This week, we’re moving on to the Book of Mormon translation method. Faulk opens this section with a banner of several paintings showing Joseph apparently reading from the plates without the Urim and Thummim anywhere in sight. These exact same paintings were part of the collage featured on the similar section of the CES Letter. Since we’re talking about Book of Mormon artwork, I’m sure you can guess where this is going.
The Church has always taught that the translation process of the Book of Mormon looked like this: Joseph Smith read the golden plates like a book, translating the text out loud to Oliver Cowdery, who served as scribe.
This is a claim Faulk makes without any supporting evidence. He doesn’t link to a single source from any Church leader, manual, or website to back his allegation. That’s because, as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any. I looked, but I couldn’t find a single instance of anyone with any degree of authority saying what Faulk claims “the Church has always taught.”
Could certain members have taught this in Sunday School or Primary? Sure. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that some did. But that isn’t “the Church.” That’s an individual member. We aren’t a monolith. Unless something comes directly from the Church itself—from the prophets, apostles, website, magazines, or manuals—it’s individual opinion. And passing something along out of ignorance is very different from passing it along in order to deceive.
Notice that Faulk doesn’t go into specifics on his claim. That’s a little problematic because thoughts are going to vary on the details. Was there a curtain between Joseph and his scribes? Were the plates on the table beside him, or kept out of view? Were they wrapped in a cloth, or open on the table like you see in those paintings? Did Joseph wear the spectacles with the Nephite interpreters to “read” the translation from the plates themselves? Because he wasn’t wearing them in any of those paintings. Or did he look in them and see the words without looking at the plates? Did he attach the spectacles to the breastplate and wear them both, or just the spectacles, or neither? Did he take the stones out of the spectacles, or did he try to wear them the entire time? If he took the stones out, what did he do with them? Did he cup them in his hands, or place them on top of the plates, or put them in his hat? The questions are endless, and the witness statements and other contemporary accounts allege most of these things at different times.
Beyond that, Faulk’s only provided evidence for this claim is that the artwork reflected the idea that Joseph “read” from the plates like from a book. But how did he do that? The interpreters aren’t found in any of those paintings, so how exactly was Joseph supposed to read from a book featuring a language he’d never seen before? If that’s how “the Church” taught Faulk the translation method, did he even know about the interpreters at all? Is he claiming those are brand new pieces of information, too?
This entire argument is silly. Art is subjective. It’s meant to evoke feelings and atmosphere, not to be 100% historically accurate. There are many famous works of art that aren’t historically accurate: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Guernica, the Pietà, etc.
Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon paintings are iconic, for example, but they aren’t very accurate to the text, either. The Nephites weren’t riding horses while carrying metal swords and wearing Roman battle armor. They didn’t stand up on brick walls 50 feet high. I doubt Abinadi had a 6-pack and arms that rival Chris Hemsworth’s. And in 600 BC, Israeli men had an average height of 5 feet tall. This means that Nephi would have been “large in stature” at 5’5”. That’s not exactly the tall, broad-shouldered He-Man body double we picture when we think of Nephi.
How many times have we seen a movie “based on actual events” that ends up bearing little resemblance to the facts? Or a movie adaption of a book that only vaguely resembles the source material? It happens all the time, because artists have their own vision of how to best portray something.
Historian Anthony Sweat illustrated this dichotomy between history and art:
[T]rue art and true history rarely, if ever, fully combine. They are intertwined entities (history needs to be visually represented, and artists need meaningful history to create impactful images), but their connection more often creates difficult knots instead of well-tied bows that serve both art and history. These knots often result because the aims of history and the aims of art are not aligned, often pulling in entirely different directions. History wants facts; art wants meaning. History wants to validate sources; art wants to evoke emotion. History is more substance; art is more style. History wants accuracy; art wants aesthetics. The two disciples often love, yet hate, one another as they strive to serve their different masters….
The tension lies in that historians, scholars, and teachers often want paintings that are historically accurate because images often shape our perceptions of history as much as, or perhaps more than, many of the scholarly works about history. … Thus, when paintings carry apparent egregious historical errors, manipulations, or complete fabrications, there are some who bristle and wonder why the artist didn’t paint it more accurately, wishing that painters and sculptors and the like wouldn’t engage in revisionist history by distorting reality.
