The Problems with Joseph Smith and Peep Stone Translations

Anyone who was raised Mormon, or even attended the church for any length of time knows the Urim and Thummim story. Joseph Smith is portrayed as having translated the Book of Mormon with some special seer stones which were found with the gold plates. The Book of Mormon translation was possible with this Urim and Thummim apparatus. But a new generation now is getting a new (more accurate) story about Joseph translating the book with a peep stone by looking into his dark hat to know the words to dictate for the book of scripture.

The Urim and Thummim Narrative

First, we can clearly state that the narrative the church has portrayed is that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate. It is in the scriptures and church lesson manuals and art. Here’s the depiction of Joseph translating the gold plates in the children’s comic strip version of church history, followed by quotes from the scriptures (Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants) detailing the translation process:

Image of Joseph with spectacles and a breastplate reading the gold plates, with the caption: Joseph began to translate the writing on the gold plates. Joseph did not know what the writing meant. God helped him. Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to understand the words. We can read what he translated. It is called the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith History
Joseph began to translate the writing on the gold plates. Joseph did not know what the writing meant. God helped him. Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to understand the words. We can read what he translated. It is called the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith History

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith–History 1:35

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 the February following.

Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith–History 1:62

Oliver Cowdery describes these events thus: “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.’

Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith–History 1:75

translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim

D&C 10:1

The New Seer Stone Narrative

In August 2015, the church released the printer’s manuscript as part of the Joseph Smith papers project. This publication included the first ever photos of a seer stone (or peep stone) which is now being credited as a main tool aiding Joseph in the translation. It is also the most openly the church has ever admitted to Joseph using a peep stone in his translation process.

Featured in the new volume are photographs of a brown seer stone likely used by the Prophet Joseph Smith in his translation of the Book of Mormon.

“This is the first time the Church has published images of this seer stone,” Elder Snow noted. “They’re beautiful, and we hope that both the images and the discussion of this sacred object will add to the understanding about the translation of the Book of Mormon.”

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/book-of-mormon-printers-manuscript-photos-of-seer-stone-featured-in-new-book

Then in 2020, the church released a video (called The Book of Mormon Is Tangible Evidence of the Restoration) featuring church president Russell Nelson discussing the Book of Mormon translation. He mentions that Joseph used a hat and his peep stones (or the Urim and Thummim or seer stones) and placed them in the hat because he could see better when he’d “take that position”. He mentions it in passing, as if it was well-accepted and well-known and always taught as this. He then compares this method of translating to reading his text messages on his mobile phone, and since Joseph didn’t have anything like a cell phone, it was “just the gift and power of God”!

"We know that they had a table like this. We know they had the golden plates, covered usually. And Joseph used these: the Urim and Thummim, seer stones, in the hat. And it was easier for him to see the light when he'd, uh, take that position." Russell M Nelson, LDS Church President awkwardly gaslights everyone about Joseph Smiths translation process including looking at a rock in his hat.
“We know that they had a table like this. We know they had the golden plates, covered usually. And Joseph used these: the Urim and Thummim, seer stones, in the hat. And it was easier for him to see the light when he’d, uh, take that position.” Russell M Nelson, LDS Church President awkwardly gaslights everyone about Joseph Smith’s translation process including looking at a rock in his hat.
"To me, it's like having my mobile phone in my hand. And I can get messages on it that you can't see. And they had nothing like that, so it's just the gift and power of God how he was able to do that in that period of time." Russell M Nelson, LDS Church President compares Joseph Smith's peep stones to his own cell phone text messages.
“To me, it’s like having my mobile phone in my hand. And I can get messages on it that you can’t see. And they had nothing like that, so it’s just the gift and power of God how he was able to do that in that period of time.” Russell M Nelson, LDS Church President compares Joseph Smith’s peep stones to his own cell phone text messages.

