HOW THE PLATES OF THE BOOK OF MORMON WERE TRANSLATED
PART 2: Later Secondary Accounts



Fact vs Myth

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the only witnesses who saw and handled the translating instruments in the process of translation, consistently testified that God's purpose had not been frustrated but that the plates had been translated through the Urim and Thummim by the gift and power of God.

Secondary sources of very early date, including those openly antagonistic to the Restoration movement, still serve to substantiate the basics of their testimonies.

This section will demonstrate how myth and rumor have been utilized in efforts to discredit both the Book of Mormon and the means by which it was translated.

Historical Myths

As the years tend to obscure an event there often arises a mixture of false assertions and rumor called historical myths. Mr. James A. Halstead, M.D., describes how such a phenomenon has taken place since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a past president of the United States. He makes this comment about such myths:

"Historical myths have been known to become accepted as truths because someone once made a statement without foundation of fact. The statement, unrefuted by anyone interested in the accuracy of it, then has been repeated often enough so that eventually everyone believes it without questioning. Historians say that this, unfortunately, is the way some of history is written." Today's Health 40:53.

Some historical myths (defined as fictitious or imaginary stories by The American Heritage Dictionary) have arisen around the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. One of the most persistent of these is the theory that Joseph Smith used a "peep stone" for its translation in place of the interpreters found with the plates.

Although the "peep stone" myth stems largely from the prejudicial charges of an anti-Mormon publication in 1834, it may have arisen from the confusion of a stone through which Hiram Page claimed to receive revelations with the term "seer stone" mentioned by Oliver Cowdery when referring to the Urim and Thummim. Several "peep stones," relics of Indian lore, are in existence today which fit the description of the stone used by Hiram Page.

Joseph Smith relates that Brother Page had a stone by which he claimed to receive revelations which were not in harmony with the Scriptures. This was in August and September of 1830, significantly more than a year after the completion of the translation of the Book of Mormon

"Finding, however, that many (especially the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery) were believing much in the thing set forth by this stone, we thought best to enquire of the Lord, concerning so important a matter, and before the conference convened, we received the following:" Times and Seasons 4:117-119 also RLDS History 1:118.

Then followed the revelation which is Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this the Lord told Oliver Cowdery to go personally to Hiram Page and "tell him that those things which he hath written from the stone are not of me, and that Satan deceiveth him. Doctrine and Covenants 27:4b

This ministry was successful as can be seen from Joseph's continued account.

"At length the conference assembled; the subject of the stone . . . was discussed, and after considerable investigation, Brother Page, as well as the whole church, who were present, renounced the said stone, and all things connected therewith, much to our mutual satisfaction and happiness." Times and Seasons 4:146 also RLDS History 1:123-124

In spite of this clear distinction being made to those who attended the conference, we find that four years later D. P. Hurlbut in the infamous book, Mormonism Unvailed, falsely charges the prophet with having used such a stone for translating the Book of Mormon. This has given emphasis to a long series of misrepresentations by enemies of the cause which resulted in the historical myth confusing Page's stone with the means God had prepared for the translation of the Book of Mormon.

The two most quoted sources used in support of the myth that a "peep stone" was used instead of the interpreters in translating the Book of Mormon are the book, Mormonism Unvailed of 1834 and an article printed in the Chicago Inter-Ocean of October 17, 1886 which purported to be an interview with David Whitmer. The book, Mormonism Unvailed, is so full of contradictions and bias that it can in no sense be admitted as reliable history. In spite of this fact it has proved to be a fruitful source for pseudo-historians and enemies of the Restoration movement since its publication. The material for it was largely written by D. P. Hurlbut. Hurlbut had been convicted in two church courts on a charge of "unchristianlike conduct with the female sex". He was then forgiven on a basis of a full confession and expression of repentance. However, two days after being forgiven, on June 23, 1833, he was expelled from the church on the charge that he had gone about boasting that he had fooled Joseph's God. RLDS History 1: 295-296. He then began to assault the church. Hurlbut assisted E.D. Howe in preparing Mormonism Unvailed which was published in 1834., Hurlbut had been expelled and Howe was angry because his wife and other members of his family had united with the church. Story of the Church, p.107-108. The allegations in the book are of little value to the serious historian.

