to roughly 7500 on r/latterdaysaints) You will find you aren’t alone in your dilemma or situation. It can be overwhelming emotionally to suddenly realize you aren’t doing this alone. So many others have been through what you are going through and can provide excellent advice on how to proceed forward with your relationships intact. Also check out podcast with John Dehlin. I know, I know. As a former member such a thing would have been forbidden, almost like looking at pornography. But again you will hear stories of others’ transitions and (I think) feel empowered and maybe a bit released from all the pressure you are under. There is a huge catalog of stories for you to listen to. Good luck to you. Sending warm thoughts your way.

  • Scott, thank you for your kind response, especially #9. Do you know that you are the only person I recollect in the 3 years we’ve been out who has actually invited us back? It was a revelation (no pun intended) to see how most of our erstwhile “friends” at church went incommunicado when we left. I mean, crickets. One person every once in a great while sends me a text. One visit immediately after our announcement from the branch president if I recall. Otherwise, nada. And I’m thinking of all the the tithing, time, and sacrifice, and not even a thank you.

  • Danny,
    I’m touched by your sincere reply. Even though I am someone who was “out” for about a year and came back long ago, I don’t know how you feel, but I do know how I feel … you absolutely have friends in the Church who DO have fond & grateful feelings for you but don’t speak because of both respect (for your agency to choose to be in or out) and fear (that they will clumsily say something that might push you farther away). I had a clumsy word or two spoken to me when I returned, but “no big deal.”
    My experiences (losing my wife to leukemia, then seeing her image in the Jordan River temple since then) have drawn me closer to the Savior & I never want to be far from Him. I cherish the promise of an eternity with my late wife. I also adore the moments when a former scout (now with 5 children of their own) bumps into me at the store or on Facebook, and says thanks in a, now, mature and very meaningful way. Danny, you have scouts that will ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU, their scoutmaster.
    Ì bet you would be a good hiking buddy.