How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

When Joseph Smith began the Book of Mormon translation, he acted in his capacity as a treasure seer and used the tools of that trade. But beginning about 1827–28, Smith and his followers began to change how they talked about the translation process, transforming it from magical treasure lore into Christian epic. What follows is my reconstruction of the different stages of the story’s evolution, including how the seer stone and spectacles came to be all but erased from the official narrative.[1]

Stage 1: Obscuring the Spectacles’ Magical Origin (ca. 1828)

As I explained in a previous post, the idea that “spectacles” were buried with the gold plates seems to have been first proposed by treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence.[2] When Joseph obtained the plates on September 22, 1827, he also obtained the spectacles. When he reported on his success to Joseph Knight Sr. , he “seamed to think more of the glasses . . . then he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[;] they are Marvelus[.]”[3]

In winter 1828 Harris took a transcript of some characters from the plates to Dr. Charles Anthon in New York City. Harris explained to Anthon that “Whoever examined the plates through the spectacles, was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning.” Smith by then had already “looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those who stood on the outside.”[4]

When Harris returned from this trip to Harmony, Pennsylvania, Joseph informed him that the trip had fulfilled a prophecy in Isaiah 29:11–12: “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.”[5]

Thereafter, Joseph generally told the story of Book of Mormon translation in language meant to evoke this prophecy. To make the prophecy fit, he massaged the sequence of events. Thus, in his 1832 History he implied that he had learned about the spectacles and their power of translation only after Harris’s return from New York.

[Martin Harris went] to the Learned <saying> read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the blates [plates] they would read it but the Lord forbid it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said I said [I] cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spetticke spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prop[h]icy of Isiaah was fulfilled[6]

Obviously this was not intended as a realistic report of Harris’s interactions with either Smith or Anthon. It was a mythologized version of the story designed to emphasize the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. In borrowing language from Isaiah to narrate Harris’s adventure, Smith obscured his earlier knowledge of the spectacles and their power of translation.[7] In addition to emphasizing the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, this narrative served to erase the spectacles’ embarrassing magical origin.

This version of the story was established by 1830, when Joseph Smith Sr. told an interviewer that his son was not “able to read the characters” until after Martin Harris returned from New York. Then young Joseph “tried the spectacles, and found that, by looking through them, he could see everything—past, present, and future—and could also read and understand the characters written on the plates.” Likewise, Joseph Knight’s tale of this incident says that Joseph, “B[e]ing an unlearned man did not know what to Do. then the Lord gave him power to Translate himself[.]” Lucy Smith too says that “as yet no means had come into his hands of accomplishing” the translation.[8]

In his 1838 History, Joseph would amend this story to accurately reflect his knowledge of the spectacles prior to Harris’s New York trip. In the 1838 version, however, it would be the angel Moroni in 1823 rather than treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence in 1825 who introduced the spectacles. Thus the spectacles’ magical origin would remain obscured. And lest this correction weaken the story’s resemblance to the prophecy in Isaiah 29:11–12, the 1838 History would put new words from the prophecy in Anthon’s mouth: “I cannot read a sealed book.”[9]


Stage 2: The Spectacles Become the Urim and Thummim (ca. 1832)

The biblical phrase “Urim and Thummim” was not applied to the spectacles until 1832.[10] “On August 5 of that year, Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith told a Boston audience that the Book of Mormon translation “was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim.” These Urim and Thummim were “The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.”[11]

In 1833 the Evening and Morning Star repeated this identification, but only tentatively. The Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim).”[12]

By 1834 Oliver Cowdery reported as a fact that the Book of Mormon was translated “with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites whould [sic] have said, ‘Interpreters.’”[13] And by 1835 this claim appeared in the D&C.[14]

It was probably in connection with this development that Smith and his followers began to speak of the spectacles as attached to a priestly breastplate.

