PART 1: Eyewitness and Early Secondary Accounts

The Purposes of God Cannot Be Frustrated

The designs and purposes of God have not been frustrated in relation to the means He designated for the bringing forth and translation of the metal plates containing that which is now known as the Book Of Mormon. This is true despite the avowed intention of many, not in harmony with the Restoration movement, to prove otherwise.

For over a century enemies of Joseph Smith, and of the Church of Jesus Christ which was restored through him, have tried to completely discredit the Book of Mormon. Others have tried to find some explanation for its existence other than that proclaimed by the prophet.

Joseph stated that an angel of God had told him where certain metal plates could be found along with the Urim and Thummim. Eventually he was given possession of them. By the gift and power of God, he translated hieroglyphics from the plates into English with the Urim and Thummim.

God's Divine Purpose

God's divine purpose was specifically impressed upon Joseph Smith, Jr. by an angelic messenger in 1823 before he had yet received either the plates or the interpreters.

"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 was what constituted seers in ancient and former times, and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book." Times and Seasons 3: 753 also RLDS History 1: 13-14.

Prophets Described The Urim And Thummim

The purpose of God for the Urim and Thummim is clearly revealed when the historical account of their use is followed through the Book of Mormon. When the interpreters were given to the Brother of Jared he was told that the language in which he wrote would be confounded and that these "shall magnify to the eyes of men, these things which ye shall write." Ether 1:87-89.

Ammon told King Limhi that his father, King Mosiah, has "interpreters" through which he can look and "translate all records that are of ancient date: and it is a gift from God." Mosiah 5:72-75.

A description of these interpreters is found in Mosiah 12:18-21.

"And now he translated them by means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.
"Now these things were prepared from the beginning and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages:
"And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord . . .
"And whosoever has these things, is called a seer, after the manner of old times."

Mormon, a great Nephite prophet, was commanded to seal up the plates with the translating instruments that God's purposes might be fulfilled in them.

The divine purpose of the interpreters is further specified by the Lord to the prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. in two early revelations. He was told that he had been given power to translate "by means which had been prepared before." Doctrine and Covenants 17:2c. Those means were described as, "by means of the Urim and Thummim." Doctrine and Covenants 3:1a.

Joseph lost the plates and the power to translate for a time when he allowed Martin Harris to take 116 pages of manuscript to show to his family. When the plates and the power were returned, Joseph was instructed to "continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun." Doctrine and Covenants 3:1 c. It was well known that Joseph Smith had begun the translation of the plates through the interpreters, which he called the Urim and Thummim, by the gift and power of God. This is also consistent with the revelation designating The Three Witnesses in which the Urim and Thummim are further identified as the instruments given to the Brother of Jared as the means prepared by God for the translation of languages. Doctrine and Covenants 15:1.

The phrase, "by means of the Urim and Thummim" was not included when the revelation of Doctrine and Covenants 3 was printed in chapter 9 of the Book of Commandments. It might seem, on first impression, that the Book of Commandments version would be the more accurate because of it's earlier printing date, 1833. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. The facts are that the printing of the revelations in the Book of Commandments and in some of the very early periodicals contained many errors and omissions.

Oliver Cowdery, who was involved in the early printing both at the beginning and later process, had these comments on the corrections made in the later church publication of those early revelations:

"On the revelations we merely say, that we were not a little surprised to find the previous print so different from the original. We have given them a careful comparison, assisted by individuals whose known integrity and ability is uncensurable. Thus saying we cast no reflection upon those who were entrusted with the responsibility of publishing them in Missouri, as our own labors were included in that important service to the church, and it was our unceasing endeavor to have them correspond with the copy furnished us. We believe they are now correct. RLDS History 1:580 - 581.

We have again inserted articles and covenants according to our promise in a previous number, for the benefit of our brethren abroad who have not the first number of the first volume. As there were some errors which had got into them by transcribing, we have since obtained the original copy and made the necessary corrections." RLDS History 1:580-581.

W.W. Phelps, who published the Book of Commandments, as well as many of the revelations in the early numbers of the Evening and Morning Star, endorsed the printing of the revelations included in the 1835, Kirtland, edition of the Doctrine and Covenants as being correct. RLDS History 1:579.

Joseph's Use Of The Urim And Thummim

In the very early years Joseph did not offer many details about the process of translation. In 1828 he was warned to hold his peace until the Lord should "see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter. Doctrine and Covenants 3:7. However, he gave specific details relating to the matter of translation in his hiStory of the Church. The increase of libelous publications created an obvious need for a clear and accurate statement of the Church's early history. This need is indicated in an editorial in the Elders' Journal in which Joseph denounced a group who had been expelled from the church who had "taken recourse to the foulest lying, and basest slander, in order to hide their iniquity." Elders' Journal 1: 56.

