The Spectacles and the Stone

Great piece from my good friend Christopher Smith.

How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

Growing up in the LDS church, I was taught that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, as described his 1838 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.

As Chris notes, however, the official illustrations of the translation process almost never showed Joseph using the Urim and Thummim. For example, this compilation shows the Urim and Thummim in only one of the illustrations, and it’s one I did not see until I was well into adulthood.

Now, before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history. This version of the translation process is just what I was presented with growing up.

As the church has recently acknowledged, the other instrument used to translate was a seer stone that Joseph Smith had borrowed from Willard Chase. I was completely unaware of the seer stone until my mission president mentioned it in a devotional meeting in our office.

As Chris says, the church’s increased openness in discussing the translation process is a very positive sign that the church has decided to “peel back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.”

21 Responses to The Spectacles and the Stone

  1. Thanks for sharing the post. Really glad you liked it!

  2. AZeus says:

    In response to your statement “I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history.” I respectfully disagree.

    This church is like any other church and it’s all about appearances. And if that appearance requires covering up history or lying about what actually happened, then that’s what they will do.

    Ever since I started studying church history, anything the church didn’t want to come to light was covered up. Anyone who tried to bring the truth to light was either disfellowshipped or excommunicated or dealt with in some fashion. The only reason why the church has come forward with this and other information recently is because the tidal wave of information has breached the wall. People are leaving and therefore the only recourse the church has is to come forward with information (enough to appease, at least)

    I, like you, was taught that JS translated the BOM with the Urim and Thummim. I distinctly remember my Sunday school teacher describing them and how they were used. I was told not to read books by Juanita Brooks and Fawn Brodie, that they twisted the truth. But, now we know they presented the whole history, with references and facts. And how did the church treat them? By shaming them in one fashion or another. The truth matters and should be freely given so that people can make proper judgments. If something bad happened, admit to it, apologize, make changes so that it doesn’t happen again.

    I apologize if I come off strong on this, but history is important to me. If you someone covers up history that has been documented, to me, that’s a disservice to humanity.

    • jiminpanama says:

      And really if it was just one thing. No sweat! But it was literally everything from the first vision and on. Coverup after coverup. Are all this people that brought these truths out years ago going to be invited back now? Runtu is very generous and seasoned in his attitude. Let’s people decide for themselves, but strong words are good sometimes too.

  3. qzxv says:

    runtu, I’m interested in your take on the following old meaning that is in the Book of Mormon:

    by the cause of = ‘on account of, by reason of’; hurl = ‘drag, pull’; rebellion = ‘opposition, variance’; withstand = ‘oppose, deny’; depart = ‘divide’ (intr.); detect = ‘expose’; to that = ‘until’; choice = ‘judgment, discernment’; obtain = ‘reach (a place)’; scatter = ‘separate (from others)’; but if = ‘unless’; counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult’; commend = ‘recommend’; suffer = ‘endure, consent’ (intr.); curious = ‘ingenious’; desire = ‘require’; desirous = ‘desirable’; turn upon = ‘fall upon’; captivate = ‘subjugate’; manifest = ‘declare’; go by = ‘pass without noticing’; scorch = ‘burn, consume’; stripe = ‘whip, beat’; become for oneself = ‘come of age’; tremendious = ‘dreadful, horrible’; extinct = ‘dead (individual)’; biblical: frankly = ‘freely’ ; turn again = ‘return’; cast = ‘shoot (arrows)’; require = ‘request’; wrap together = ‘roll up’; errand = ‘message to relay’; establish = ‘confirm’; again = ‘back’.

    • runtu says:

      I have no opinion of that. Did you have something in mind?

      • qzxv says:

        Must I state the obvious? You have rejected the notion that the Book of Mormon is a revealed text. You think that either Smith or an associate (or various persons) authored it. In that case, how did plenty of obsolete, often nonbiblical (and sometimes barely biblical), vocabulary end up in the text? Moreover, how did plenty of obsolete, nonbiblical grammar end up in the text? I’m interested in how you explain the textually verifiable existence of hundreds of such items to your own satisfaction, since you come across as a reasonable analyst.