Early testimony from Palmyra residents Abner Cole and Willard Chase confirms that by 1829 Smith had described a golden sword and breastplate buried along with the plates and spectacles.[15] Lucy Mack Smith even handled the breastplate through a thin muslin cloth.[16]

But the spectacles were not attached to the breastplate when Lucy handled it. Joseph Smith appears to have introduced this detail in his 1838 History, where he described the Urim and Thummim as “two stones in silver bows . . . fastened to a breastplate.” This detail comes from the Bible, from which we learn that the high priest kept the Urim and Thummim inside his “breastplate of judgment” (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8).

In the original handwritten manuscript for the 1838 History, one can see Joseph wrestling with the odd wording of the biblical text. The Bible instructs the Israelites to “put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim.” Likewise in his manuscript history Joseph originally wrote that the Urim and Thummim were “put into a breast plate.” However, he crossed out “put” and replaced it with “fastened.”[17]

Thereafter, the detail that the Urim and Thummim were “fastened” to the breastplate became a commonplace of Mormon narrative.[18] This revision to the story transformed the breastplate from a military artifact into a priestly relic.[19]

Stage 3: Erasing the Seer Stone (ca. 1838)

As I explained in a previous post, Joseph Smith had originally viewed the spectacles and his seer stone as interchangeable magical artifacts. Early in the translation of the lost Book of Lehi, he had set aside the spectacles and decided “for convenience” to instead translate with his seer stone. Not only all of the extant text but also most or all of the Book of Lehi was translated with the stone rather than the spectacles.[20]

So when the spectacles retroactively became the biblical Urim and Thummim, Joseph’s preference for the stone became an embarrassment. Why had he used a magic rock to translate the Book of Mormon when the Lord had provided a far more sacred instrument?

In the 1838 History Joseph resolved this problem by entirely erasing his seer stone from the narrative. Here Smith said he had “translated by means of the Urim and Thummin” (sic) and received his revelations the same way. This led to some awkward prevarications in the narrative.

Originally, Martin Harris’s loss of the 116 pages had resulted in temporary forfeiture of the Nephite artifacts but not the seer stone. In July 1828 Smith received through his stone a revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants Section 3. The revelation explained that Smith had “lost thy Privileges for a Season” but could regain them if he remained faithful. The artifacts were indeed “restored” to Smith in May 1829, according to D&C 10.[21]

This episode became problematic in the 1838 History. Here Smith reported that the angel had taken the Urim and Thummim away, “appeared and handed” them back so that he could receive D&C 3, taken them away again, and finally returned them again so he could receive D&C 10. This bizarre back-and-forth was invented to maintain the fiction that these revelations were received through the Urim and Thummim rather than the seer stone.[22]

This dishonesty in the 1838 History created some cognitive dissonance for witnesses to the translation process. Sometimes they followed Smith’s lead, while other times they emphasized their own memories. Perhaps most interesting of all are recollections that reveal a struggle to reconcile the two.

David Whitmer told one interviewer that Smith had translated the entire Book of Lehi with the Urim and Thummim, but that when Harris lost the manuscript an angel took the Urim and Thummim and never returned them. Instead Smith “was given by the angel a Urim and Thummim of another pattern, it being shaped in oval or kidney form. This seer’s stone he was instructed to place in his hat, and on covering his face with the hat the character and translation would appear on the stone.” For Whitmer, then, both spectacles and stone can legitimately be called the Urim and Thummim.[23]

Whitmer’s views seem to have influenced William McLellin, who told a similar story. McLellin argued that the Book of Lehi was translated with the Jaredite interpreters (spectacles), but that after the loss of the manuscript the interpreters were taken away and never returned. Instead Smith translated the remainder of the text “by use of a little stone he had in his possession before he obtained the plates.” In McLellin’s opinion, however, neither the stone nor spectacles should be called “Urim and Thummim.” The Urim and Thummim were Old World artifacts, distinct from both the Jaredite spectacles and Smith’s seer stone.[24]

Despite these influential attempts to inject the stone back into the story, Smith’s narrative rather than Whitmer’s became the canonical standard for all subsequent LDS discourse about the translation process.