The article printed in the Chicago Inter-Ocean contains statements attributed to Whitmer which are very similar to those found in Mormonism Unvailed. David Personally denied this article claiming that it was not a true report of his testimony. Saints' Herald 33: 764-765.

David Whitmer's Testimony

David Whitmer's testimony is of secondary nature because he did not use the Urim and Thummim nor see them. However his later testimony requires careful examination because it has been widely circulated and frequently quoted.

David first met Joseph Smith in June of 1829. They became good friends and David was baptized by Joseph in Seneca Lake in upper New York state. Shortly afterward he became one of the Three Witnesses who were shown the plates by an angel. David reaffirmed this particular testimony to his death. In spite of the confusion surrounding other statements reported to have been made by him this one remained clear and true.

For the next 50 years David had a rather unstable relationship with the Church. The first of his problems began with his brother-in-law, Hiram Page. In August, 1830, about a year after the completion of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Hiram had a stone through which he claimed to receive revelations from God. This is often referred to as a "peep stone."

This caused a small crisis in the church since the Whitmer family and Oliver Cowdery, who married one of the Whitmer daughters, were believing in the stone. From this experience, as mentioned before, all seemed to have been reconciled as the stone and everything connected with it was renounced. David, however, seems never to have lost his belief in the powers of such a stone.

David's next involvement with a "peep stone" appeared at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837. This controversy centered around a young girl who called herself a seeress. This seeress lived in David Whitmer's home where she held meetings and claimed she received "revelations" through a peep stone. One of the "revelations" she received was that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet and that Oliver Cowdery or David Whitmer would succeed him . Saints' Herald, 33: 764-765.

David joined with others to oppose Joseph Smith at this time.

"This disturbance led to the apostasy of some, the rejection of some by the church, and the reconciling of others..." RLDS History 2:102.

David was among those reconciled. On April 13, 1838, David had charges preferred against him and was expelled from the church.

In 1847 three years after the death of Joseph, a splinter church was formed by William E. McLellin, who had also been cut off from the church in 1838, and others. Among those in the group were Hiram Page, Martin Harris, John and Jacob Whitmer. In December of that year this group officially acknowledged David Whitmer as its president and prophet. Following this acknowledGement David gave several "revelations" to the newly founded church.

By 1849, however, he had become disenchanted with this new movement and denied the principles taught in the "revelations" he had given. RLDS History 3:78 - 90.

The Gospel Monitor was started at Hannibal, Missouri, with J. J, Crammer as publisher, about the middle of the year 1880. It opposed the work of the Reorganization and advocated the right of David Whitmer to head the church. RLDS History 4:318. History does not readily show whether David ever approved this proposal.

Still another religious movement was headed by David Whitmer in 1886. The claim was made that he had the right to be its president on the strength of his ordination to the presidency of the High Council in Zion in l834. RLDS History 4:551.

In 1887, in connection with the circulation of his pamphlet, "An Address to All Believers in Christ, by a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon," another attempt at a church with David Whitmer heading it was made. RLDS History 4:558-559.

During the latter years of his life, varying statements concerning the means of translation of the Book of Mormon were attributed to Whitmer. If we were to try to determine what instruments were used in the translation solely by the number of recorded statements purported to have been made by him we would conclude, from all the sources I have been able to assemble that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon. Of course, we cannot ignore other quotations attributed to him that seem to contradict this fact.

As we examine some of the varying reports of David's testimony concerning the method of translation of the Book of Mormon, the following facts must be kept in mind.

  1. His testimony at best is secondary in that he never actually saw the interpreters, which he also called the Urim and Thummim, (or other translating instruments) during the process of translation.
  2. Neither of the first-hand witnesses was living to correct any discrepancies in statements ascribed to Whitmer, during his later years.
  3. Due to the passage of years from the event (nearly half a century before Whitmer's statements were widely solicited and printed) his memory would have lost some of its freshness.
  4. Reporters sometimes misquote and misrepresent due to misunderstanding and/or personal prejudice.

There are in print at least four descriptions of the translating instruments reported to have been given by David Whitmer in his later years. The first of these is from an account of an interview of David by Apostle T. W. Smith.