The Narrative Is Shifting

Where was the transition from telling the earlier Urim and Thummim story to the now seer stone story? Is there a statement that the church made where they were like “oops! Even though we taught that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate, we actually meant to teach that he used a seer stone in a hat!” No. There was no official transition or even explanation for the shift. The church simply revealed images of a seer stone in 2015. Since then they’ve slowly started pushing this new seer stone story. It was just all of a sudden phased in as if it had always been there. This is classic gaslighting from the church as usual. This is very similar to the Big brother doublespeak in 1984, stating “The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.” The church even posted articles about why all the artwork was misleading, blaming the artists for badly representing how things were rather than taking any responsibility for the change and the suddenness of the change. Who was it that hired these artists and approved of what they represented in their art?

It’s no surprise that folks express surprise and even betrayal and anger when the church changes the narrative. They’ve taught all along that the narrative was 100% true, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Here’s an example:

"As someone who was raised in the church since birth in 1955, the first time I ever heard about that damn rock in the hat was when I read it in the gospel topic essays in May of 2021. Yes, I was 66 years old. I had taught every lesson in every auxiliary, been president of primary (twice), YW (twice), relief society, taught seminary and had NEVER heard of it. Never! It was a huge crack in my heavy shelf. I absolutely hated the explanation given by RMN in the video for primary children saying the rock was like a cell phone - words would appear on it. It made me so angry!" A member experiences feelings of anger when the church continues to gaslight about peep stones.
“As someone who was raised in the church since birth in 1955, the first time I ever heard about that damn rock in the hat was when I read it in the gospel topic essays in May of 2021. Yes, I was 66 years old. I had taught every lesson in every auxiliary, been president of primary (twice), YW (twice), relief society, taught seminary and had NEVER heard of it. Never! It was a huge crack in my heavy shelf. I absolutely hated the explanation given by RMN in the video for primary children saying the rock was like a cell phone – words would appear on it. It made me so angry!” A member experiences feelings of anger when the church continues to gaslight about peep stones.

And here’s the video they mention where Russell Nelson shows what it’s like to look into a hat, though awkwardly, and dismisses the idea of Joseph using a peep stone as if all along it were a normal and accepted part of the Mormon narrative.

Russell M Nelson explains how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with a stone in a hat, just like he uses his cell phone today. On his mobile phone, he can get messages on it, that you can’t see, they had nothing like that… except the supposed seer stone of course.

Smartphone Seer Stone Comparison from Brad Wilcox too

Church president, Russell M Nelson isn’t the only one comparing the rock to a smartphone either. Here’s Mormon apologist, Brad Wilcox, doing the same!

Brad Wilcox explains that translating the gold plates was like using a smartphone in the sun.

The hallways of the meeting house and church curriculum lessons always depicted Joseph Smith sitting at a desk actually translating the golden plates! These teaching have been misleading at best. The big question the church will never answer is “Why did you lie about it?” We can only deduce that because seer stones are linked with folk magic, superstitions and treasure digging, the church preferred to push the story of the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim at least has biblical references. They can rest on the more accepted ancient relic story rather than use terms like glass-looking and peep-stones.

The seer stone narrative was a problem from the beginning because it ties Joseph to his fraudulent occult beliefs in treasure digging and his sordid history of participating. This would explain the persistent effort to suppress it as long as possible. The question is why are they being upfront about it now, after all these years, risking marginalizing those who trusted them? Why did they risk upsetting the general membership? It’s now a fine line between inoculating members with an adjusted narrative who are finding out from sources other than the church and upsetting those who were misled. The Gospel Topic Essays are a place the church can point doubters to which shows they have been (more) transparent lately. They are plausible deniability where the church can say two things simultaneously to different segments of Mormondom and claim honesty.

When we step back and look at the Book of Mormon translation process though, whether Joseph Smith used a seer stone in his hat, the Urim and Thummim, magic spectacles, an ouija board, or a haunted corncob pipe, it really makes no difference. It’s all equally preposterous. The whole story of the gold plates is as well. We now know that he “translated” the Gold Plates when they were not even in the same room with him. This is not a translation as the church has told us all along. They seem to be shifting the narrative away from using the term translation as well since members are slowly but surely coming to the same conclusion. The only way to keep the Book of Mormon as scripture is to now start calling it inspired writing. That also opens the door for the church to distance itself from the question of historicity too.

