The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon
Seer Stone, Urim & Thummim or Nephite Interpreters?
The instrument used to translate the gold plates can be defined in different ways. In the Old Testament there was something called the Urim and Thummim defined from the Bible Dictionary below.
Urim and Thummim
Hebrew term that means “Lights and Perfections.” An instrument prepared of God to assist man in obtaining revelation from the Lord and in translating languages. See Ex. 28:30 ; Lev. 8:8 ; Num. 27:21 ; Deut. 33:8 ; 1 Sam. 28:6 ; Ezra 2:63 ; Neh. 7:65 ; JS—H 1:35 . Bible Dictionary
From the Index to the Triple Combination we read the definition of Interpreters below:
- See also Interpretation ; Seer ; Translate ; Urim and Thummim
- interpreters a gift from God to seer for translating all ancient records, Mosiah 8:13 .
- interpreters prepared for unfolding mysteries, Mosiah 8:19 ( Alma 37:24–25 ).
- Mosiah 2 confers interpreters upon Alma 2 , Mosiah 28:20 .
- Alma 2 admonishes Helaman 2 to preserve interpreters , Alma 37:21 .
- Moroni 2 commanded to seal up interpreters , Ether 4:5 .
Notice that the name “Urim and Thummim” is never written in the Book of Mormon, but always called, “Interpreters”. That is why you shouldn’t conflate the two instruments as you are reading the scriptures.
Joseph Smith defined the instrument saying , “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.” Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, (March 1, 1842): 707; emphasis added.
JSH 1:35 “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.”
Notice Joseph Smith calls the instrument, “Urim and Thummim” and he says, “which the ancients called”. The Interpreters would look something like the picture to the left as Joseph describes. The instrument called the “Urim and Thummim in the Old Testament would look like something very different as in the picture here.
Because both instruments were used for similar things, they have been called by both names. It is important in your study to understand the difference so you can understand better which instrument is being referred to. Some scholars have interchangeably used the name “Seer Stones” to refer to the Interpreters or the Urim and Thummim. I think we can all agree these 3 instruments could be used for whatever purpose the Lord wants, but the names could be confused as people discuss these instruments.
I personally do not believe that Joseph Smith used the individual seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon, but he used the two stones in a silver bow that could be attached to the Jaredite breastplate. I like to call this the “Nephite Interpreters” as it was very different than a single “Seer Stone” and very different from the Old Testament “Urim and Thummim”.
Additional Quotes about the Nephite Interpreters
“A silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, arround [sic] over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8…[T]hey were much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other.” These stones, he continued, “were attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened at the outer shoulde[r] edge of the breastplate and to the edge of the silver bow.” (
Tyrell Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, p.22
Account from William Smith:
“Among other things we inquired minutely about the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. We asked him what was meant by the expression “two rims of a bow,” which held the former. He said a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breast-plate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate and his brother said Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates.” ( J. W. Peterson in The Rod of Iron I:3 (February 1924), 6—7.)
Lucy Mack Smith description:
“On the morning of September 22, after Joseph had returned from the hill, he placed the article [the Nephite interpreters] of which he spoke into my hands, and, upon examination, I found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles. . . . He [Joseph Smith] handed me the breastplate spoken of in his history. It was wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief, so thin that I could feel its proportions without any difficulty. It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast.” ( History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith )
The above quotes come from the article titled, The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon Joseph Fielding McConkie (Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU) Craig J. Ostler (Assistant Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU)
The following information is from the wonderful new book by James and Hannah Stoddard.
SEER STONE V. URIM & THUMMIM: BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION ON TRIAL by James E. Stoddard III and L. Hannah Stoddard
Did Joseph Smith Translate Using the Urim and Thummim, or a Dark Seer Stone?
