Thursday, August 20, 2015

"What's All This About a Stone In a Hat?"

"And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light" (Alma 37:23).
       Recently, when the Church released new photos of the seer stone Joseph Smith used in the translation of the Book of Mormon,1 some members were excited, but others were confused. “Wait,” they said. “Seer stone? All I ever heard of was the Urim and Thummim. What’s this about a stone in a hat?” Knowledge of the seer stones has been around for a long time (it was talked about several times in the Ensign alone), but it’s natural that people would still have questions. Seer stones are not brought up often in Sunday school and neither the seer stones nor the Urim and Thummim are depicted in official Church films. If you want an in-depth look at seer stones, the Ensign will feature an article about them in October, and there are some excellent sources available online and in print. But if you'd like to learn more about Urim and Thummim and seer stones in a quick, learn-what-you-want-and-then-keep-on-browsing format, then read on. Here is a Cliff Notes-style guide on the ancient spectacles and the stone in the hat.

Urim and Thummim
       In the scriptures you'll find many references to Urim and Thummim, or "interpreters," as they're called in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 8:13-17). "Urim and Thummim" is taken to mean "revelation and truth" or "lights and perfections" in Hebrew,2 and there was more than one set in existence. The Brother of Jared had one (Ether 3:23), Abraham had one (Abraham 3:1-2), King Mosiah had one (Mosiah 28:11-16), and, of course, Joseph Smith had one (Joseph Smith - History 1:35). Urim and Thummim were used most extensively in ancient Israel, where Israelite priests used Urim and Thummim to receive revelation from the Lord (Numbers 27:21). 

What Urim and Thummim Looked Like 
       According to the Book of Mormon, Urim and Thummim consisted of "two stones which were fastened into the rims of a bow" (Mosiah 28:13). Joseph Smith's mother Lucy said Joseph's Urim and Thummim "consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows connected with each other in much the same way that old-fashioned spectacles are made."3 Joseph claimed these glasses were connected to a breastplate (Joseph Smith - History 1:35), which coincides perfectly with the Bible account. In Leviticus we read that Moses took Aaron and "he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim" (Leviticus 8:8). 

How Urim and Thummim Worked
       The story of the Book of Mormon translation gives us a glimpse into how Urim and Thummim functioned. After Joseph received the golden plates from Moroni, he put them in a hollow log on the hill Cumorah until he was ready to take them home. During that time he used the Urim and Thummim to check on the plates, seeing them whenever he put the glasses on.Apparently they helped him see other miraculous things, too. Joseph Knight, a friend of the Smiths, said Joseph "seemed to think more of the glasses or the Urim and Thummim than he did of the plates, for, said he, 'I can see anything; they are marvelous.' "5

       Of course, the main purpose of Joseph having Urim and Thummim was to translate the Book of Mormon, so how exactly was this accomplished? Samuel W. Richards, an acquaintance of Oliver Cowdery, said Oliver "represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the 'translators' over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument."While it's not a firsthand account, this is still one of the best clues we have on how Joseph would have used the glasses.

Challenges Using the Urim and Thummim
       As impressive as they were, the Urim and Thummim posed some challenges. For one thing, Joseph had to be in the right spirit in order for the instruments to work. Sometimes he found himself unable to translate because his mind "dwelt too much on earthly things."  One morning during the translation process Joseph got into a quarrel with Emma, and when he went upstairs to translate, he couldn't do it. Only after apologizing to his wife and repenting in his heart could he resume the work.7

Another issue with the Urim and Thummim was their size. Joseph's mother said the breastplate to which the Urim and Thummim were attached was "fit for a man of extraordinary size"8 and Joseph's brother William said the spectacles were "too large for Joseph's eyes; they must have been used by larger men." In fact, according to Charles Anthon, who heard the glasses described by Martin Harris, "These spectacles were so large that if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face."9 With such unruly instruments, it is only natural Joseph would prefer something more compact to use in the work of translation. That brings us to the seer stones.

Seer Stones
       Many in Joseph's day used stones to scry, or divine information from beyond. Joseph Smith's neighbors, the Chase family, were practiced scryers. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Sally Chase "had found a green glass through which she could see many wonderful things."10 Apparently Sally's brother Willard found a stone one day, which he let Joseph take home, only to find out later that Joseph could see "wonders" by looking in it.11 This stone became one of Joseph's first seer stones.

Joseph's Seer Stones
       Remarkably, Joseph found that he could use certain stones to see things "invisible to the natural eye," as his mother put it.12 This might seem odd to modern Church members, but the Book of Mormon itself prophesies about a divine stone prepared for a righteous seer (Alma 37:23). 

       Although Joseph was a gifted seer, his gift came with a burden. Others around him, including Josiah Stowell, often persuaded Joseph to look in his stone to help them find lost property and buried treasure.13 Joseph, however, didn't like using his talents to help people find money. In his book Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman explains that Joseph believed in divinely-ordained seership, but that scrying for treasure was nonsense.14 Joseph wanted to use seership for more divine things, and he would get a chance to do just that when he translated the Book of Mormon.

How the Seer Stone Worked
       According to David Whitmer, Joseph used his seer stone to translate the golden plates by putting the stone "into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear...then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man."15 

       Professor Daniel Peterson notes that the hat method was probably used to keep light from glaring on the stone, much like we do with cell phone screens. "Consider a smartphone or e-reader, for instance," he says. "Or consider your personal computer. You probably don’t place it directly in front of a window where bright light will be streaming into your face. You need contrasting darkness so that you can see the screen without strain... Otherwise, your eyes will tire and your head will ache."16 Because the scribes would need light by which to write and Joseph would need darkness by which to read, it makes sense that Joseph would use the hat method to get the translation done.

