Book of Mormon Translation Methods

Key events related to the Book of Mormon translation

September 22, 1827

Joseph Smith[BIO] receives the gold plates and the Urim & Thummim from the angel Moroni.[BIO][1]

January 1828

Joseph first translates characters from the plates.[2]

April 12 to June 14, 1828

Martin Harris[BIO] acts as the scribe for the Book of Mormon translation as Joseph translates 116 pages of the Book of Lehi.[3]

June 1828

Martin Harris loses the 116 pages, delaying the translation.[4]

June–September 1828

The plates and "interpreters" are taken away from Joseph because of the lost pages.[5]

Circa 1828–1829

Joseph regains the plates and the interpreters to begin the translation again with Emma Smith[BIO] as scribe.[6]

March 1829

God tells Joseph that his gift of translation is a spiritual gift.[7]

April 7–June 1829

With Oliver Cowdery[BIO] as scribe, Joseph continues translating the plates.[8]

July 17, 1829

Jesse Smith[BIO] writes his nephew, Hyrum Smith,[BIO] and makes a reference to Joseph's use of "spectacles" to decipher hieroglyphics.[9] This is the first reference to spectacles.

September 5, 1829

The Gem records that Harris says Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by putting the spectacles in a hat.[10] This is the first mention of a hat.

March 26, 1830

The Book of Mormon is first sold to the public.[11]

June 2, 1830

The Cincinnati Advertiser and Ohio Phoenix reprints an article from Wayne County Inquirer reporting that Joseph used a white stone to translate the Book of Mormon.[12] This is the first mention of a stone.

December 1830

The Philadelphia Album reports that Joseph used two semi-transparent stones to translate the Book of Mormon.[13] This is the first mention of two stones.

August 10, 1832

The Boston Investigator reports a town hall where "Mormonite Preachers" were asked questions about Mormonism.[14] This is the first time the term "Urim and Thummim" appears related to the translation.

January 1833

The Evening and Morning Star reports that Joseph used "interpreters" in the translation that might have been known anciently as the "Urim and Thummim."[15] This is the first time the term "interpreters" appears.

How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon? What do all records say about the instruments used?

Joseph[BIO] used several different translation methods.[16] The various accounts included common elements such as "spectacles,"[17] "rock(s),"[18] and "Urim & Thummim."[19] Many accounts also mention a hat.[20]

There are over 200 accounts referring to Joseph's various translation methods.[21] Many of the accounts are late, contradictory, and hearsay.[22]

Table of Translation Methods

Translation Method

First Reference

Various Descriptions

Gift

March 1829

  • "Gift to translate"[23]

  • "Gift and power of God"[24]

Spectacles

July 17, 1829[25]

  • "Huge" spectacles[26] and placed into a hat during translation[27]

  • Lenses made of crystals[28] or marble[29] and the frame made of silver metal[30]

  • Sometimes called the Urim & Thummim[31] or Nephite Interpreters[32]

Hat

September 5, 1829[33]

  • Spectacles in a hat[34]

  • Plates in a hat[35]

  • Stone in a hat[36]

Stone or Rock

June 2, 1830[37]

  • White stone[38]

  • Brown or dark or chocolate stone[39]

  • Placed in a hat[40]

Two Stones

December 1830[41]

  • Crystal stones[42]

  • Transparent or clear stones[43]

  • White or marble stones[44]

  • Two stones called the Urim and Thummim[45]

Urim & Thummim

August 10, 1832[46]

  • Two stones set in a silver bow[47] described as silver.[48]

  • Stones were crystal or transparent or white[49]

Interpreters

January 1833[50]

  • Referred to as "Teraphim"[51]

  • Referred to as Urim and Thummim[52]

  • Referred to as Divine Spectacles[53]

Other

-

  • Reading hieroglyphs[54]

  • "Supernaturally assisted"[55]

What do the firsthand accounts say about the translation process?

The only firsthand witness accounts about the translation with any details are from Joseph Smith, Emma Smith,[BIO] and David Whitmer.[BIO] Joseph referred to "spectacles,"[56] and many decades later, Emma and David both recalled a stone in a hat.[57]

What did Joseph mean by the "spectacles"?

They were the Urim and Thummim, which was some kind of glass and metal type of instrument.[58] Joseph Smith and others seemed to use the term "spectacles," "Urim and Thummim," and "Nephite interpreters" interchangeably.[59]

Some reports describe the "spectacles" as two transparent stones set in a metal rim, like a pair of big glasses.[60] Apparently, the glasses could be attached to some kind of breastplate[61] which was found in the stone box with the plates.[62] It's unclear what this looked like or how it was used.

So what about the stone in the hat? How did that work?

It's unclear. Some accounts say that he put spectacles in a hat;[63] others say that he put the plates[64] or one[65] or two stones.[66] These sources sometimes reference Joseph putting his face in the hat and blocking out all light.[67]

What were the stones?