Postscript: Recovering the Earliest Translation Narrative (ca. 2015)

As seen in this montage borrowed from the CES Letter website, most modern LDS art portrays Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by openly perusing the Book of Mormon plates without the assistance of either stone or spectacles.


These portrayals have drawn a great deal of criticism, including rival portrayals that show Joseph Smith with his head in a hat and the plates nowhere in sight. In response to these criticisms, the Church recently released photographs of Joseph Smith’s seer stone and a Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon translation. The essay, in particular, peels back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.

While more could certainly be said, particularly about Joseph Smith’s early use of magic, the Church has taken some important and admirable steps toward recovering the earliest translation narrative.


[1] Note that earlier versions of the story persisted alongside later ones.

[2] Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, in Dan Vogel, comp. and ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:67.

[3] Joseph Knight Sr. Reminiscence, ca. 1835–1847, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:15. In fall 1827, Martin Harris reportedly told printer John H. Gilbert about Joseph’s discovery of the spectacles, “by putting which on his nose and looking at the plates, the spectacles turned the hyroglyphics into good English.” John H. Gilbert Memorandum, September 8, 1892, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:546.

[4] Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, February 17, 1834, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:378–79.

[5] In the winter 1875–76, Anthony Metcalf asked Harris if he had known about the Isaiah prophecy before going to Anthon. Harris said no; Joseph showed him that passage only after he returned. Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years before the Mast. Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea! Religious Customs of the People of India and Burmah’s Empire. How I Became a Mormon and Why I Became an Infidel! ([Milad, Ida., 1888]), 71.

[6] Joseph Smith History, 1832, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:30.

[7] Lucy Mack Smith and Benjamin Saunders both confirm that Joseph Smith knew of the spectacles’ existence prior to Harris’s New York trip. See Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:328–29, 2:137–38.

[8] Lucy Smith History, 1845, and Joseph Smith Sr. Interview with Fayette Lapham, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:343–44, 463; Joseph Knight Sr. Reminiscence, ca. 1835–1847, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:17. Compare also Henry Harris Statement, ca. 1833, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:76.

[9] The 1838 History additionally introduced the idea that Harris had shown Anthon not only some characters from the gold plates, but also Joseph Smith’s translation of them. Whereas the 1832 History emphasized that Anthon had been unable to interpret the characters, the 1838 version suggested that Anthon had written out a certificate verifying Smith’s translation. This manufactured detail contributed to weakening the link with Isaiah’s prophecy, further necessitating the insertion of the apocryphal “sealed book” quote.

[10] H. Michael Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations (Maitland, Fl.: Xulon Press, 2013), Kindle ed., Commentary on Document 15.

[11] “Questions Proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and Their Answers Obtained Before the Whole Assembly at Julian Hall, Sunday Evening, August 5, 1832,” Boston Investigator 2 (August 10, 1832). In the Bible, the Urim and Thummim were two priestly objects used in receiving revelation. The Bible does not describe their precise shape or function, though scholars generally believe they were used in casting lots to receive answers to yes-or-no questions. See Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations, Commentary on Document 15.

[12] “The Book of Mormon,” Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 8 (January 1833): 58. See also “Hosea Chapter III,” Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 2 (July 1832): 14. Teraphim were probably small statues and are condemned in the Bible as idols. See Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations, Commentary on Document 15.

[13] Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps, September 7, 1834, in Latter-Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1, no. 1 (October 1834): 14.

[14] 1835 D&C 36:1; LDS D&C 10:1. Although the published revelation was dated May 1829, the Urim and Thummim reference was added later. See Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations, Commentary on Document 15.

[15] Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, and Abner Cole, “The Book of Pukei.—Chap. 1,” June 12, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:73, 234.

[16] Lucy Smith History, 1845, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:339.