Lingering Questions
       "Wait, wait, wait! So in one version of the story Joseph uses glasses to read the plates, and in another version he puts this stone in his hat and reads from the stone. Which story is true?" Good question. The answer is both! Both instruments were used to translate. Which begs the question why Joseph would not simply use one tool instead of the other. There are several possible explanations.

       As mentioned earlier, the Urim and Thummim were bulky and the stone was compact, so Joseph would naturally favor the seer stone over the spectacles. This is corroborated by Martin Harris's friend Edward Stevenson, who said "the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone."17 

       There's another reason Joseph may not have used the glasses. After he lost the 116 pages, Joseph had the plates and the Urim and Thummim taken from him for a time. According to David Whitmer, while Joseph did get the plates back, he was no longer permitted to use the Urim and Thummim. Emma Smith likewise said "The first that my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone."18 So apparently Joseph could have used the seer stone to compensate for losing the spectacles.

       "But wait, Oliver Cowdery clearly said Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate!" Yes, that's true. Unfortunately, some in Joseph's day referred to the seer stone and the Urim and Thummim interchangeably, making it difficult to know which device they were actually referring to.19 Also, the witnesses who recounted all this information did so years after the fact. The best source we have is the prophet himself, but Joseph was somewhat hesitant to explain the translation process in detail due to how sacred it was. He said "It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon."20 So maybe Joseph used one device first and then the other, or he used both interchangeably. We may never know for sure. It's a mystery we'll have to live with.

Where Are They Now?
       So what happened to the Urim and Thummim and the seer stones after the translation was over? When he was done translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph returned the Urim and Thummim to Moroni, along with the plates.21 He hung on to the seer stone, but he no longer used it. David Whitmer said "Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more."22 Apparently Joseph had matured to the point that he no longer needed to rely on instruments to exercise his seership. The stone eventually found its way into Brigham Young's hands, and was consecrated on the altar of the Manti Temple.23 The Church has had it ever since.

Joseph the Seer
       While we may not know "all the particulars," about seer stones and translation, we do know that God, through marvelous means, raised up a prophet who was blessed to see light in darkness. Joseph Smith was a seer who used seer's instruments to bring forth a book of scripture that would bless the world for centuries. Exactly how he did this may never be known in perfect detail, but everyone can know personally that the final product is divine. The Book of Mormon, like the prophet who translated it, demonstrates that God is real and He works with mortal servants to bring His children to Christ.

       So there you have it: a brief introduction to Urim, Thummim, and seer stones. What did you think? Was this article helpful? Would you like to see more articles like this in the future? Let me know in the comments section below, and, as always, thanks for reading!

1. Stack, Peggy Fletcher. "Mormon Church Releases Photos of 'seer Stone' Used by Founder Joseph Smith." August 4, 2015. Accessed August 20, 2015.
2. Hirsch, Emile G., W. Muss-Arnolt, Wilhelm Bacher, and Ludwig Blau. "URIM AND THUMMIM." Accessed August 18, 2015.
3. Smith, Lucy, and Scot Facer Proctor. "Beginnings of the Restoration." In The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 139. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996. 
4. Ibid., 142.
5. Ibid., 146.
6. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "By the Gift and Power of God." Ensign, September 1977. 
7. "A Peaceful Heart." Friend, September 1974.
8. Smith, Lucy, and Scot Facer Proctor. "Beginnings of the Restoration." In The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 148. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996.
9. Van Wagoner, Richard, and Steve Walker. "Joseph Smith: "The Gift of Seeing"" Dialouge: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 2 (1982): 65.
10. Smith, Lucy, and Scot Facer Proctor. "Beginnings of the Restoration." In The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 150. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996.
11. Bushman, Richard L. "The First Visions." In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 49. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
12. Smith, Lucy, and Scot Facer Proctor. "Beginnings of the Restoration." In The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 124. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996.
13. Bushman, Richard L. "The First Visions." In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 51. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
14. Bushman, Richard L. "The First Visions." In Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 51. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
15. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "By the Gift and Power of God." Ensign, September 1977.
16. Peterson, Daniel. "Defending the Faith: Joseph, the Stone and the Hat: Why It All Matters." March 26, 2015. Accessed August 18, 2015.
17. Anderson, Richard Lloyd. "By the Gift and Power of God." Ensign, September 1977.
18. Persuitte, David. "Part One: Angels, Peepstones, and Gold Plates." In Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, 82. 2nd ed. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1985.
19. Turley Jr., Richard E., Robin S. Jensen, and Mark Ashurst-McGee. "Joseph the Seer." Ensign, October 2015.
20. "Chapter Five: Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon and Restoration of the Priesthood." In Church History In the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 52-66. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003.
22. Whitmer, David. "Chapter IV." In An Address to All Believers in Christ, 31. Richmond, Missouri: David Whitmer, 1887. Available through
23. Black, Susan Easton, and Andrew C. Skinner. "The Kirtland Safety Society." In Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet, 270. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2005. 

Picture Credits (in order of appearance):
1. Illustration by Anthony Sweat found in "From Darkness Unto Light: the Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon" published by the BYU Religious Studies Center.
2. Illustration, drawn by Robert T. Barrett, from "Doctrine and Covenants Stories" manual ,
3. "Mormons believe that Joseph Smith used this 'seer stone' in the Book of Mormon translation effort" by WP:NFCC#4, Wikimedia Commons.
4. Illustration by Anthony Sweat found in "From Darkness Unto Light: the Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon" published by the BYU Religious Studies Center.
5. Image from
6. Prophet Portrait: Joseph Smith by Robert T. Barrett,


  1. I havent actually read this blog before this post, but I'm really impressed with how clear and detailed it is. I didn't realize how little I knew. Thanks for doing the research!

  2. Great info. Thanks for your research, Keep up the good work.