The opening statement of Joseph's history further indicates the need for revealing the details of the events that occurred.

"Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil designing persons in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, all of which have been designated by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a church, and its progress in the world, I have been induced to write a history, so as to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth into possession of the facts as they transpired in relation both to myself and the church, as far as I have such facts in possession. Times and Seasons 3: 726-727.

Joseph's history was published in 1842 and 1843 in Times and Seasons. In it we find Joseph's unequivocal testimony that he had the interpreters, which he called the Urim and Thummim, in his possession throughout the period of the translation of the Book of Mormon. He also stated that they were the instruments through which the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God.

This testimony is of primary significance because it is the testimony of the one most intimately involved in the use of the instruments in the translating process and was written while still fresh in his memory. Authenticity of this account is further assured by the fact that Joseph was editor of that paper during 1842.

Joseph states in his history that Martin Harris had assisted him as scribe from April 12 to June 14, 1828. Shortly after they had finished the first 116 pages (on foolscap paper) Joseph heeded Martin's urging to inquire of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim whether Martin should take the translated portion to show to his friends. Times and Seasons 3:785 also RLDS History 1:24.

Although he received a negative answer, Joseph yielded to Martin's importuning. In consequence of his disobedience the plates and the interpreters were taken from him for a time. In July of 1828 they were returned and through the Urim and Thummim Joseph received the revelation which is now Section 2 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

"Immediately after my return home I was walking out a little distance when behold the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed me the Urim and Thummim again, (for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings which he lost by transgression,) and I enquired of the Lord through them and obtained the following revelation:" Times and Seasons 3:786 also RLDS History 1:24.

Following this they were taken again, and returned a second time after a short period, and through the Urim and Thummim another revelation was given which is now Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants in which Joseph was instructed to complete the translation as he had begun "After I had obtained the above revelation, both the plates and the Urim and Thummim were taken from me; but in a few days they were returned to me, when I inquired of the Lord, and the Lord said thus to me:" Times and Seasons 3:801 also RLDS History 1:25.

Joseph did not begin to translate immediately. Oliver Cowdery arrived in April of 1829 to act as scribe for him and the work of translating was renewed.

"Two days after the arrival of Mr. Cowdery, (being the 17th of April,) I commenced to translate the Book of Mormon, and he commenced to write for me, which having continued for some time, I inquired of the Lord, through the Urim and Thummim, and obtained the following revelation:" Times and Seasons 3:832 also RLDS History 1:29-30.
Doctrine and Covenants 6 follows.

In his history Joseph states specifically that while translating the plates, He also used the Urim and Thummim to receive revelations which are found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 7, 12, 13, 14 and 15. Times and Seasons 3:853,885,897 also RLDS History 1: 33, 43-45.

He states unequivocally that, when the translation of the plates was completed, the plates, the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate were returned to the Angel.

"...The plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate...remained safe in my hands until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand, when according to arranGements the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him and he has them in his charge ..." Times and Seasons 3:772.

In a question and answer editorial in the Elders' Journal of 1838, Joseph Smith in lucid terms explains the use of the Urim and Thummim in the translating process.

"Question 4th. How and where did you obtain the Book of Mormon?
"Answer. Moroni the person who deposited the plates, from whence the Book of Mormon was translated . . . told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them, by means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the Book of Mormon." Elders' Journal 1:42-43.

In three letters written by Joseph Smith near the end of his life he re-emphasizes the historical fulfillment of God's purpose in the Urim and Thummim. In these he relates that he translated through the Urim and Thummim by the gift and power of God from plates the hieroglyphics of an unknown language.

  1. Joseph describes the instrument that he used in translating the Book of Mormon in a letter to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat (March, 1842).
    "With the records was found a curious instrument 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." Times and Seasons 3: 707.
  2. In a letter of clarification to the Times and Seasons (May 15, 1843) Joseph said he translated from the plates.
    "Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error...There is no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon." Times and Seasons 4: 194.
  3. In a letter to James A. Bennett in November, 1843, Joseph states that he translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics.
    "...Truth, for truth is a matter of fact; and the fact is, that by the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from Hieroglyphics the knowledge of which was lost to the world." Times and Seasons 4: 373.

Joseph's testimony consistently carries the impact of carefully thought-through statements deliberately written to clear the air of much misinformation and false accusations.

Since he was specifically charged to continue the translation of the plates "as he had begun," (the first 116 pages had been translated through the use of the interpreters which Joseph referred to as the Urim and Thummim); and since Joseph specifically states that he used the Urim and Thummim both to translate the record and to receive revelations 7 through 15 of the Doctrine and Covenants (which revelations were received during a period identical to that used in translating the Book of Mormon); and since he tells of still having the original instruments to return to the angel along with the plates upon the completion of the translation, Joseph's testimony consistently affirms his use of the Urim and Thummim for the translation of the plates as God had designed.