"I personally heard him [Whitmer] state in January of 1877 in his own house in Richmond, Ray County, Mo. . . . that he saw Joseph translate, by the aid of the Urim and Thummim, time and time again, . . . written mainly by Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris, as the translation was being read by the aid of the Urim and Thummim of the characters on the Plates by Joseph Smith . . " Saints' Herald 26:128.

The essence of this clear statement that David stated that the Urim and Thummim were used for the translation of the Book of Mormon was repeated in interviews to 0. Pratt and J. F. Smith in January 1879 and printed in the Deseret Evening News; to E. D. Briggs and R. Etzenhouser in January 1884 and printed in the Saints' Herald; and to a reporter for the St. Louis Republican in July 1884 and printed in that paper.

J. L. Traugher, Jr. challenged Apostle Smith's statement. in a letter to the Saints' Herald in 1879. Traughber said that Whitmer said that Joseph Smith translated "by means of one dark colored, opaque stone." Saints' Herald 26: 341.

Apostle Smith replied in a letter to the editors of the Saints' Herald reaffirming Whitmer's statement to him. Saints' Herald 27:13.

In a later letter of response Apostle Smith emphasized that Whitmer described the interpreters to both a reporter of the Chicago Times and himself as being "shaped like a pair of spectacles only much larger." Saints' Herald 27:67.

A third description was printed in the Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881. This one contains elements of a compromise description. Similarity to the Urim and Thummim is expressed in number of stones, being called interpreters, their relation to the plates, and the position of use. The major difference is in color and transparency of the stones.

"He had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were with the plates. He did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes." Saints' Herald 28: 198.

The statement, "He did not use the plates in translation," (whether due to the fallibility of Whitmer or the reporter) is contradicted by other Whitmer statements in the same interview as well as in other accounts.

". . . He [Cowdery] should be his scribe to assist in the translation of the plates. He went on, and Joseph translated from the plates . . . "Saints' Herald 28:197.

"The next day after I got there they packed up the plates and we proceeded on our journey to my father's house and we commenced upon translation of the remainder of the plates . . ." Saints' Herald 28:198.

In a later testimony to William H. Kelley, printed in the Saints' Herald of September, 1881, Whitmer stated:

"It makes no difference what others say, I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and he translated the Book of Mormon by the inspiration of God from the plates of the Nephites." Saints' Herald 29:68.

The fourth description is given special consideration because of the wide circulation of portions of it and because of unjustified significance given it by some authors. In the Saints' Herald (November 13, and November 20, 1886) is found a reprint of an entire article from the Chicago Inter-Ocean of October 17, 1886. This, in turn, was a reprint with some alterations from the Omaha Herald which was a reporter's account of an interview with David Whitmer. The quote from this article most often used is as follows:

"The first 116 pages when completed were by permission entrusted to the hands of Martin Harris, who carried them home to his incredulous relatives in triumph, hoping by the exhibition to convert his family and kinfolk from their uncompromising hostility to the religious premises he had adopted. Upon retiring at night he locked up the precious pages in a bureau drawer, along with his money and other valuables. In the morning he was shocked to find that they had been stolen, while his money had been left untouched. They were never found and were never replaced, so that the Book of Mormon is today minus just 116 pages of the original matter, which would increase the volume fully one-fourth of its present size. This unpardonable carelessness evoked the stormiest kind of chastisement from the Lord, who took from the prophet the Urim and Thummim and otherwise expressed his condemnation. By fervent prayer and by otherwise humbling himself, the prophet, however, again found favor, and was presented with a strange, oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, only more flat, which, it was promised, should serve the same purpose as the missing Urim and Thummim (the latter was a pair of transparent stones set in a bow-shaped frame and very much resembled a pair of spectacles) With this stone all of the present Book of Mormon was translated." Saints' Herald 33:707-708 and 721.

