joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone

Home Page   LDS Series   LDS Article Subpages


Joseph Looked Into The Hat

Rich Kelsey


Joseph Smith with breastplate and Urim and Thummim

Illustration by Robert T. Barrett    @



[Ensign Magazine, July 1993]


A Treasured Testament



By Elder Russell M. Nelson


Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles



Russell M. Nelson


Adapted from an address given 25 June 1992 at a seminar for new mission presidents, Missionary Training Center, Provo, Utah.


A Treasured Testament



The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:


Joseph Smith would put the seer 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, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, 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.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)




David Whitmer was a witness to the rise of Mormonism. He, along with Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery are known as the Book of Mormon's Three Witnesses. During the time Oliver Cowdery was acting as Joseph's scribe, David Whitmer described a seer stone in a hat, as the method used to translate the Book of Mormon. David goes on to say:


"After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, 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. He said he was through the work that God had given him the gift to perform, except to preach the gospel. He told us that we would all have to depend on the Holy Ghost hereafter to be guided into truth and obtain the will of the Lord. The revelations after this came through Joseph as 'mouth piece'..." (An Address To All Believers In Christ, p. 32)


Before that, Martin Harris spoke about Joseph Smith using a seer stone to translate what is now known as the lost 116 pages:


"By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear, and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly, it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraved on the plates, precisely in the language then used" (Martin Harris’s "statement to Edward Stevenson," Millennial Star, February 6, 1882, p.86-87).


On this subject Martin Harris also said:


"After returning from a trip to Palmyra to settle his affairs, Martin began to transcribe. From April 12 to June 14, Joseph translated while Martin wrote, with only a curtain between them. On occasion they took breaks from the arduous task, sometimes going to the river and throwing stones. 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." (A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon, Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ensign, January 1988, p. 6 / Millennial Star 44:87)


The words,


"Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters..."


did not come from Martin, he never saw the interpreters being used during his time as Joseph's scribe.  The first opportunity Martin had to see the golden plates along with the "interpreters", also known as the "Urim and Thummim", was after the Book of Mormon was translated; and, after an angel had taken them from Joseph.  At that point in time, according to the Doctrine and Covenants, he could see them,


 "by faith.  < (see documentation)



As Far As The Story Goes:


 While the golden plates were in his possession, Joseph had claimed that he would,


"... be destroyed ...",


if he were to let any person see them or the Urim and Thummim without the angel Moroni's permission:  


"Again, he [Moroni] told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—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." (Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet)



Note: Out of the three Book of Mormon Witnesses, Martin had the most trouble seeing1 the golden plates:


The Doctrine
and Covenants
Section 5


Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, March 1829, at the request of Martin Harris (see History of the Church, 1:28–31).


1—10, This generation will receive the Lord’s word through Joseph Smith… Martin Harris may repent and be one of the witnesses...


Verse (1): Behold, I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., have got the plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me;


Verse (2): And now, behold, this shall you say unto him—he who spake unto you, said unto you: I, the Lord, am God, and have given these things unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and have commanded you that you should stand as a witness of these things;




Verse (26): And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, [the plates] and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.


Verse (27): But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.”



One might wonder: If Joseph Smith has


"got the plates",


then, why would Martin Harris need to see them by,


"the power of God"?


 Also: Why would


"the Lord ... God"


need to use threats of condemnation to convince Martin to say that he had seen the plates? 



More Problems With The Story:


If Martin or the other two witnesses had seen the golden plates, and/or, the Urim and Thummim during the time the Book of Mormon was being translated, then why all the fuss?  The very fact that they were led to believe they would soon be seeing these "sacred items" indicates that they had never seen them before.


On this subject the well respected LDS author/scholar Richard Bushman said:


"This, then, is the historical difficulty of the plates. Accounts of hiding the plates, wrapping the plates with cloth, showing the plates and translating from the plates become nothing more than one long attempt at fraud and make everything else Joseph Smith did doubtful. 'Like a beggar claiming to have a diamond that he allows nobody to see,' … So in the plates we have joined the two characterizations of Joseph Smith, 'the fraud and the prophet, with the plates as the hinge between the two.'" (Statements from Richard Bushman - Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum's Conference, Oct. 23, 2010)



Also; notice how Joseph Smith saw the plates:


The Doctrine
and Covenants
Section 17


5 And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.


That section claims that Joseph Smith saw the plates:


" ... by my [God's] power ... and ... because he had faith."


If Joseph Smith's story of finding golden plates and other sacred objects was just a story; then, we would expect to find inconsistencies in his statements.  That is exactly what we find: Section 17 of the D&C basically eliminates any tangible nature of the plates, and puts them into a spiritual state of existence; one in which faith and God’s power are the keys to seeing them.


