Mason Allred and Mark Ashurst-McGee discuss the various historical accounts of the Book of Mormon translation process, including accounts of Joseph Smith using a Seer Stone to translate the ancient record and accounts of Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim in a video posted on the “Church History/Latter-day Saint History” YouTube account, the official YouTube channel of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The video seeks to normalize the newly admitted rock in his hat method of translation Joseph Smith used when translating The Book of Mormon from the gold plates. Joseph placed his seer stone into a hat, buried his face in the hat, and dictated the words of the Book of Mormon to a scribe. He didn’t use the gold plates or refer to the characters to “translate” the scripture, they often weren’t even in the same room.
Mark Ashurst-McGee is a historian at the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a senior historian in the Church History Department, the senior research and review editor for the Joseph Smith Papers, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religion at BYU. Mason Kamana Allred is a historian and volume editor at the Joseph Smith Papers, who is also an Assistant Professor of Communication, Media, and Culture at BYU-Hawaii. The video is set as an interview between these two faithful historians. They discuss the seer stone and Joseph Smith’s process of translation. It suggests why he may have used his seer stone over the Urim and Thumim, why he placed his seer stone into his hat and had to put his face into the hat to see the light, making another seer stone analogy to a cell phone. They claim that we can get used to these new ideas in the narrative because they propose the ideas really aren’t as strange as we think.
Mason: For a long time church art tended to depict the translation of the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sitting around a table, sometimes with the gold plates out on the table, but that’s not really the best match for what we know about the translation process. What did the historical sources from those involved around the time tell us about the translation process?
Mark: Well, first of all Joseph Smith explained that he translated the Book of Mormon through the medium of the Urim and Thummim by the gift and power of God, but he didn’t explain further than that.
Mason: So what about the seer stone for instance, what was its involvement in the translation process?
Mark: So, Emma Smith Joseph Smith’s wife and Martin Harris his friend and David Whitmer his friend who were around during the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon, said that he used a seer stone to translate parts of the Book of Mormon as well as the Urim and Thummim. Martin Harris explained that Joseph Smith started using the seer stone instead of the Urim and Thummim for convenience.
Mason: Wait so what might that mean “for convenience”?
Mark: Well, that’s a really good question. We’re not really sure what that means. But if you think of the Urim and Thummim, the descriptions that are given of the Urim and Thummim, it’s described as two clear stones in a rim like glasses, and the Book of Mormon says that these stones are what constitutes seers. Having and using these stones are what constitutes Seers. So, the Urim and Thummim actually is this special pair of seer stones and we have these descriptions of the Urim and Thummim connected to the breastplate, and that they’re large, and that they don’t fit on Joseph Smith’s face. We even have accounts that he takes the lenses out of the rim and puts them in a hat, which is the way he used his seer stone. So, if he uses his own seer stone rather than the Urim and Thummim, he can put the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate away somewhere safe, and just use his seer stone–and that’s more convenient.
Mason: Okay, that makes sense, but it also sounds a little bit strange to then think of it as Joseph Smith looking at a stone in a hat!
Mark: Yeah, that’s an image that we are unfamiliar with, but actually, it’s not that strange. He’s just trying to block out light – that’s the point. So it’s like, on a really sunny day if you get a text message and you pull out your cell phone and you can’t see it because of the sun, you make shade. You block out light so you can see what it says. That’s the same kind of idea. So, in the stone he sees the translation in light, and he puts his face in the hat so he can block out light and see what’s on the seer stone.
Mason: Can you make the Book of Mormon translation process visual for me for a moment? If I were an artist and to come to you and say, “hey, I want to do a depiction of the translation that’s more accurate. How should I make that look?”
Mark: Well, we would actually need two different images. We would need one depiction where Joseph Smith is wearing the breastplate that was connected to the Urim and Thummim and he’s looking through the Urim and Thummim and he could be looking at the plates. Then we also need the other image where Joseph Smith is with a hat looking into the hat at a seer stone. The Book of Mormon wasn’t just translated in one way. It was translated in different ways at different times.
