Urim and Thummim: Joseph Smith and Seer Stones

Seer stone in a hat

A seer stone is a facilitator for judgment, learning, or translation of languages. Seer stones in the Bible were used mostly for judging; seer stones in the Book of Mormon were used mostly for translating languages.  Seer stones could only be used by seers called of God and operated by God’s power. A seer stone has been promised to each of those who become co-heirs with Christ as they are exalted. It conveys knowledge from God.

In Revelation 2:17 it says:

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

No explanation for the use of this stone is given in Revelation, but we can see that it is given to those who are exalted and become co-heirs with Christ. Further explanation is given in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 130:10, 11:

Then the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn that the white stone is a seer stone through which one can learn (in heaven) things he wouldn’t be able to perceive without it.  The stone is compared to Urim and Thummim, which in English, translates to “lights and perfections.” Urim and Thummim are mentioned in the Bible.  Two stones set in a bow were mounted upon the breastplate worn by Aaron.

 

Aaron wearing the priest's breastplate representing the twelve tribes of Israel
Aaron’s priestly breastplate

 

In 1 Samuel the Bible describes three kinds of spiritual communication from God — 1) in dream-visions; 2) through prophets; and 3) through the Urim and Thummim.

The Urim and Thummim could give revelatory insights to the person authorized to use them in order to relay revelation to petitioners.  They seemed to be important in helping Aaron to judge Israel.  They could not be successfully used unless the man had the Spirit of God and the approval of God. Analyzing the Old Testament, Jewish scholars believe the stones either disappeared or ceased functioning after the Babylonians destroyed the first temple around 585 B.C.

Seer Stones for Translating Unknown Languages

The Urim and Thummim were also used to translate unknown languages, as indicated in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites had in their possession a large, inscribed stone and 24 inscribed plates, a remnant from an earlier, destroyed society they later called the Jaredites. No one could read them until they were delivered to King Mosiah, who was a prophet and seer.  Mosiah translated the plates by using Urim and Thummim, which the Nephites called “interpreters.”

 

King Mosiah translating the Jaredite tablets with seer stones
King Mosiah translating using the “interpreters,” seer stones set in a bow, sometimes called the Urim and Thummim.

 

And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer (Mosiah 8:13).

But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.

Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings.

And now, when Ammon had made an end of speaking these words the king rejoiced exceedingly, and gave thanks to God, saying: Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men (Mosiah 8:17-19).

The plates contained a history of the Jaredites, who had migrated with the help of God from the Tower of Babel to the Americas.  They had become evil, and organized crime had permeated their society.  They called such organized crime “secret combinations,” because the foundation of these crime syndicates were oaths authored by Satan and kept secret from the righteous.

These records were passed from prophet to prophet along with the Nephite records. Later, it behooved the prophet Alma, and later Mormon, to withhold the writings that might lead anyone to become enthralled with those oaths. Mormon preserved worthwhile Jaredite writings, and also the interpreters themselves.

Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord (as spoken by Mormon in Ether 4:5).

When Joseph Smith was led by the Angel Moroni to find the plates that would become our Book of Mormon, the “interpreters,” the Urim and Thummim, accompanied the plates.  For part of the process of translation, Joseph Smith would rely on the interpreters. He didn’t call them Urim and Thummim at the beginning. But Urim and Thummim were described anciently as showing the translation of a word in one stone and its meaning in the other.

Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, described the stones as looking like smooth diamonds with three corners. But Joseph Smith also had a seer stone, and that is bothersome for doubters of the faith.

Why Did Joseph Smith Already Have a Seer Stone?

Seer stones (used mostly to find lost objects) and divining rods (used to find water under the ground) were common objects among country folk in many countries.  There seemed to be a few people in each village who had a special gift for making these “spiritual aids” work.  In Palmyra, New York, during Joseph Smith’s youth, there were a handful of people known to be gifted in the use of seer stones.  Sally Chase was the best known. Objects used for divination were also used to do God’s work from biblical times.