“Joseph Smith must have been asked repeatedly regarding the details of his experiences. In 1838, Joseph Smith wrote in his journal, “in the afternoon answered the questions which were frequently asked me while on my last Journey . . . .” Surely, one of the most frequent
questions was, “How and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?” Joseph responded on May 8, 1838: “Moroni, the person who deposited the plates from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom appeared unto me, and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them [the plates] and the Uri and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.15 Now the plaintiff—the progressive historians who propound the “seer stone in a hat” narrative—may attempt to construe Joseph Smith’s use of the phrase “Urim and Thummim” as vague and undefined.
They might ask, “Joseph Smith used the term ‘Urim and Thummim’ rather ambiguously. Could the ‘Urim and Thummim’ not simply be a dark seer stone?
To answer this charge, we will again turn to the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in his own words . We read, that in addition to the description of the plates, the Wentworth Letter included the Prophet’s description of the Urim and Thummim as two transparent stones, set in the rim of a bow: “With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God.16
An early historian described the Wentworth Letter as “one of the choicest documents in our church literature.”17 In this letter, Joseph Smith provided an official, accurate account of the translation of the Book of Mormon and gave a clear, unambiguous description of the Urim and Thummim; what it is and what it is not. The Prophet described the Urim and Thummim as a set of two transparent stones, not a single, dark, chocolate-colored stone . The two stones were set in the rim of a bow, fastened to a breastplate.
Throughout the letter, there is, unsurprisingly, no mention of a seer stone or a “stone in a hat. ” The Prophet also specified that “through the medium of the Urim and Thummim [he] translated.” In 1835, Joseph Curtis related that Joseph Smith and the Prophet’s parents visited him in Michigan. During the course of conversation Joseph Smith shared some of his experiences, including the First Vision and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Curtis remembered: “. . . [ Joseph Smith] saw an angel with a view of the hill cumorah & the plates of gold had certain instructions got the plates & by the assistance of the Urim & Thummim [sic] translated them by the gift & power of God also stated he [had] done nothing more than he was commanded to do & for this his name was cast out as evil for this he was persecuted . . . 18
In the Curtis account, Joseph Smith reiterates that he translated the plates with “the assistance of the Urim and Thummim” and that he had been intensely persecuted and “cast out as evil” for no more than obeying the voice of the Lord. Such has been the pattern throughout history for all of God’s true and holy prophets.19
In another 1835 conversation, recorded in his personal journal, Joseph Smith related the experience he had with Moroni on the night of September 23, 1823. From the very beginning, Moroni made it clear to the Prophet that the translation was to take place through the means of the Urim and Thummim, and that God would give him the power to do so using this sacred instrument: “. . . he [Moroni] told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the indians , were the literal descendants of Abraham . . . the Urim and Thummim [sic], was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it, with the assistance of this instrument. 20
Today, very few believers dispute that the translation occurred by the “gift and power of God,” but they question the means. However, the incident in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s personal journal recounting Moroni’s visit, is one of many records that clarify that the means was the Urim and Thummim. Why is there dispute over the means, but agreement on the “gift and power of God?” Is it an attempt to keep the translation vague, to introduce an agenda?” SEER STONE V. URIM & THUMMIM: BOOK OF MORMON TRANSLATION ON TRIAL by James E. Stoddard III and L. Hannah Stoddard
Joseph Smith History, vol. B-1, 8 May 1838, 794, The Joseph Smith Papers;
emphasis added. See also Elders’ Journal 1 ( July 1838): 42-43; emphasis added.
16 Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, (March 1, 1842): 707; emphasis added.
17 History of the Church, vol. 4 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1950), 541.
18 Curtis, Joseph 1818-1883. Joseph Curtis reminiscences and diary, p. 6, https://catalog.lds.org/assets/24463061-0287-4460-8a45-62d078b75991/0/11
(accessed: February, 2019); emphasis added.
19 See Matthew 5:10-12. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
20 Joseph Smith conversation with Robert Matthews, Joseph Smith Journal,
“Sketch Book for the use of Joseph Smith, jr.,” 9–11 November 1835, 24-25, The Joseph Smith Papers; emphasis added.