Mason: So the seer stone was integral to the translation of the Book of Mormon, but for some people it’s still a little bit uncomfortable to think about that seer stone. Why do you think that is?
Mark: That’s a good question, I’m not sure exactly why that is. I think a big part of it is just that when Joseph Smith wrote about this in 1838, he talked about the Urim and Thummim spectacles that he found with the golden plates and he didn’t write about the seer stone. That history became canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price, and that is what Latter-day Saints are familiar with. We have much less familiarity with other sources that talk about a seer stone. I think that’s part of it. It may be that we want things that are miraculous to be ancient, like the Urim and Thummim in the Bible, it may be that a seer stone is too much like an ordinary rock, it’s something mundane, but the idea of Joseph Smith using a seer stone to translate: this is an idea that we can get used to. We believe in modern miracles, we believe in a God that can work through small and simple things, and God can speak to Joseph Smith however he wants to.Mason Allred and Mark Ashurst-McGee discuss the various historical accounts of the Book of Mormon translation process, including accounts of Joseph Smith using a Seer Stone to translate the ancient record and accounts of Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim.
Contrary to what was previously taught Joseph did use his seer stone for translation
The video affirms that the church has not taught about the seer stones bring involved in the translation. Mason says “For a long time church art tended to depict the translation of the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sitting around a table, sometimes with the gold plates out on the table, but that’s not really the best match for what we know about the translation process.”
He doesn’t mention that it’s not only the church art but also the correlated church material. The Teaching of the prophet Joseph manual does not mention the seer stone was used for translation. It repeats the official narrative that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim. and even statements from authoritative church leaders in the past, including the president of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith, who stated that the seer stones were not used in the translation. It’s no wonder the art, and by extension, the Mormon narrative, does not include the seer stone. The church was fine with that since it distanced the translation process from the occult folk magic practices of Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith himself seems to be where this distancing from seer stones began, since, as they say in the video, Joseph himself states that he used the Urim and Thummim for translating.
Mark says “Joseph Smith explained that he translated the Book of Mormon through the medium of the Urim and Thummim by the gift and power of God, but he didn’t explain further than that.” So, we can’t be surprised that the church is struggling to come clean, it’s been misrepresenting the translation process from the beginning!
Joseph put his face in his hat to see the seer stone
Also interesting to see these historians throwing church art under the bus. It’s like they are blaming the misunderstanding on the misrepresentations in the artwork alone. Then in the video, they present multiple instances of modern church art, or stills from church videos, depicting something closer to reality. These still are not quite matching the story of what happened.
These depictions are still not honest. While they do admit that he used his own personal seer stone rather than the Urim and Thummim, diverging from what the church has taught from the beginning, they aren’t completely clear about it still. The sources they refer to say that Joseph “buried his face in his hat” but they don’t use this phrase, they consistently refer to the hat and the seer stone but with less bizarre phrases like, “Joseph Smith looking at a stone in a hat” or he “puts them in a hat, which is the way he used his seer stone”. Once when discussing blocking out the light, they mention Joseph “puts his face in the hat,” but the depictions they show of Joseph using a hat in the translation process, he’s really not putting his face in it, he’s just shielding the light to create a shadow, as they state is the point. It’s not that he was blocking out the sun glare like when we read text messages on a phone, he had to block out all light and had to bury his face in the hat.
The source they refer to states it much more clearly, and not in a way that Joseph just needs to create some shade. David Whitmer, who the reference in the video as a contemporary source said, regarding Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon:
Joseph Smith 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.David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers in Christ” (1887), 12; Quinn (1998, p. 172)
Normalizing the Strange Uncomfortable History
So they now admit he used his own seer stone and that it was in his hat, but they still avoid fully depicting or describing it as much as they can, because as they say in the video, it is “strange”, and “unfamiliar” and “uncomfortable”.