        As interesting and valuable as pictures of the seer stone are, the most valuable aspect of the recent JS Papers publication are the pictures of the printer’s manuscript, with a color coded transcription.

        Thank you for your information about Willard Chase.

      • runtu says:

        I guess you must state the obvious. I have no opinion on who wrote the text of the Book of Mormon, so the “obsolete” word usage doesn’t tell me anything in particular. Without context, I’m not sure how I’m meant to explain the items you listed. I tried to look up a couple of your references, but “by the cause of” came up with way too many results for me to know what you’re referring to. “Hurl” is used once in the Book of Mormon, but I’m not seeing how the usage is nonstandard. I’ll tell you what: you write up your thoughts about the nonstandard language in the Book of Mormon, complete with references, and I’ll post it here, unedited, as a guest post, and then we can discuss it.

    • CAB says:

      What is your point?

      • runtu says:

        So, it’s not just me.

      • qzxv says:

        The point is related to the seer stone in that the words with obsolete meaning were written down when Smith was looking at the stone in the hat. According to the OED, the meanings of quite a few words and short phrases were obsolete at the time. Some of them appear to have been obsolete before American colonization, given the dates of the last examples in the OED. There are enough of them that it is highly likely that some of them were obsolete in Smith’s time. Any proposed authors would not have known the meanings, but there they are, and there are enough of them that they cannot be reasonably dismissed as artifacts of apologetic investigation. Skousen found many of them in the process of doing critical text work. And the lexis is only one piece of the argument. There is lots of obsolete grammar in the earliest text — morphosyntax and variation found only in the Early Modern period.

        This is directly related to a point runtu made in a linked OP. There he wrote that the text would be a better indicator of its origin — divine or human — than witnesses. So I’m confronting the substance of the earliest text. Obsolete language that Smith would not have known — like vocabulary and grammar such as pronominal doubling in causatives (“cause us that we”, etc.) — increases the probability of divine origins.

        In particular, Skousen has written about “hurl” which you can read about online. In fact, you can read about half of the listed vocabulary items, more or less, online. You will find ample context and analysis in his various writings, if you wish to consider the evidence.

        “By the cause of”, according to the OED, is an obsolete idiomatic expression — i.e. not “by [ the cause of ]” — with the meaning indicated. It is found twice in the earliest text. One of them was edited out. Anyone can read about the editing online in Skousen’s ATV (see Alma 7:5; or Alma 15:3). The phrase is rarely found in educated British writings just before Smith’s time. Not the clearest example of obsolescence, but declared to be by the OED (def. 6a of “cause”), and certainly rare by the 1820s (a learned phrase by then), and perhaps only British. If you restrict advanced book searches in Google to before 1830 you will reduce the number of false positives. You will still get them, though.

      • CAB says:

        Wow. That’s reaching.

        All of those phrases would have been available to JS in the family library. The Smiths were avid readers, had been for generations, and were also highly intelligent. The most reasonable explanation for the appearance of those words and phrases is that my cousin Joe had read his father’s and grandfather’s books.

        If there were the tiniest bit of archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, any little bit of DNA supporting the Lamanite claims, any evidence whatsoever that The Gold Plates actually existed in the material plane and not “in the spirit” then maybe we could discuss language anomalies.

        Let me refer you to Occam’s Razor.

      • AZeus says:

        I was curious about this since I haven’t really hard anything like this before. So, I thought I would do a little investigating. Google has a wonderful little tool called the Ngram Viewer

        I looked up three words: hurl, scorch and desirous (the links are below). In each case the word was used more in 1800 or the same as now. You can even do phrases, check out “by the cause of”, was most used between 1790 to around 1900.

        Anyway, I’m just throwing it out there. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Just an interesting data point.

  4. qzxv says:

    Was Chase favorable, neutral, or antagonistic toward Smith? Do you know who else said or wrote anything about the acquisition of the stone?