[17] Joseph Smith History, 1839 [1838], in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:64.

[18] See William Smith Interview with J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender, 1890, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:508–9; David Whitmer Interview with St. Louis Republican, July 1844, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:131.

[19] For the breastplate as “Aaron’s breastplate,” see William H. Dame Journal, January 14, 1855, typescript, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[20] Martin Harris Testimony, September 4, 1870, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:320.

[21] Marquardt, Joseph Smith’s 1828–1843 Revelations, Documents 1 and 8.

[22] Joseph Smith History, 1839 [1838], in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:72–74.

[23] “David Whitmer on His Death-bed,” Chicago Daily Tribune 45 (December 17, 1885), (accessed August 21, 2015). In his various recollections Whitmer contradicted himself as to whether Smith had previously possessed the stone or received it from an angel. Whitmer did not join the movement until after the loss of the Book of Lehi manuscript, so his knowledge of earlier events was all second-hand.

[24] William McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July & September 1872, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 5:327–29.

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How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time — 16 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Spectacles and the Stone | Runtu's Rincón

  2. Great job Chris! This really makes a lot of sense. I was also intrigued by the E&M Star’s use of the word “Teraphim.” I don’t recall ever hearing about that word before, so I turned to that post-modern source of All Knowledge, Wikipedia. I had no idea that the Teraphim (“interpreters”) were apparently the mummified heads of adult males, probably representing YHWH, mounted inside people’s homes, and used a cultic devices for divination. WOW.

  3. Great post, Chris, thank you. Two things:

    1) When reconstructing the story of the gold plates and the translation process, we are of necessity required to rely on later sources. Have you laid out the sources in chronological order to see if they correspond to what you are saying above? In other words, you rely on some sources (Hurlbut affidavits, Lucy, etc.) to essentially argue, “this is how it was in the late 1820s,” then rely on sources from the same general timeframe (Evening and Morning Star, affidavits, etc.) to say, “this is how it became later.” Do these sources tell the clear story you detail above or do they reveal jumbled confusion around the emergence of the plates and the translation as well as the foibles of memory? (That’s a messy question, hope I’m making sense.)

    2) I will give you and others at World’s Without End a million dollars if you can figure out how to hyperlink your footnotes 😉

  4. Chris,

    This is fascinating, and I’m new to your blog, but loving this and the past article. Question about the word “directors” instead of interpreters. I heard Ann Taves mention this on a podcast and did a little looking, and sure enough the JSPP 1828 copy of D&C 3 mentions “directors” as a term for the seer stone. “thou has lost thy Privileges for a Season for thou has suffered that the council of thy directors to be trampeled upon from the beginning…” In addition the first edition of the BoM Alma 37 references “directors” twice in referenced to a seer stone, these references were later changed to interpreters. I also find it interesting that the Liahona was a “director” and with some stories that the Liahona was also in the box with the plates, I wonder if Joseph was conflating the two things together as these narratives evolved. What do you think about this term “directors” and are you aware of other sources that use this description?

  5. Great write-up, Chris. The seer stone photograph and accompanying discussion — from “official” sources — has really legitimized the inquiry into the translation process. A new official narrative will need to be crafted. “By the gift and power of God” turns out to be more of a smokescreen than a description.

  6. John,

    You can mail the million dollar check to my Salt Lake address, or just put me on payroll through Signature and sign me up for direct deposit.

    In response to your question, this post is necessarily my own reconstruction of how the narrative evolved. I’ve used several different criteria for prioritizing sources.

    1) Sometimes, as with the introduction of the term “Urim and Thummim,” we can just lay out the sources in chronological order and see a clear shift in terminology. But you’re right that most of the time there aren’t really any early sources, so we’re left to choose between later ones.