However, artists often have little to no intent of communicating historical factuality when they produce a work. Artists want to communicate an idea, and they want to use whatever medium or principle and element of art that it takes to communicate that idea to their viewers. In doing research on this topic, I interviewed a handful of well-known and talented Latter-day Saint artists and asked them various questions regarding the responsibility of an artist to paint historical reality. Almost unanimously, they said the artist carries no responsibility to do so.
Faulk continues with a preview of what’s coming up in the rest of this section:
The context surrounding the translation process raises issues that are not evident to members of the Church. These issues involve the actual translation using a seer stone, Joseph’s use of folk magic, and his trouble with the law regarding these circumstances.
Again, I don’t know that these things are “not evident to members of the Church.” Individual knowledge on these topics will vary, as with all things. However, I think that most members of the Church, at least in the US, are aware that Joseph experienced legal troubles throughout his life. Most of us are also now aware of the seer stone if we weren’t aware before.
Knowledge of these issues isn’t the only thing that will vary. So will whether or not we deem these topics to be controversial, and if so, to what degree. I don’t find them to be particularly controversial, personally. You might, and that’s okay.
- The Actual Method
“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.” (Russell M. Nelson, A Treasured Testament Ensign, July 1993. Quoting David Whitmer’s Address to All Believers In Christ. 1887)
Yep. I’ve said this before, but this article was where I first learned of Joseph’s personal seer stone and its role in the translation process. I was 12 years old, and had been flipping through my parents’ copy of the Ensign. I thought it was really interesting, reading these details I’d never read before.
It did catch me off-guard, obviously. But almost immediately, the questions came into my mind, “Does it matter? Does it change anything?” And I thought about it for a minute, then realized it didn’t. It didn’t affect my testimony at all. Joseph Smith using two seer stones in spectacles and Joseph Smith using his personal seer stone in a hat were essentially the same thing to me. All that was different was that I was learning more of the actual details. To me, it was like the way I’d added pre-algebra to my knowledge of math that year in school. It was just adding new knowledge to my existing knowledge.
However, some people reacted very strongly to the information. I don’t dismiss that at all; it just wasn’t my experience. To me, it only warranted a temporary pause and then I shrugged and said, “I guess I didn’t know as much about it as I thought I did.” But to others, it was deeply unsettling. I don’t know why we reacted so differently to the information. I just know what I’ve said before: that, as with all things in this Church, individual knowledge and experiences will vary.
Contrary to general Church teachings, Joseph did not read the gold plates like an open book at all.
What “general Church teachings” taught that? Faulk didn’t point to any, he just pointed to a few paintings. I couldn’t find any manuals, Church magazine articles, quotes from Church leaders, Conference addresses, or anything else that said that’s how the translation process happened. Joseph couldn’t read Reformed Egyptian, and the spectacles notably were too large to fit his face. Numerous reports said as much. And again, those paintings don’t show Joseph using the Nephite interpreters at all. How was he supposed to “read the gold plates like an open book” without any translation aids when he couldn’t read the language on them?
And it’s odd that Faulk would make this statement immediately after citing President Nelson saying otherwise in the Ensign, the Church’s largest, most widely-read publication of the time period. That article was also the transcript of a talk that was given to more than 100 mission presidents, who were then directed to disseminate the information to their missionaries. It was being sent out to as many missionaries and families as possible. Wouldn’t that constitute a “general Church teaching”?
Rather, during the translation process he buried his face in a hat that contained a common rock.
Seer stones are not “common rocks.” They are stones “specially designated” for a “sacred purpose.” There are numerous myths and legends from all over the world about special stones that glow, heal people, and allow their owners to see things. Joseph’s main stone actually has a pretty cool history of its own, apart from its purpose in aiding Joseph in his role as a seer.
As for putting his stone in a hat to block out the light, that was the common method of using seer stones in Joseph’s day. It may sound weird to us today, but it wasn’t weird to Joseph. That was the most effective way he had of blocking out the light so he could see more clearly.
The gold plates were either covered by a cloth where no one, including Joseph, could see them or they were in a different location altogether.
Typically, they were beside him and covered with a cloth, yes. At times, they were nearby in a safe location, but not within easy reach.