Mark attempts to explain while also admitting multiple times he doesn’t know and is only speculating because we have canonized the fact that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim, but that is not historically correct. He admits “Well, that’s a really good question. We’re not really sure what that means.” when asked about why Joseph would use his own seer stone for convenience, and then he continues to explain what he thinks, so this is a way to say without making it an official church statement. Then when asked why members might still be uncomfortable with the seer stone he replies “That’s a good question, I’m not sure exactly why that is.” How is he not sure why members are uncomfortable with the story? They’ve already said it, it’s because it’s strange! Seeing a translation of gold plates that are not in the room on a rock at the bottom of a hat with his face buried in it is strange! It’s further strange that Joseph was provided gold plates to translate and an instrument to translate them with by God, and he claims to have used the “interpreters” to do this translation as he states over a decade after having published the Book of Mormon, but today, historians are revealing that it wasn’t done this way and in fact, it was done in this other strange way. While we’re at it, what else have we canonized into scripture that may not be historically correct?
The Origins of Joseph’s Seer Stone
This discussion does not reference where Joseph got his own seer stone. They do mention that he preferred it over the Urim and Thummim for “convenience” because the ancient spectacles didn’t fit him. They were too big for him? How is this, Joseph was taller than average at six feet tall, average at the time was around 5 ft 7. Were they too big because they were fashioned for the fabled giants of old times? They don’t say, but they claim Joseph would have wanted to keep them “safe” and for “convenience” would use his seer stone. They say its “an image that we are unfamiliar with, but actually, it’s not that strange”. The church is working hard to normalize it and has begun showing the new narrative when it can. There’s only so much strangeness that can be normalized though.
Why don’t they explain why Joseph already had a seer stone, what he did with it, and how he used it before? They could explain that he used the same seer stone to look for buried treasure and that he was paid for doing this “seer” work. He was also known for doing this type of scrying, and it didn’t even work, since he never found anything!
Some early-19th-century Americans used seer stones in attempts to gain revelations from God or to find buried treasure. From about 1819, Smith regularly practiced scrying, a form of divination in which a “seer” looked into a seer stone to receive supernatural knowledge. Smith’s usual procedure was to place the stone in a white stovepipe hat, put his face over the hat to block the light, and “see” the necessary information in the stone’s reflections. Smith and his father achieved “something of a mysterious local reputation in the profession—mysterious because there is no record that they ever found anything despite the readiness of some local residents to pay for their efforts.”Seer stone (Latter Day Saints): Seer stones and treasure-hunting
The Changing Narrative
These types of videos really just show that the church is in the process of changing its narrative. It is obvious they are having trouble changing the narrative though, over time it has been tailored to be more palatable, but now we’re having to remove the whitewashing and are exposed to the real origin stories. They are admitting that the canonized versions of church history are not true, because they are being proven false. These canonized narratives can no longer be supported because they are not true. Let that sink in, the narratives of church history are not true. Yet, they were canonized. They were taught by the church to the members and to the world, but they were not true, that is how we have arrived at a place where the dominant narrative is not true.
The church is working hard to make these strange issues seem less strange. They tell us that we can get used to these new ideas, and thank the studious church historians for correcting our well-meaning misunderstandings. But it’s not the church historians who have exposed these things, they’re having to eat crow and admit to so many things as true which they denied as “anti” material previously. Things that they have even excommunicated people for publishing in the past! Now they have historians in videos trying to normalize the strange uncomfortable new narrative. How many times will they need to say “this is an idea that we can get used to”?
And so it goes…
The church will continue to whitewash anything and everything it can get away with. They will continue to gaslight us on everything they can no longer whitewash. When some point it out, they will continue to marginalize them. When members leave the church over it, they will continue to demonize them and their doubts. When exmormons tell about it, they will continue to call it persecution and ask that we “leave the church alone”. Have you experienced this? Please consider sharing your own personal Mormon story with us at wasmormon.org.
- “An Address to All Believers in Christ” by David Whitmer