“Unto My Servants, in Their Weakness”

The early period of the Restoration saw Joseph Smith and his associates through some remarkable sequences of events.  In Joseph’s early encounters with Moroni, he was first told of a book writen on golden plates,1 then told of a breastplate and stones in silver bows know as the “Urim and Thummim,” or sometimes simly called “seers.”2

From the very beginning, tangible artifacts and tools were provided, obtained, and used for the purposes of “calli[ng the church] forth out of the wilderness,”3 and inciting the emergence of the fulness of the gospel.

“Deposited in a Stone Box”

These artifacts were not solely accessible to Joseph Smith, nor were they limited to just the plates and the Urim and Thummim.  Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 contains a declaration about such artifacts to the three men who were selected to be witnesses of the Book of Mormon:

“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.”

In his official history, Joseph Smith mentions three of the five items listed here: the plates the breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim.4   However, he does not mention Laban sword nor does he make note of Lehi’s “miraculous directors.” Joseph’s own history likewise makes no mention of the seer stones that he had been in possession of for some time, though they possessed similar qualities and functions to the stones and breastplate provided with the plates.

Many witnesses to the process of the Book of Mormon’s translation (including Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith) are of the consensus that Joseph’s personal seer stones were the primary means of translation.5 Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, however, mention only the “Urim and Thummim” as the translation device in statements directly attributed to them.6

Joseph and Oliver’s silence regarding seer stones has led some to dismiss such accounts as “hearsay,” 7 and the dearth of artistic renderings depicting the usage of the seer stone indicates continued skepticism of these accounts within LDS orthodoxy.

It is conceivable, however, that the biblical “Urim and Thummim” at some point became adopted as a blanket term for any device used for scrying, seership, or translation; including Joseph’s original seer stones as well as the breastplate and interpreters obtained from the stone box.  Joseph Fielding Smith agrees with this view when speaking of artifacts present at the Manti Temple:

“The statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is now in the possession of the Church.”8

While this may resolve some of the terminological discrepancies among historical accounts, it only complicates any efforts to come to a clearer understanding of the mechanics of translation, and the individual purposes of each artifact provided.

“Thou Hast Lost thy Privileges for a Season”

An additional layer of complexity is added by considering the volatile nature of some of the artifacts that Joseph Smith had access to.  For example, according to some accounts, after the loss of the 116 pages, the Urim and Thummim was confiscated:

“The ‘interpreters’ were taken from Joseph after he allowed Martin Harris to carry away the 116 pages of manuscript of the Book of Mormon as a punishment, but he was allowed to go on and translate by use of a ‘seers stone’ which he had.”9

But Doctrine and Covenants Section 3 (received shortly after the loss of the 116 pages) was reportedly obtained through the Urim and Thummim.10 If this is the case, this leaves several possibilities: (1) the Urim and Thummim of D&C 3 is referring to some other object, (2) the Urim and Thummim was actually never taken at all, or (3) it was taken and was almost immediately returned.

Father Smith reports that it was the plates, rather than the Urim and Thummim, that were confiscated after the 116 pages incident:

“Joseph and Harris returned to Harmony, and found the plates missing—the Lord had taken them also. Then Joseph put on the spectacles, and saw where the Lord had hid them, among the rocks, in the mountains.”11

Indeed, the fate of the plates at various points of time is a confusing matter.  While at times Joseph went to great lengths to protect and hide the plates,12 Moroni apparently had the prerogative to take and return the plates at will.  Lucy Mack Smith says this happened at the completion of the translation:

“After finishing the translation, the plates and stones of Urim and Thummim were again taken and concealed by the angel for a wise purpose.” 13

Shortly after, Moroni returns with the plates to show them to the three witnesses, and at that point presumably entrusts them back to Joseph Smith to show to the eight witnesses.  Lucy Mack Smith then claims that afterwards, Joseph returned the plates to Moroni for the last time:

“After these witnesses returned to the house, the angel again made his appearance to Joseph, at which time Joseph delivered up the plates into the angel’s hands.”14

The Lord’s instructions to Joseph, however, (which he in all other points obeyed) would indicate otherwise:

“Wherefore, when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee, and obtained the witnesses which I have promised unto thee, then shalt thou seal up the book again, and hide it up unto me.”15

If Joseph followed these instructions, he would not have returned the plates to Moroni, but would have re-buried the plates in the earth.  Accordingly, a number of apocryphal accounts attributed to Joseph’s contemporaries support the idea that the plates found their final resting place back in the earth.16

The point to be taken from this is the great difficulty involved with nailing down a cohesive narrative to illuminate what objects would or would not have been available to Joseph at any point in time.  Interchangeable nomenclature, comings and goings of artifacts between heavenly and earthly realms, and a hodgepodge of muddled historical accounts all contribute to the near-impossible task of fully understanding how the Book of Mormon’s translation process unfolded.

The Abridging Works

In 2011, anthropologist Daymon Smith published The Abridging Works, a reconfiguration of the Book of Mormon text with some supplemental essays.  In one of these essays, he tackles the issue of translation, and offers some novel contributions that may be of use in understanding the purpose and use of some of these artifacts.

Smith covers a lot of ground in this essay, including: nuances between translation and interpretation, implications of seership, Alma 32 as a model of understanding translation processes, the failure of counterfeiting theories to account for the Book of Mormon’s complexity, phonology of Book of Mormon names, the dangers of bringing assumptions to a revealed text, and the usage of translation devices, among many other topics.

What follows is an attempt to distill, discuss, and expand upon a portion of the ideas found in the concluding essay of The Abridging Works—specifically, the proposition that the Book of Mormon itself offers some insight into the process of its own translation. Smith suggests that we would do well to look to the narrative to learn something of how one uses the “gift and power of God” to derive vernacular text from an otherwise unintelligible ancient record.

The Book of Mormon narrative’s most obvious analog to Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon is the account of Mosiah using two-stoned “interpreters” to translate the Jaredite record unearthed by Limhi’s search party.

“The Things are Called Interpreters”

According to Moroni’s abridgement of Ether’s record, the Brother of Jared was given “two stones” to seal up with the account of his theophany and vision. 17

Centuries later, when Limhi’s men obtain the Jaredite record, it was presumably accompanied by these two stones, because we learn that Ammon explains that “the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded.” 18

Ammon also apparently told Limhi that Mosiah had the gift of seership:

“And now Limhi was again filled with joy on learning from the mouth of Ammon that king Mosiah had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings; yea, and Ammon also did rejoice.” 19

Later, king Mosiah uses his seership to translate the record “by the means of those two stones which were [now] fastened into the two rims of a bow.” 20

Stepping back out of the Book of Mormon narrative, we learn something of how these stones and bow function from Joseph Smith’s contemporaries.  In many instances, usage of the two-stoned and bow Urim and Thummim is compared to using spectacles, whereby seership is induced looking through them.  Kirtland Presbyterian minister Truman Coe explained what he had learned of the process:

“By putting his finger on one of the characters and imploring divine aid, then looking through the Urim and Thummim, he would see the import written in plain English on a screen placed before him.”21

In contrast, Martin Harris described the usage of the Urim and Thummim in terms that usually are regarded as descriptions of Joseph’s seer stones:

“By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language.”22

Joseph’s brother William likewise speaks of the stone-in-the hat method for using the Urim and Thummim (assuming he is referring to the spectacles rather than Joseph’s seer stone):

“The manner in which it was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light (the plates lying nearby covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.”23

Looking back into the Book of Mormon narrative, we find the interpreters referred to again. Years after Mosiah’s use of the interpreters, Alma speaks of the Jaredite plates to his son Helaman, and instructs him to (1) “keep them,” and (2) “preserve these interpreters.”24