I’m curious as to why Faulk seems confused by this. If they were sitting out in the open every day, why would it have been a momentous and special occasion when the Witnesses saw the plates? Wouldn’t every single person living in or visiting the Whitmer, Hale, and Smith homes have seen them on too many occasions to count? The idea of Joseph “reading” from the plates in front of his scribes is completely incompatible with the stories we’ve all actually been taught about the Witnesses. How exactly did Faulk imagine that worked? He doesn’t say. What he does say leaves far too many questions to be sure of his intent.
But of course the plates had to have been hidden by a cloth or box. There’s no other way for the testimonies of the Book of Mormon Witnesses or any of the translation witnesses to make sense.
The Church knew the true method, yet commission works of art and film and use the education system to teach otherwise.
How does the Church “use the education system to teach otherwise”? Again, Faulk offers no evidence or examples to back up his claims.
As for the Church commissioning works of art that show otherwise, Anthony Sweat quotes an artist as saying that he’d been commissioned by the Church several times to try to create works showing the use of the hat. However, each time he tried, it didn’t look right. It didn’t evoke the feelings he wanted it to evoke, and it just looked weird rather than inspiring. He said that some things don’t translate visually. This is why you see the same scenes from scriptures depicted multiple times, and other events don’t get depicted at all.
Sweat’s own attempts at drawing Joseph with the hat came off looking like Joseph was ill and was vomiting into his hat. He joked that he should have called it “The Sick of Joseph.”
So, it’s not that the Church wasn’t trying to commission the art pieces. It’s that they just didn’t look right. They didn’t create the atmosphere the artists wanted.
Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” (Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26, Oct. 1, 1879. https://www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation?lang= eng#28)
Yes, that’s what she said, and the historical record bears that out. There are numerous similar accounts, both by friendly eyewitnesses and by hostile sources.
Emma Smith and David Whitmer describe Joseph’s use of the seer stone and hat, but this information had all but been buried.
“All but been buried” is a stretch, in my opinion. They both did describe the translation process that way, and they were far from the only ones. FAIR has compiled many of the accounts by year:
- Accounts from 1829-1835
- Accounts from 1836-1840
- Accounts from 1841-1845
- Accounts from 1846-1900
- Accounts from 1901-2000
A great many of them describe Joseph putting one or several stones in his hat and looking into it to read the plates.
And a lot of them also say other things, which is part of the reason for the confusion. Most of the eyewitness accounts conflict with each other in various ways. These aren’t like the First Vision accounts, where they all tell the same story though some have additional details others don’t. Some have a curtain between Joseph and his scribe, some say it was all done out in the open. Some say the Nephite interpreters were used, some say it was Joseph’s brown seer stone. Some say he used the spectacles, some say he used his hat. Some say he read the plates, others say the words appeared in the stone. Etc. It has since been determined that most of those things are correct for different portions of the translation. Initially, though, it did create rather a lot of confusion for historians.
Furthering that confusion was the fact that both the Nephite interpreters and Joseph’s personal stone were referred to as the “Urim and Thummim.” That became a generic term used by the early Saints for any kind of seer stone. This made it difficult to understand which stone or stones was being used.
And unfortunately, as both David Whitmer and Emma Smith left the main body of the Church and refused to go West, and both actively denounced plural marriage, they were looked on with suspicion and even hostility by several generations of Latter-day Saints. That made the Saints less inclined to believe their testimonies. In fact, Joseph Fielding Smith referred to accounts of Joseph’s seer stone as “hearsay” in Volume 3 of Doctrines of Salvation, saying he didn’t believe it was used at all.
Over time, however, historians began finding more and more sources to corroborate the story, and they began taking the issue more seriously. And yet again, the Hofmann forgeries proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because so many of his forgeries were initially confirmed by multiple agencies to be genuine, historians began trying to integrate some of his claims into Joseph’s history. By doing so, they uncovered many of these accounts for the first time in decades. With the new information coming to light, perceptions began to change. Though Hofmann’s more outlandish claims were proven false, new discoveries had been made that needed to be added to the story.
So, the situation was more nuanced than Faulk would have us believe. It wasn’t exactly that the information was being deliberately buried or hidden. It was that many Church leaders in the mid-1900s didn’t believe it was true and didn’t understand that “Urim and Thummim” meant more than just the Nephite interpreters. They rejected the accounts they were aware of as being “errors,” to quote President Smith. They simply weren’t aware exactly how many accounts there were backing up the claims. Again, doing something out of ignorance is not the same as doing it out of malice. Deception requires intent.