They were probably seer stones.[68] Generally, seer stones were stones used by practitioners of folk magic to "see" hidden things like missing objects or treasures.[69] Joseph Smith sometimes used a seer stone to assist in revelation.[70]

So both a seer stone and the Urim and Thummim were used to translate the gold plates?

Yes, but historical accounts don't clearly establish which methods were used when or how often.[71]

In an 1870 letter, Emma Smith recalled that Joseph Smith switched to the seer stone when God took the Urim and Thummim after the 116 pages were lost.[72] David Whitmer corroborated this story in an 1885 interview.[73]

How did seer stones work as a translation method?

It's unclear. The accounts are vague and contradictory.[74]

For example, David Whitmer reportedly said that words would "appear" on the stone,[75] but he also said that a parchment would appear and then disappear after it was read.[76] Some other accounts say that he didn't put the seer stone in his hat, but that he put the Urim and Thummim (the "spectacles") into the hat and recited the translation.[77]

These details are mostly second or thirdhand or are recollections from decades after.[78]

But isn't all of this really weird?

Yes.

Has God used strange objects like this elsewhere?

Yes. For example, in the Bible, there are similarly strange practices and events like burning bushes, using the "Urim" to receive revelation, and "casting lots."[79]

What did Joseph mean by "translation"?

Joseph Smith used the term "translation" to mean a process done "by the gift and power of God."[80] He also seemed to believe that the characters on the plates could be translated by secular means.[81] Joseph was set apart as a translator[82] and early Church leaders considered translation a spiritual gift.[83]

Assuming the translation just appeared to Joseph through rocks, why was it necessary to have gold plates with the original text on them?

It's unclear. It could have been important for ancient people to have a physical method to record their history.[84] It also could have been important for Joseph to be able to show a physical object to witnesses to support his testimony.[85]

How does all that square with what the Doctrine & Covenants says about Oliver Cowdery needing to study to translate?

It seems there was some study required to translate, at least for Oliver Cowdery,[BIO][86] and not just a simple use of the Urim & Thummim or seer stone.[87] It's unclear if this means studying the plates or if it means getting in a proper frame of mind.[88]

Did the Church try to hide how the plates were translated?

Yes and no. The different historical accounts about the translation were largely ignored in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and so it's likely that most Church leaders writing curriculum and Church publications were unaware of them.[89]

In the twenty-first century, Church leaders have included different narratives about the translation—including ones with the hat and seer stone—in the Friend,[90] the Ensign,[91] and history books.[92]

Why are all the images of Joseph Smith translating just him reading the plates instead of using a hat and a stone?

It seems many artists weren't familiar with the historical records on translation.[93] Showing Joseph sitting at a table with the plates is also easier than trying to figure out what the "breastplate and spectacles" looked like or if the "rock in the hat" narrative was something that would visually work in a painting.[94]

Art depicting the different translation methods became more common in the twenty-first century.[95]

What if I don’t like the idea of a “rock in a hat” and I want to just believe that he translated the Book of Mormon some other way?

The evidence indicates that Joseph used a variety of methods for translation, including a "rock in a hat" method.[96] Though much of the historical record is hearsay or late,[97] there is still credible evidence supporting this translation method.[98]

Some People Say . . .

"The Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Joseph Smith reportedly used a variety of methods to translate the Book of Mormon.

  • These methods include using a stone or stones, a hat, "spectacles," or the Urim and Thummim.

  • There are over 200 accounts of the translation process, many of which are late, contradictory, and hearsay.

  • In the twentieth century, various methods of translation were occasionally published in Church literature, but the standard narrative showed Joseph translating with the Urim & Thummim.

  • In the twenty-first century, the Church has published many articles acknowledging the various methods of translation.

Our Take

The Book of Mormon is essential because it’s evidence of Jesus Christ and the Gospel, as well as Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet, the Church, and the Restoration. So when the story of how the Book of Mormon was translated seems strange or inconsistent with what we've heard in Church, it can be unsettling for our understanding of the Restoration.

Was Joseph Smith a weirdo who used magic occult objects? Was the Church hiding the actual translation story?

It seems that God's dealings with Joseph followed a pattern seen elsewhere in scripture. Moses made a snake out of brass, Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons cured people, the Brother of Jared had the Lord touch stones to make them glow, and Jesus used spit mixed with dirt to heal a man's blindness. When God communicates to prophets and commands them to do a work, he sometimes works through strange methods.

While the traditional narrative of how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with the Urim & Thummim is based in truth, the historical record indicates that there was a lot more to it. In the past, this historical information was not widely known amongst Church members, and even many Church leaders were unaware of the historical details related to the translation process.

Today, Church leaders and publications have discussed the different translation methods, including the accounts of seer stones, spectacles, and hats. The miraculous process of the translation is strange, but the value of the Book of Mormon is that it testifies of Jesus Christ and the restoration of the gospel.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Michael T
    The methods used are all very interesting to say the least. However, the end result is what we have as the final evidence. A 23 year old farm boy from Palmyra, NY could not have conjured up something so exquisite without divine guidance.
Footnotes