    • runtu says:

      Reading Chase’s affidavit, he comes across as not nearly as hostile as most of the Smiths’ neighbors in Palmyra. Here’s what he had to say about the stone:

      Willard Chase: “I became acquainted with the Smith family, known as the authors of the Mormon Bible, in the year 1820. At that time, they were engaged in the money digging business, which they followed until the latter part of the season of 1827. In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me; the latter of whom is now known as the Mormon prophet. After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat. It has been said by Smith, that he brought the stone from the well; but this is false. There was no one in the well but myself. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alledging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but would lend it.” (Willard Chase affidavit, 11 Dec. 1833)

      Martin Harris recounted the following: “Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase [brother of Willard Chase], twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by [the] means of this stone he first discovered these plates” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:163; in EMD 2:302). “Joseph had before this described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The [Smith] family had likewise told me the same thing” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:169; in EMD 2:309).

      • qzxv says:

        The ownership claim is tenuous. Smith said he “brought the stone from the well”. Chase said he alone was in the well on discovery. Chase also said that “WE discovered a singular appearing stone.” Harris said that they were digging “the well of Mason Chase”. So it was not Willard’s well. Ultimately an inconclusive matter — interesting but not terribly important.

      • runtu says:

        Nope, not important at all. Just an interesting note.

  5. qzxv says:

    CAB, you are denying/ignoring substantial evidence in order to justify your conclusion. Also, you are effectively declaring Smith to be a literary giant in the year 1829. No book of the era has the vocabulary or grammar of the Book of Mormon. It matches writings from the 1500s and 1600s. There are hundreds of items in the text that were not known to authors of the period and not found in books of the period. Plus the systematic usage throughout the earliest text is very different from 19c usage. You’re ignoring the obsolete vocabulary found throughout the book and you’re ignoring the obsolete morphosyntax found throughout the book. It’s quite possible that you know nothing about it. Have you read any of Skousen’s critical text articles? Have you read any of Carmack’s articles? Also, as you know, the examples given represent a sliver of the textual evidence. So you are being dismissive without cause or knowledge, and your Occam’s razor point is not indicated. Finally, there is vocabulary in the text that was obsolete in the 1500s. So you apparently subscribe to the vast frontier library theory. Good luck with that. That position has serious flaws, but you can hold onto if you like.

    • runtu says:


      I’m really struggling to figure out the significance of the nonstandard word usage. Again, I would love it if you wrote something up and let me post it here as a guest post so we can discuss it. By itself, nonstandard word usage in the Book of Mormon doesn’t tell me much.

    • runtu says:

      Dale Broadhurst suggests one possible source for these nonstandard usages: the magickal lore and documents that Joseph would have been exposed to through Luman Walters and through his own experience as a scryer. These documents quoted texts from the 1500s at length and contain the kinds of anomalous usage that otherwise would have been lost in normal written and spoken English. Broadhurst also says that the Book of Mormon also uses the distinct vernaculars of late 18th- and early 19th-century New England and Appalachia. If the theory about a pre-translation done by 16th-century writers is correct, we should not see either of these distinct vernaculars.

      Given the competing theories, I’d say Broadhurst’s is the more parsimonious.

    • ameliafyoung says:

      But why would the phrases being obsolete English phrases be important? The BOM was written in Reformed Egyptian, supposedly. It wasn’t translated from 1500s English, but from Reformed Egyptian. So NO 1500s English should be found in the translation.

      And why was it translated into 1500s English anyway? Joseph Smith spoke 1800s English. Why did/would the Lord feel the need to have it translated into “Biblical” sounding language?

      I especially wonder why Smith’s revelations would need to be in “Biblical” English (complete with grammatical errors, see Richard Packham), as opposed to 1800s English that all could easily understand.

      What am I missing here?

      • runtu says:

        That’s what I have not been able to grasp. The examples of “obsolete” usage seem rather tenuous at best, and there certainly aren’t enough of them, and they’re not used consistently enough to suggest a pattern. That makes it difficult to determine significance. But even if we could say with certainty there was something significant about this usage, I’m at a loss as to what we could conclude.

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