There was a span of 35 years between 1939 and 1974 in which the Church didn’t publish this information in any official publication due to the reasons outlined above. However, they did still publish this information repeatedly both before and after that span of time. I’ll link to some of those other mentions momentarily.
In December 2013 the Church released an essay addressing the translation of the Book of Mormon issue. Finally, after public criticisms, the seer stone is again mentioned for a new generation of members.
Again, this is not an accurate statement. Faulk seems to be employing the same tactic Jeremy Runnells did, insinuating that the Gospel Topics Essays were the first time the Church had ever published the information found inside. The 2013 Essay was not the first time this topic had been addressed by the Church, its leaders, and its historians. It wasn’t even the first time it’d been addressed in the current generation.
I already linked to two mentions in official Church publications, the October 1939 Improvement Era and the September 1974 Children’s Friend. There was also the previously linked article in the July 1993 Ensign. Additionally, this information was mentioned in the September 1977 Ensign, the January 1988 Ensign, the January 1997 Ensign, the very popular second edition of Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, a book by Elder Maxwell, a book by B.H. Roberts, and a 2005 book put out by the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute (which was closed that same year after many of the historians moved over to the Joseph Smith Papers Project). This last book mentions the seer stone approximately 30 times. Other publications include BYU Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, the FARMS Review, and more.
The mentions were not frequent, coming every few years rather than every few months. However, most of those mentions were in prominent publications, ranging from official Church magazines to books written by apostles. Opening the Heavens was a precursor to the Joseph Smith Papers volumes. The second edition of Mormon Doctrine in particular was a staple feature in many Latter-day Saint homes in the 1970s-80s. It didn’t go into much detail and it did quote part of President Smith’s negative opinion. But it also equated Joseph’s personal seer stone with the Urim and Thummim, despite coming in the middle of the period in which it was believed those accounts were erroneous.
“The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or ‘seer stone.’ As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure.” (Book of Mormon Translation, LDS.org/topics)
On August 4th, 2015, LDS.org published an article titled, Joseph the Seer. It contains the first ever, official image of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones. It is the very same stone Joseph found while digging a well on the property of Willard Chase in 1822.
There are actually multiple stories of how Joseph discovered his stones, and some of them conflict. Mark Ashurst-McGee traces much of the history and clarifies many of the conflicted stories in his Master’s thesis, which is archived at Book of Mormon Central. The Ensign article in question does not specify exactly how Joseph came to be in possession of this particular stone.
According to Ashurst-McGee, he seems to have discovered the brown stone first by looking into his neighbor Sally Chase’s seer stone, and then discovered the white stone second, in the Chase property well. He also eventually found two others in and around Nauvoo.
The white stone is the one that Martin claimed Joseph used to find lost objects, including a pin Martin had dropped into a pile of straw and wood shavings. It also appears to be this stone that Martin switched, leaving Joseph temporarily unable to translate. However, later translation witnesses described Joseph using his brown stone. So, he potentially used at least four stones to translate the plates: the white one, the brown one, and the two Nephite interpreters.
Essentially, the brown seer stone pictured in the Ensign article is not “the very same stone Joseph found while digging in a well on the property of Willard Chase in 1822.” However, it is one of two of Joseph’s personal seer stones potentially used during the translation process.
For nearly 200 years the Church has had the stone in their possession yet never actively taught about it; and in the case of former president of the Church, Joseph Fielding Smith, has denied its role. (Doctrines of Salvation Vol.3)
That the Church had some of Joseph’s seer stones in its archives was perhaps not well-known prior to the publication of the Ensign article, but it was also not unknown. Historians were aware of it, having access to the archives. And the stones had certainly been referenced in the past, as was the acknowledgment that the Church had at least one in its possession. Even Joseph Fielding Smith says as much on that very same page in Doctrines of Salvation that Faulk references here. It was the same page I cited above when describing Smith’s “hearsay” and “errors” quotes:
The statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar of 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.
Again, this information was not widely known nor discussed in most circles, but it was available. It was information published by an apostle and prophet, among others. Obscure, yes. Hidden, no.