 “A Stone, Which Shall Shine Forth in Darkness Unto Light”

Alma’s next statement is a bit more cryptic.  He quotes the Lord, who speaks of a single stone used for his purposes:

“I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light.” 25

Seeing as this statement is juxtaposed between two references to “interpreters,” it is not unreasonable to assume that this stone is one (or even both) of the stones otherwise referred to.  But the description of the stone’s function of “shin[ing] forth in darkness unto light” is notably reminiscent of David Whitmer’s account of Joseph’s seer stone:

“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.”26

If Gazelem’s stone (or the stone known as Gazelem)27 is in fact referring to something other than the Jaredite stones, we have in the Book of Mormon instances of both the “Urim and Thummim” (interpreters) and a seer stone used to induce revelation.

But it doesn’t end there.  In what might seem to be an unexpected plot twist, a careful look at the earlier editions of the Book of Mormon reveals that in both passages where Alma speaks to Helaman about preserving interpreters, he in fact had originally called them directors,[28] and that the man Ammon originally identified as having the seership needed to translate the Jaredite record was actually Benjamin.29

“The Miraculous Directors”

The term “directors” evokes another familiar icon of the Book of Mormon, but one that is seldom brought up in discussions concerning the translation of the Book of Mormon:  the Liahona.  From the time it first appears in front of Lehi’s tent,30 it is referred to as a ball, director(s), or a compass with spindles.31  When Alma spoke of what now reads as “interpreters,” was he actually referring to the Liahona? Of possible significance is that just a few verses further is the very passage that reveals its original name:

“The thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.”32

If the “interpreters”/“directors” are in fact references to the Liahona, then the mineral, luminescent Gazelem stone of verse 23 ought not be confused or equated with the metallic, mechanical Liahona of verses 21 and 24, despite their relative proximity in the text.

Furthermore, the description of the Liahona’s functionality is particularly interesting; its uses went far beyond simply pointing directions.  Lehi was instructed:

“Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.” 33

It would therefore appear that the Liahona was, along with the seer stones and the Urim and Thummim, also a scrying device.  It was a round object on which actual text from an unseen source appeared and became discernable.

In the first chapter of what we have of Mormon’s abridgement, we read that Benjamin was in possession of this Liahona, and delivered it to his son Mosiah.34  If Ammon was originally correct in identifying Benjamin as the seer, it would appear that Benjamin (and Mosiah, for that matter) possessed the ability to translate via seership while in possession of the Liahona, long before securing access to the Jaredite interpreters.

The Liahona’s efficacy was reportedly predicated upon its user’s spiritual sensibilities,35 a characteristic which bears resemblance to Joseph’s inability to translate without proper spiritual devotion.  David Whitmer related:

“He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation.”36

Curiously, Oliver Cowdery’s wife Elizabeth offers one obscure historical description of the translation process in which she refers to the translation device as a “director”:

“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 dictate to his scribe the words he said as they appeared before him”37

This calls back to Doctrine and Covenants 17:1, where we may have reason to reconsider the significance of the inclusion of the “miraculous directors which were given to Lehi” along with the plates, Urim and Thummin, breastplate, and sword of Laban.

Another passing reference to “directors” appears in the previously mentioned third section of the Doctrine and Covenants, where Joseph is reprimanded for “suffer[ing] the counsel of thy director to be trampled upon from the beginning.”38  The current footnote suggests that the word “director” is a reference to “the Lord,” but a closer look at the manuscript of this revelation shows that “director” was originally written as plural “directors.”39  If the original intent of these words corresponds to how they were initially written, there may be reason to consider that Joseph made more use of the Liahona than has previously been supposed.