The Testimony of Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery's testimony is second in importance only to that of the prophet since he acted as scribe for the major portion of the translation . In public published testimony he consistently verified Joseph's testimony that the Urim and Thummim were used in the translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates.

In a letter to W. W. Phelps, dated September 7, 1834 and published in the Messenger and Advocate of which Oliver Cowdery was editor, Oliver describes his experience as a scribe for Joseph.

"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 whould [sic] have said, 'Interpreters,' the history, or record, called "The book of Mormon." RLDS History l: 33.

Fourteen years later he is still reported to have borne the same clear unmistakable testimony.

"Friends and brethren, my name is Cowdery - Oliver Cowdery....I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, 'holy interpreters.' I beheld with my own eyes and handled with my own hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the 'holy interpreters.' That book is true." Myth of Manuscript Found, p. 79-80 also RLDS History 1:50.

Oliver Cowdery's repeated testimonies of the use of the Urim and Thummim by Joseph Smith are particularly significant since Oliver did not arrive on the translating scene until April of 1829, That was almost a year after the loss of the 116 pages of foolscap of translated material. If Joseph did not have these translating instruments in his possession at the time he was translating the Book of Mormon or if he had been using any substitute method, as some later writers have speculated, Oliver could not have truthfully borne testimony that he had both seen and handled the Nephite "interpreters."

Two additional facts concerning Oliver's testimony add to its significance. One fact is that Oliver Cowdery's testimonies constitute the only primary testimony that is available other than Joseph's and that of the scriptures. Oliver was the only person other than Joseph in the Restoration movement who personally saw, handled and used the "Nephite Interpreters."

(Note: The only possible exception to this statement is the claim of Lucy Mack Smith- Joseph's mother- who stated that she saw the Urim and Thummim when Joseph first brought them home. I have discovered no reliable historical evidence to dispute her claim. Her testimony of the description and use of the Urim and Thummim further verifies that of Joseph and Oliver.)

Another fact is that revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants vindicate Oliver's testimony on this point. In Doctrine and Covenants 8:3f, Oliver was promised the privilege to, "translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred ..." Later he was told:

"Behold, it is because you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away the privilege from you." Doctrine and Covenants 9: 2c.

Early Secondary Sources

Early secondary accounts of the translation process offer some distorted evidence of the existence of the Urim and Thummim and Joseph's possession of the plates even though these accounts are based on hearsay, rumor and curiosity rather than on facts. Very early newspaper accounts, negative to the cause, reported by F. W. Kirkham, substantiate the statements of Joseph and Oliver that they used the Urim and Thummim (described by these editors as spectacles) to translate the Book of Mormon.

One of these accounts was printed in the Rochester, (NY) Daily Advertiser and Telegraph in the same month as the Book of Mormon went to press, August 1829.

"...after penetrating "mother earth" a short distance the Bible was found, together with a large pair of spectacles. He had been directed, however, not to let any mortal examine them, "under no less penalty than instant death." They were therefore, nicely wrapped up and excluded from the "vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals." It was said that the leaves of the Bible were plates of gold . . . on which were engraved characters of hyroglyphics [sic]. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it Smith could (he said at least) interpret these characters." New Witness 1:151.

On September 5, 1829, a very similar article appeared in the Rochester (NY) Gem, from an interview with Martin Harris, which also stated that a "large pair of spectacles" was used for translating purposes. New Witness 151-152.

In an editorial of the Palmyra (NY) Reflector of August 14, 1830, reference is made to "Joe Smith's magic spectacles" used for translating purposes. New Witness p. 437.

This last editorial was written several months after the Book of Mormon was published. If there had been any use of a substitute instrument other than the "holy interpreters" (spectacles) mention of it would surely have been made by these editors.

From an unfriendly religious publication is found another very early account which further verifies the historicity of Joseph's use of the interpreters which the Lord had provided as the means of translating the Book of Mormon. The following statements are found in an article entitled "Delusions" by Alexander Campbell (founder of the Disciples of Christ) in The Millennial Harbinger, February, 1831. Campbell was both editor and publisher of this paper.

"This prophet Smith; through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon....The meanest book in the English language: but is a translation made through stone spectacles, in a dark room, and in the hat of the prophet Smith, from the reformed Egyptian!!" The Millennial Harbinger 2: 93-95.

It is apparent from these reports that even the bystanders were aware of the "the enlarged spectacles" and the "plates."