And yes, as mentioned repeatedly, President Smith didn’t believe that the seer stones were used during the translation. As he goes on to say, this was because he believed so intently in the statements made in Ether 3:22-24 and by the Angel Moroni that the Nephite interpreters were preserved for the translation that he didn’t think it was possible that Joseph would use other stones for convenience’s sake.
More work has been done in this area since President Smith’s tenure as leader of this Church. We obviously know more now about the translation process than he did. He was mistaken. It happens. It was also probably a lapse in judgment to state his opinion so directly when there was a chance others would see it as revelation rather than opinion.
However, he did clarify that it was his personal belief that it was incorrect. He also said that reports of Joseph using the Urim and Thummim after the plates were given back to Moroni were “evidently” errors. And he was right that all of the accounts including this information are from people other than Joseph himself. Technically, they could be classified as “hearsay,” though many of the accounts were given firsthand from people who witnessed the translation unfolding in front of their own eyes.
He maybe should have taken his position and audience into account when giving his opinion, but he was clear that it was his opinion. His statements were not nearly as forceful as critics would have us believe. They aren’t even as forceful as Faulk himself, who has so far made several declarations of fact that were incorrect. And frankly, President Smith was entitled to hold those opinions. We know now that he was mistaken, but that doesn’t lessen his calling as a prophet. It also doesn’t change the fact that we’re all allowed to hold opinions that may end up being wrong. We’re human. It happens. It’s what happened here.
But as Elder Holland said, the limitations of human frailty are not limitations in the divinity of the work. Rather, those limitations are in our fallen, human vessels. Getting little things wrong occasionally doesn’t mean we can’t be called to serve God in whatever capacity He calls us to serve in. He’s used to working with mortals and our limitations. He understands we’ll make mistakes sometimes. That’s why we need to show each other the same grace He shows us.
Charity is the pure love of Christ, remember. So, let us have charity toward President Smith in this regard. He made a mistake. He didn’t do anything we haven’t all done many times before.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.
Michael Stuy says
I find it interesting that the actual quotes from Joseph and Oliver stating that they translated the entire Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim is not mentioned or highlighted. Why was that?
In 1838, Joseph Smith simply stated, “I obtained [the plates], and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon.”
I will continue to believe Joseph and Oliver over two people who left the church and lacks the proper historical credibility.
Sarah Allen says
Michael, it was because, as stated in the post, “Urim and Thummim” is vague and could mean either the Nephite interpreters or Joseph’s personal seer stones. The early Saints interchangeably used the term to mean any kind of seer stone, making it unclear which stone(s) was being referenced in which account.
Saying that the other accounts lack historical credibility is not an accurate statement when there are so very many of them from so many witnesses. The evidence is strong and the historical record is pretty clear. The Church itself agrees that Joseph did indeed use his personal stone during the translation process.
Bob Ainsworth says
Most often, historical commentators and analysts work forwards to backwards in order to establish a process. If this process doesn’t work, then the result must be wrong. Sometimes, it is better to go from back to front. So we can then argue, there is a Book of Mormon, ergo, the process however unclear must be accurate.
The use of a Urim and Thummim is well documented historically but what they were is open to conjecture. They could well have been sticks or stones. I am grateful you didn’t refer to the ‘spectacles’ approach that I have read about in the past. I think Phelps referred to them.
Joseph’s actual use of the stone, I feel is open to conjecture. Again, whether the light, the letter or some other form specifically came from the stone itself is eminently unclear from Joseph’s narrative and let’s face it, his narrative is the only valid one. This again renders the front to back approach unhelpful.
Thank you for your posts. They make for useful insights.
John Perry says
I am glad you included Washington Crossing the Delaware, as that is a comparison I have used from time to time of a famous and highly-regarded painting that contains many inaccuracies.
I think the problem with artwork occurs when we expect a painting to serve as proxy for a live photograph of an event when, in fact (as you state), it is an interpretive piece that usually represents a combination of ideas in one image.
It is difficult to look at certain art and not think it is supposed to represent an actual moment in time, but artists do not work that way. Every element of the artwork depicting Joseph translating the Book of Mormon occurred at some point in time, just never all together at once. The art tries to represent a full story with one image, and unless several asynchronous liberties are taken, it is impossible to so.