    2) Specific anecdotes are to be preferred over generalizations. So for instance, I believe Joseph Knight when he says Joseph Smith came back from the hill in September 1827 and “seamed to think more of the glasses . . . then he Did of the Plates for[,] says he[,] I can see any thing[;] they are Marvelus.” The details make this more credible than if Knight had simply generalized that Joseph’s knowledge of the spectacles predated the Anthon episode. I also put a lot more stock in quotes that are directly attributed to a particular person at a particular time and place than in vague reports about what the Smiths were doing or saying.

    3) Some sources clearly sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of literary allusion or problem-solving. For instance, when Joseph in his 1832 history says Harris “returned to me and gave them [the plates] to me to translate,” are we supposed to believe that Harris really handed Joseph the plates? Of course not. Other sources are quite clear that the plates were always in the custody of Joseph or the angel. No. Joseph says Martin gave him the plates because that’s what the Isaiah prophecy calls for. This account isn’t meant to be realistic, it’s meant to illustrate the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in language borrowed from the Bible.

    4) People generally improve stories in their memory. So if someone tells a story that’s a bit out of step with their community’s tradition or that doesn’t quite fit their own religious agenda, I’m inclined to believe that more than when they just repeat the party line.

    I could probably say more about all that, but you get the idea.

  7. hope_for_things,

    You ask a great question, one I wanted to answer in this post but couldn’t quite figure out. There is at least one other source that uses “director” this way: an 1870 reminiscence of Elizabeth Cowdery, who says Joseph “would place the director in his hat, and then place his face in his hat, so as to exclude the light.” Possibly he used this term for his stone from 1827–1829. I also haven’t been able to figure out how early he used the term “interpreters” in reference to the spectacles, though it was at least by 1831 when he talked to Nancy Towle. Did he swap the term “director” for “interpreters”? Or use both terms simultaneously to refer to different artifacts? From the available sources I can’t really tell.

  8. I enjoyed this. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this in connection to folk magic. I’ve written an essay related to Stephen Webb’s book “Mormon Chriistianity” on Mormon materialism and the influence of various strands of western esotericism. That will appear in Multnomah Seminary’s “Cultural Enxounters” journal soon. Perhaps there is a place for stripping back the layers on Smith and magic as well.

  9. Thanks Chris, I found this on BOAP, says it’s from the Book of John Whitmer (1832-1846), recounting the three witness experience he says, “into whose presence the angel of God came and showed them the plates, the ball, the directors, etc.” He calls the seer stones “directors” here. Wasn’t he one of Joseph’s scribes for the BoM translation? I’m such a novice to all this, but I find it fascinating trying to piece the puzzle together. Thanks again.

  10. In the canonized “Joseph Smith–History,” Joseph (as presumed author) states that the angel Moroni told him about the gold plates containing the everlasting gospel. “Also, 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 and former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.” (verse 35)

    As you pointed out church publications over the years have been consistent with what is found in “The Pearl of Great Price.” I guess I don’t read the Book of Mormon essay as “peel[ing] back many layers of historical revisionism,” as you do. What I see is an “oops” statement saying that actually Joseph used a stone in a hat to “translate” the gold plates. What is conspicuously lacking is an explanation of the peculiar decision by Joseph Smith to discard the device delivered by the angel that “God had prepared for . . . translating the book,” in favor of a stone someone found while digging a well.

    It strikes me that the church will have a difficult time “recovering the earliest translation narrative.” It is such a messy story including the fact that the translation process didn’t required the original document. Short of a newly discovered document showing that an angel instructed Joseph to use the seer stone rather that the device originally prepared for translation, the Church’s best alternative is to deemphasize the origin story and start focusing upon the content of the “most correct of any book on earth.”

  11. Sounds like the same evolutionary process that transpired with he “first vision” – keep modifying the record until we finally get it right!

  12. Thanks for putting this together.

    One small part that caused me some friction: I wouldn’t call ‘admirable’ the fact the church has taken steps in recovering the earliest translation narrative. I don’t think they are ‘recovering’ it, but rather admitting it publicly after they have known it and deliberately hidden it for decades.