After the first installment of the Chicago Inter-Ocean article was reprinted in the Saints' Herald, the editors received and printed a letter from Whitmer in which he stated that the reporter had misunderstood and misquoted his statements. Saints' Herald 33:764-765

At least two historical inaccuracies are also contained in this quotation. The first inaccuracy is that the material of the 116 was not replaced. This material of the lost 116 pages was replaced by a parallel account translated from the small plates of Nephi (Doctrine and Covenants 3:1-9) showing again that the purposes of God cannot be frustrated. The second inaccuracy is the statement that a stone was substituted for the Urim and Thummim. From all the primary sources available (presented in Part One) there is obvious evidence that Joseph Smith did receive the original interpreters again after this first loss, he had them throughout the translating period, and he used them in translating the Book of Mormon.

To accept the Chicago Inter-Ocean article as a statement of fact concerning the method by which the Book of Mormon was translated would also require an acceptance of other false statements in the same article on the same basis.

These would include the assertions:

  1. That Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet,
  2. That Jesus Christ was the last high priest,
  3. That Apostles, presidents and counselors, and high priests were not appurtenances of the church, and
  4. That Joseph had a tendency to abandon the primitive faith and to introduce damnable doctrines.

The editors of the Saints' Herald were very kindly toward David Whitmer in discussing his reported statements, yet stated the situation quite frankly:

"David Whitmer is now an old man, (over eighty), worn and weakened in mind and body, and all should look with forbearance and compassion on his real or seeming errors and misstatements, also upon what appears to be his prejudices against the Seer and the Church, and attribute them to human weaknesses, rather than to intentional wrong. Interviewers now ask him to recount what transpired fifty or sixty years ago, and when they get his statements, they dress them up in their own language, and no doubt exaggerate and even add to them... Authoritative written evidence is vastly superior to the memory of the aged and infirm. We wish David Whitmer well, but we heartily reject his theories and resist his errors." Saints' Herald 33:723-724.

Although Whitmer denied that the article was accurate, it is to be noted that many of the inconsistencies and false statements were repeated in Whitmer's Address to All Believers in Christ which was circulated throughout the church in 1887 along with efforts to organize a splinter movement. RLDS History 4:558-559.

On page 8 of this pamphlet, as reprinted by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), he stated that he was an Elder in that church. In this obvious attempt to prove Joseph Smith a "fallen prophet" in an effort to establish himself as a religious leader and understanding his relationship with and belief in "seer stones" of Hiram Page and the Seeress of Kirtland, it is easily understood that he might repeat the myth of the substitute method of translation.

In the light of the many conflicting statements reported to have been made by Whitmer about the use of the plates and the means by which they were translated, the only statements of his later years which can be considered reliable are those which agree with the testimonies of his earlier years and which agree with the testimonies of the first-hand witnesses.

Martin Harris

Martin Harris left very important witness of the existence of the plates in his testimony of viewing them and the engravings on them. He testified that He saw them by the power of God. He also acted as a scribe for Joseph Smith as he translated the first few pages of the Book of Mormon which Harris was responsible for losing.

Other than his testimony as one of the three witnesses, we have only a few second hand reports of his testimony and a few brief letters have survived. The letters do not specify details of the means of translation which leaves us with only the less reliable secondary reports about him.

In the Rochester Gem in September, 1829, he described the use of the Urim and Thummim. New Witness 1:151-152. A different statement is attributed to Martin Harris which has been used to contradict his testimony and to further the peep stone theory. It comes to us some fifty-three years after the completion of the translation and six years after Harris' death. The Millennial Star reports a reprint of a letter to the editors of the Deseret News from Mr. Edward Stevenson of Utah. The report was in two installments of the Star. In the second part (February 6, 1882) it was claimed that Harris said Joseph had used a substitute stone. The Millennial Star 44:86-87.

Not only did this report come through a devious and belated route but Harris's valid testimony does not substantiate Stevenson's claim. We must also recognize that reprints published in the Millennial Star after Joseph's death were often distorted and unreliable as historical fact, according to the late Charles A. Davies, former RLDS Historian. Saints' Herald 109:23.

Emma Smith's Testimony

The testimony of Emma Smith Bidamon in 1879 has also sometimes been misconstrued. This was first published in the Saints' Herald of October 1, 1879 and was reprinted in the History of The Reorganized Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints 3: 353-358. For the sake of brevity we will quote here only Emma's answers but recommend that the whole interview be read from the History.

"I know Mormonism to be the truth; and believe the church to have been established by divine direction. I have complete faith in it. In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us."