“The Counsel of thy Directors”

It is interesting to note that the historical record includes indications of (1) Joseph’s seer stone, (2) spectacles/interpreters/Urim and Thummim, and (3) the “director(s)”/(Liahona?) all used in a hat to produce the Book of Mormon text.  It is also notable that the Liahona appears to possess all the needed functionality to produce a divinely-assisted translation, was possibly used for translation by Benjamin and Mosiah, was likely handed down from Alma to Helaman, and was included with the objects delivered to Joseph Smith to translate the plates.

Was the Liahona used to translate the Book of Mormon?  Such a conclusion would be premature and irresponsible.  Historical statement seem to be plagued with widespread confusion and conflation of stone(s), interpreters, director(s), and the Urim and Thummim when referring to the device(s) employed by Joseph Smith.  But the proposition should not be entirely ruled out.

The “starter-kit” of tools and objects employed by Joseph Smith is a historical curiosity that has important implications for understanding the Book of Mormon we have today.  Each of the objects’ uses and function are not entirely understood, but important clues are scattered not only throughout the historical record, but also throughout the Book of Mormon text itself.  While the Book of Mormon’s many instances of testifying of itself may outwardly seem self-serving, circular, and unimpressive, in other cases can be surprisingly revealing, illuminating and instructive for those seeking to truly come to an understanding of what it really is, how it came in existence, and what its significance is to its readers today.

  • [1] Joseph Smith History 1:34
  • [2] Ibid 1:35
  • [3] Doctrine and Covenants 33:5
  • [4] Joseph Smith History 1:35,42,52,59
  • [5] Roger Nicholson, The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Volume 5, pg. 126-130
  • [6] See Joseph Smith History, including the postscript by Oliver Cowdery
  • [7] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3, pg. 226
  • [8] Ibid, pg. 225
  • [9] Zenas H. Gurley, RLDS Saints’ Herald, 1885, Interview
  • [10] See the heading to Doctrine and Covenants section 3
  • [11]  Joseph Smith Sr., Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates, Historical Magazine 7: 306–308
  • [12] Joel Tiffany, Mormonism—No. II, Tiffany’s Monthly, 5(4) pgs. 163–170.
  • [13] John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, pg. 12.
  • [14] Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, pgs. 167-168.
  • [15]  2 Nephi 27: 22
  • [16] Cameron J. Packer, Cumorah’s Cave, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 13, Issue – 1, Pages: 50–57, 170–71
  • [17] Ether 3:23, 28
  • [18] Mosiah 8:13
  • [19] Mosiah 21:28
  • [20] Mosiah 28:13
  • [21] Truman Coe, Mormonism, The Ohio Observer, 11 August 1836
  • [22] Golden Bible, Rochester Gem 1:70, Rochester, New York
  • [23] William Smith, On Mormonism, 1883, in Early Mormon Documents, 1:497.
  • [24] Alma 37:21
  • [25] Alma 37:23
  • [26] David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ, pg. 12.
  • [27] The current verbiage leaves the term “Gazelem” ambiguous as to weather it is referring to the servant or to the stone.
  • [28] The text of Alma 37:21 and 24 read “directors” until the 1920 edition, at which point it was altered to read “interpreters.”  See: http://i.imgur.com/F77Quqr.jpg
  • [29] The text of Mosiah 17:15 reads “Benjamin” until the 1837 edition, at which point it was altered to read “Mosiah.”  See: http://i.imgur.com/RCNF0kh.jpg
  • [30]  1 Nephi 16:10
  • [31] The multiple spindles may indicate why the “ball or director” is also sometimes referred to as “directors” (plural)
  • [32] Alma 37:38
  • [33] 1 Nephi 16:26
  • [34] Mosiah 1:16
  • [35] 1 Nephi 18:12
  • [36] David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ, pg. 30.
  • [37] “Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery, Affidavit, 15 February 1870, Early Mormon Documents, 5:260.
  • [38] Doctrine and Covenants 3:16
  • [39] The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelation Book 1, pg. 3.  See: http://i.imgur.com/5C2p3hb.jpg

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