Remember that Joseph Smith was very young — only 14 when he had the First Vision. There are many reasons that he could have been oriented toward such things, not the least of which would be inklings of an inborn gift that would come to fruition in later years in surprising ways.  Joseph may have been more receptive to his later, very spiritual, religious experiences, because of his culture’s acceptance of divination.

Remember that despite his community’s acceptance of folkloric magic, his culture was also deeply Christian. Many people, even highly educated people, of that time and place saw no difficulties in combining their Christianity with superstitions, many of which they labeled as “godly gifts.” (See Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome, p. 282.)

Joseph’s first seer stone was borrowed, perhaps from Sally Chase. That sentence is loaded. First of all, he was fascinated and drawn to it, and secondly, she trusted him with it. He was able to use it to find one (or two) of his own.

He was gifted, and others saw that, recruiting him to find lost objects and even treasure because of his gift. There is evidence that after the Angel Moroni described the hill where the plates were buried, the vision of the hill and location of the plates were revealed through a seer-stone:

I had a conversation with [Joseph], and asked him where he found them [the plates] and how he come to know where they were. He said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his [seer] stone and saw them in the place of deposit” (Henry Harris, statement in E.D. Howe Mormonism Unvailed (1833), 252; cited in Ashurst-McGee (2000), 290).

When Joseph was finally allowed to obtain possession of the plates, the interpreters were intriguing to him.  To Joseph Knight, he purportedly said, “I can see anything. They are marvelous” (cited in Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1981).

The juncture of Christian belief and folkloric divination can clearly be seen in the story of Willard Chase, which can be found in Shaken Faith Syndrome, by Michael Ash.

Willard Chase, a Methodist leader, and one of Joseph’s erstwhile treasure-seeking companions, was furious when he heard that Joseph had acquired some golden plates. He and his comrades felt that as his former partners, they should share in the bounty. Eventually, Chase gathered together with about a dozen men then sent sixty or seventy miles for a certain Baptist deacon who supposedly had the gift of divining. Their plan was to find where Joseph had hidden the plates. Later, after Joseph moved the plates to his father’s barrel-making shop across the road from the house, Chase and his friends brought Chase’s sister who used a green glass to divine for the plates (and she nearly found them).

Joseph’s four-year training by the Angel Moroni evidently helped him to separate true religion from folklore.  Martin Harris reported that the Angel had Joseph distance himself from people who were treasure seeking, and instruction from heaven showed Joseph the difference between receiving revelatory guidance through these devices, and “peeping” with a peep-stone.

A quote from Alva Hale shows how Joseph Smith learned line upon line the distinction between religion and magic:

Joseph told him that the “gift of seeing with a stone” was “a gift from God” but that ‘peeping’ was all d—d nonsense”; he had been deceived in his treasure-seeking, but he did not intend to deceive anyone else. By this time Joseph apparently felt that “seeing” with a stone was the work of a “seer,” a religious term, while “peeping” or “glass-looking” was fraudulent (Richard Bushman as quoted by Michael Ash).

Joseph Sometimes Used His Own Seer Stone to Translate

Despite having the Nephite interpreters, Joseph Smith often used the seer stone to translate. This led to an episode in which Martin tested the veracity of Joseph’s claim to use the second, white stone to translate:

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.

Joseph also seems to have sometimes removed the Nephite stones from the “silver bows” which held them like spectacles, and used them as individual seer stones. Joseph used his white seer stone sometimes “for convenience” during the translation of the 116 pages with Martin Harris; later witnesses reported him using his brown seer stone.

Much hue and cry comes from Mormon dissidents and critics who find it unbecoming that Joseph Smith shaded a seer stone in his hat.  And yet, this is the way that seer stones worked, and the method was even described and instructed in an 1825 newspaper by journalists in the South.

Mormon artists have their own ways of portraying the translation of the Book of Mormon, and critics wonder why Mormon art doesn’t show the Prophet with his face in his hat.  But artists have license. They can portray historical events any way they want.