"He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.

"If he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.

"The plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen tablecloth, which I had given him to fold them in. I once felt of the plates, as they thus lay on the table, tracing their outline and shape. They seemed to be pliable like thick paper, and would rustle with a metallic sound when the edges were moved with the thumb, as one does sometimes thumb the edges of a book.

"Oliver Cowdery and your father wrote in the room where I was at work.

"Joseph Smith (and for the first time she used his name direct, having usually used the words, 'your father', or 'my husband') could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ďa marvel and a wonder', as much so as to anyone else.

"I did not attempt to handle the plates, other than I have told you, nor uncover them to look at them. I was satisfied that it was the work of God, and therefore did not feel it to be necessary to do so.

"I do think he did, I knew that he had them, and was not specially curious about them. I moved them from place to place on the table, as it was necessary in doing my work.

"My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity--I have not the slightest doubt of it . . . " Saints' Herald 26: 289-290.

From Emma's statements these items should be carefully noted:

  1. She makes mention of the use of a hat, which apparently served the purpose of hiding the Urim and Thummim from her view as the tablecloth concealed the plates.
  2. When she mentions the stone she does not define whether she means the "Seer Stone" as used in the terminology of Oliver Cowdery to refer to the interpreters or a stone such as used by Hiram Page. Circumstantial evidence would indicate that she used the term in the manner of Oliver Cowdery since the Page stone does not make an appearance until after the translation was complete and the plates and the interpreters were returned to the Angel. She states specifically that she never actually saw the plates and there is no indication that she saw what was behind the hat so her reference could be admitted only as secondary testimony or hearsay.
  3. Joseph did not use any manuscript or book other than the plates while translating.
  4. She states that she knew that he had the plates available under the cloth because she felt and rustled the leaves.
  5. She does not say that Joseph never looked at the plates under the cloth, nor in any way does she deny that he used them during the translation. She does say that she was present during the translation of the plates.

The Lord explained to Emma by revelation shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon that it was his wisdom that prevented her from seeing many of these things. In Doctrine and Covenants 24:lb she was told:

"Murmur not because of the things which thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee, and from the world, which is wisdom in me in a time to come."

Fawn Brodie in her book, No Man Knows My History, page 20, attributes a statement of the substitute method of translation to Emma on the basis of a letter which has her name signed to it. There is question concerning its validity because there is on record at least one forged letter attributed to Emma during her lifetime. It was printed in the New York Sun on December 9, 1845, over what was supposed to be her signature. In it she was supposed to have renounced the faith of Joseph and doubted his claims. Emma flatly denounced this letter as a forgery in a letter to that paper which was printed in the Times and Seasons of January 15, 1846. p.1096. RLDS History 4: 267.

Emma's testimony relating to Joseph's fidelity in marriage, his teaching of monogamy, his possession of the plates and translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates is all primary. Even though the Lord never permitted her to actually see the plates or the Urim and Thummim, she was permitted to handle the plates as she moved them in the process of cleaning the house. She gives a very strong testimony of their existence and supports the primary witness of those who actually translated the plates.

Summary and Conclusions

When late secondary testimonies are considered and weighed against the early primary testimonies of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and even early secondary witnesses, it soon becomes clear that a powerful historical myth had developed purporting that Joseph Smith used a "peep stone" instead of the interpreters, known to him as the Urim and Thummim, for translating the Book of Mormon.

A corollary to this myth, but inconsistent with it, is the idea that Joseph Smith did not have or did not use plates from which to translate the Book of Mormon. If there were no plates to be translated, or if plates were not used in the translation, there was no instrument used for translation. In this case there could have been no "peep stone" used. The myth developed from publication of false allegations by enemies of the church and from distorted statements of secondary witnesses, many of whom denied the printed allegations as they surfaced.

The evidence shows that the Lord fulfilled his purpose in the creation, preservation and use of the divine interpreters, called Urim and Thummim, for the translation of the Book of Mormon from the plates held in trust by Joseph Smith, Jr. until the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God..


References
Last Update: November 29, 1996
Ronald K. Smith
Graceland College
Lamoni, IA 50140
rsmith@graceland.edu