The church claiming that the stone is no big deal is the ultimate “these are not the droids you’re looking for.” They come from a church that has set a precedent by teaching about magical compasses and underwear, so having a seer stone that shows words to a seer is not the problem. They hid the stone because of where it came from, the folk magic connections, and how it was “used” before the “translation.” This peep stone wasn’t delivered by God, like the Urim and Thummim with the gold plates. It wasn’t taken back once the translation was finished. It was Joseph’s own little magic rock he used in his earlier fraud of treasure-digging. So where did Joseph find the stone in the first place? Too many people know it was the same rock he used to con farmers out of money they paid him to find buried treasure. this same rock Joseph used for translating was also used during his treasure-digging hunts. It is the rock Joseph Smith found on Willard Chase’s property while leading a treasure dig. Technically the rock belonged to Willard, but Joseph ‘borrowed’ the rock to help in the dig, and never gives it back.

South Park Got It Right

Many learned of the seer stone from South Park, but just assumed it was an anti-mormon lie. Quite humbling and disorienting to realize that South Park knows more accurate church history than most members who grew up attending church and seminary and even teaching the sunday school lessons. South Park, the comedy central cartoon, was more honest about Joseph Smith’s translation process than the LDS church ever has been. There is a real problem if South Park has more accurate information than correlated church manuals and artwork hanging in the chapels across the world and for sale by the church.

image or book of mormon translation process from south park, Joseph smith with his head in a hat looking at a peep stone and dictating to martin harris with the caption "And that's how the book of mormon was written"
And that’s how the Book of Mormon was written. Dum dum dum dum dum…

More Problems with the Seer Stone Stories

Dan Vogel observed that it was another stone seer who first claimed to see there were spectacles in the Hill Cumorah, during a sort of battle-of-the-seers contest with Joseph. Joseph reluctantly agreed that he too saw the interpreters. After that, Joseph was stuck with fitting the spectacles into his story.

When Smith was “translating” the first 116 pages, and into the early 1830s, his spectacles were called the “Nephite interpreters”. He said God said no one could see the interpreters and live. It seems that no one ever saw them or the breastplate. Smith always had a blanket between himself and everyone else. After the first 116 pages were lost, Smith claimed Moroni took the Nephite interpreters and the breastplate back.

After that, observers reported that God “dictated” the entire Book of Mormon to him via his seer stone, with his face buried in his hat.

WW Phelps first introduced the term Urim and Thummim in 1832. Years after the Book of Mormon was published. It wasn’t even Smith who made the connection; Phelps wanted to connect Joseph’s folk magic with a more Biblical tradition, even if it was a completely absurd comparison, so he and other leaders started using the Biblically accepted term, “Urim and Thummim,” to describe both the Nephite interpreters and the peep stone.

The Old Testament Urim and Thummin was a breastplate with two yes/no stones attached via tassels, but history also tells us that spectacles were invented in 13th Century Italy by glassblowers who had discovered that a curved lens could help magnify objects.

Responding to Gaslighting

Some church leaders and members will claim how bizarre it is that people are surprised by the narrative shift. As if the rock in the hat was common mormon knowledge. It’s however not common even though it could be found with in-depth research and deep reading. This was something that members who studied extra church history came across, but not the topics that regularly come up even in discussions in seminary or institute. It isn’t bizarre that so many people weren’t taught things that the church didn’t teach. Even the church admits it didn’t teach about the seer stones in Joseph’s hat. Hence the gospel topic essays and the recent push to adjust the narrative and artwork to reflect it.

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1 Comment

  1. This is a good summary, but there are a few fascinating chapters that you left out. Roberts compared the seer stone or Urim and Thummim to man-made instruments around 1905, more than 100 years before the church would transform this apologetic argument into the mobile phone analogy. Roberts also called the seer stone interchangeable with the Urim and Thummim, which made its way into the 2015 gospel topics essay. The seer stone made its way into sunday school lessons in 1920 and between 1927-1936 prior to being completely removed after Roberts’ death. But ultimately the biggest reason for hiding the seer stone is that if you understand that the brown stone was used then it’s easy to conclude that both Oliver and Joseph lied about the translation process, and that’s hard to explain away.

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