It is equally discernible that any idea of a substitute method was not considered at this time. Mr. Campbell would have ridiculed the use of a substitute translating method even more fervently than he did the use of the "spectacles" had there been any hint of the use of some substitute instrument associated with Joseph and the translation by 183l.

These very early accounts, though opposing the Restoration movement, serve to verify Joseph and Oliver's testimony of the use of the original instruments in fulfillment of God's purpose for them.

Another secondary witness reflects the understanding of the Saints within the church in the early days in relation to the use of the interpreters. John Corrill, one of the missionaries in the early days of the Restoration movement, who became a dissenter at Far West, left this written testimony in 1839.

"And Martin Harris, who contributed much towards the publication of the Book, drew off several characters on paper, took them to the learned in New York, to see if they could be translated, but was requested to bring them the plates, which Smith was forbidden to do of the Lord, but was commanded to translate them himself, which he did, by the help of what he calls the Urim and Thummim, two stones set in a bow, and furnished by an Angel for that purpose.

After finishing the translation, the plates and stones of the Urim and Thummim were again taken and concealed by the Angel for a wise purpose, and the translation published to the world in the winter of AD. 1829 and 1830." Corrill History, p. 12

A Divine Warning

The angelic messenger who entrusted the plates and the interpreters to Joseph Smith charged the Prophet not to show them to any one except those to whom the Lord would command they be shown. This was before Joseph had yet received them.

"Again he told me that when I got the plates of which he had spoken . . . I should not show them to any person, neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them, if I did I should be destroyed." Times and Seasons 3:753.

Along with an affirmation of this divine warning in an account in the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph, mention is made of a hat in connection with the "spectacles." Since references to a hat have been made by a few secondary witnesses, the question of "Why a hat?" has been raised.

From the conspicuous absence of any mention of a hat by either Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery, the ones who saw and used the translating instruments, it can be concluded that the hat had no significance in the actual translating process. Joseph possibly fulfilled the divine trust placed in him by using a hat to hide the interpreters from those who had not been specifically designated to see them. It served to conceal them from sight of the undesignated in much the same manner as the linen tablecloth and pillowcase served to conceal the plates. Joseph's faithfulness in concealing both the plates and the interpreters from all except those whom God instructed him is further verified by his sister, Katherine (Smith) Salisbury, in a letter to the Saints' Herald in 1866.

Although this testimony was recorded at a much later date than others considered here, it is primary in this aspect of our concern and demonstrates that Joseph did not break his trust even for family ties.

"I well remember the trials my brother had, before he obtained the records. After he had the vision, he went frequently to the hill, and upon returning would tell us, "I have seen the records, also the brass plates and the sword of Laban with the interpreters." He would ask father why he could not get them? The time had not yet come, but when it did arrive he was commanded to go on the 22d [sic] day of September 1827 at 2 o'clock. We had supposed that when he should bring them home, the whole family would be allowed to see them, but he said it was forbidden of the Lord. They could be seen only by those who were chosen to bear their testimony to the world. We had therefore to be content until they were translated and we could have the book to read." Saints' Herald 33: 260.
William Smith, Joseph's eldest brother, bore similar testimony in 1884. He said that none of the family was permitted to see the plates but they were permitted to feel the plates through a pillowcase which concealed them. Story of the Church p. 59. His testimony with others again points out that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were the only primary witnesses to the use of the translating instruments and that Joseph was faithful in fulfilling this direction from the Angel.


Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were the only ones who had divine permission to use the interpreters, which they called the Urim and Thummim, in translating. They were therefore the only ones who knew firsthand what was used and how. When we take their testimonies, uncluttered by confusing statements of secondary witnesses made at much later dates (the validity of which will be examined in part 2), we can draw these conclusions:

  1. The "Holy Interpreters" were prepared by God for the purpose of translating languages by the power of God and were preserved with the plates of the Book of Mormon specifically for their translation.
  2. This purpose is further, specifically stated in Doctrine and Covenants 17:2 and 3:1, and by the angel to Joseph Smith.
  3. Joseph had the "Holy Interpreters," which he called the Urim and Thummim, available during the time of the translation of the Book of Mormon.
  4. Joseph used the interpreters when translating the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
  5. Oliver Cowdery's testimony reaffirms Joseph's account that the Urim and Thummim were the media used to translate the plates.
  6. Very early accounts, even from secular and unfriendly sources, verify the basic testimonies of Joseph and Oliver.

God's purposes in preserving the interpreters, designated by revelation as the Urim and Thummim, have not been frustrated. One of His major purposes in preserving them was that through them the message of the Book of Mormon might be translated and go forth to the world.

Part 2: Later Secondary Accounts
Last Update: November 29, 1996
Ronald K. Smith
Graceland College
Lamoni, IA 50140