It’s interesting that Joseph Smith is singled out among all the inspired religious leaders throughout history for ridicule, when surely they all engaged in awkward postures, as we all do. For example, Martin Luther had digestive problems, and could be found most often in the latrine.  He was there so much, that his greatest ideas were formulated as he meditated “in the sewer.” Do a Google search, and see if any artist has rendered even a cartoon showing this historical fact, and yet there are many lampooning Joseph Smith for using his hat to create the darkness he needed, certainly a posture no less unbecoming than trying to overcome constipation for hours on end.

Joseph Smith Became a Seer who had no Need for a Stone

Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon
After awhile, Joseph Smith had no need of seer stones to help with translation.

After June 1829 Joseph did not use the interpreters or a seer stone to receive revelation or translate.

Following his baptism, receipt of the Holy Ghost, and ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood, Joseph seems have felt far less need to resort to the stones (Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” [Master’s Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000], 334–337.).

He had learned, through divine tutoring, how to receive unmediated revelation—the Lord had taken him “line upon line” from where he was (surrounded with beliefs about seeing and divining) and brought him to further light, knowledge, and power. This perspective was reinforced by Orson Pratt, who watched the New Testament revision (JST) and wondered why the use of seer stones/interpreters (as with the Book of Mormon) was not continued:

While this thought passed through the speaker’s mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument (Orson Pratt, “Discourse at Brigham City,” 27 June 1874, Ogden (Utah) Junction, cited in Orson Pratt, “Two Days´ Meeting at Brigham City,” Millennial Star 36 (11 August 1874), 498–499).

Where are the Seer Stones?

The Nephite interpreters were apparently reclaimed by Moroni following the loss of the 116 pages, and were only seen again by the Three Witnesses (Testimony of Three). One seer stone ended up in the possession of Oliver Cowdery, but that and another may be in the possession of the First Presidency of the Church (Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” [Master’s Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000], 230).

Has the Church Talked about Joseph’s Use of Seer Stones?

Yes.  In fact, a Children’s Friend article from 1974 discusses Joseph’s use of seer stones. The Church’s Historical Record records Joseph’s use of the seer stone to translate all of our current Book of Mormon text. See also this 1993 talk from Apostle Russell M. Nelson. There are many more references decades old.

Why Joseph’s Use of a Seer Stone in a Hat Refutes Accusations of Plagiarism

Early on, Joseph used the Interpreters to translate. (This was done with difficulty, because the two stones were so far apart.) The interpreters were taken by Moroni when the 116 pages were lost, and Joseph had to rely on seer stones.

When he was using the interpreters, there was a curtain drawn between Joseph and his scribe, but with the use of a stone in a hat, there was no curtain. Scribes could then witness that Joseph had no books from which to copy material, except for the plates. Everything was done in plain sight.

Joseph sat in the open, dictating the text of the Book of Mormon to Oliver while looking at the interpreter placed in his hat. Now, instead of “Joseph the plagiarist,” those wishing to provide an alternate explanation of the translation must assert “Joseph the plagiarist who has a photographic memory.” This is of particular value with respect to the biblical passages contained within the Book of Mormon, which duplicate the textual structure of the King James Version. Joseph was never seen consulting a Bible as he dictated the text of the Book of Mormon. One must either assume that he consulted a Bible out of view of others and memorized the text, or accept the claim that the text was revealed to him as he dictated it (MormonInterpreter).

We are looking beyond the mark today… if we are more interested in the physical dimensions of the cross than in what Jesus achieved thereon; or when we neglect Alma’s words on faith because we are too fascinated by the light-shielding hat reportedly used by Joseph Smith during some of the translating of the Book of Mormon. To neglect substance while focusing on process is another form of unsubmissively looking beyond the mark (Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, 26).

Further Reading and Study:

 

Gale Boyd is the managing editor for ThirdHour.org. She is a Jewish convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has lived all over the world. She has raised 6 Third Culture Kids and is always homesick for somewhere.