On this subject, the eighth Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford said:


"…the prophet had always given out that they [the plates] could not be seen by the carnal eye, but must be spiritually discerned; that the power to see them depended upon faith…" (Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois, from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847, Chicago: S. C. Griggs and Co., 1854, 256-258)


Note: The "Urim and Thummin" was also claimed to have been found with the plates, is it possible that it too needed to be spiritually discerned; and, that the power to see it depended upon faith as well?


One thing is certain: No one needed spiritual discernment or faith to see Joseph Smith's seer-stone.


A Stone In a Hat:


For those who may be wondering if the seer-stone that Joseph possessed was really the "Urim and Thummin", also known as the "interpreters", which he claimed he obtained with the golden plates? It was not. Unlike the golden plates and other sacred items which were taken from Joseph Smith by an angel, the seer stone which was given to Oliver Cowdery is in the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to this day.2


David Whitmer records that before Joseph Smith was through using the stone, several revelations were received in the same manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated:


"The revelations in the Book of Commandments up to June, 1829, were given through the 'stone,' through which the Book of Mormon was translated."  (An Address To All Believers In Christ, p. 53)


The Book of Commandments is an early version of the Doctrine and Covenants.  Introductions to those revelations ending at Section 17 in a modern Doctrine and Covenants, spell out the term,


"Urim and Thummim"3


to describe how they were received.  If one does a little research, they can easily find that the term


"Urim and Thummin"


 used in those sections of the Doctrine and Covenants is actually a reference to one of Joseph's seer stones.


Here is an example:


[Ensign Magazine, Jan. 2013]


Great and Marvelous Are

The  Revelations  of  God




Church History Department





"He [Joseph Smith] also sometimes applied the term [Urim and Thummin] to other stones he possessed, called 'seer stones' because they aided him in receiving revelations as a seer. The Prophet received some early revelations through the use of these seer stones."



Further documentation: 


"Brother Hyrum said it had been suggested to him that some of the brethren might go to Toronto, Canada, and sell the copy-right of the Book of Mormon for considerable money: and he persuaded Joseph to inquire of the Lord about it. Joseph concluded to do so. He had not yet given up the stone. Joseph looked into the hat in which he placed the stone, and received a revelation..." (An Address To All Believers In Christ, p. 31)


Martin Harris tells us where Joseph Smith found the stone:


"Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates." (Joel Tiffany, Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, New York, p.163


(Four additional accounts of the golden plates being discovered with a seer stone)


Concluding Statements:


As documented in this short work, testimonies from witnesses in Joseph Smith's day confirmed that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in a hat to,


"discern things"4


that others could not see.


Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have come to the same conclusion. Several Ensign Magazine articles relate the same story:  Excerpts from Joseph Smith's Use of Seer Stones


Perhaps it is time for LDS Church members to take a new attitude while studying Mormonism:


"... not an aim to prove Mormonism true, but rather to find the truth about Mormonism." (Mormon Times, July 10, 2011 - Deseret News, Richard Bushman)



A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon — By Kenneth W. Godfrey
"The scriptures indicate that translation involved sight, power, transcription of the characters, the Urim and Thummim or a seerstone..." (Ensign Magazine, January 1988)




Other Studies of Interest:


■  What To Say To Mormons At the Door 

■  Preach My Gospel — A Guide To Missionary Service

■  Joseph Smith's Use of Seer Stones

■  Am I a Seeker of Truth?

■  Enchantment — Magic and Money Digging

■  LDS (Mormon) Golden Plates Stories

■  Ask a Mormon: Cognitive Dissonance and the LDS Faith


LDS Series   LDS Article Subpages





1. John H. Gilbert, who participated in printing of the Book of Mormon said: "Martin was something of a prophet: He frequently said that 'Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years would be stricken off the face of the earth.' He said that 'Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold.' Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, (Harris — Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, 'Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?' Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.'" (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition [1830] of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographical and historical information relating to the Book of Mormon.)


2. "The statement has been made that the Urim and Thummim was on the altar in the Manti Temple when that building was dedicated. The Urim and Thummim so spoken of, however, was the seer stone which was in the possession of the Prophet Joseph Smith in early days. This seer stone is currently in the possession of the Church." (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3: 225)


3.  Misleading quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants:


• “Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet… The revelation was given through the Urim and Thummim.” (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 3, Introduction)


• “The Prophet inquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and received this response.” (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 6, Introduction)


• “Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829, when they inquired through the Urim and Thummim as to whether John, the beloved disciple, tarried in the flesh or had died. The revelation is a translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself.” (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7, Introduction)


• "Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to his brother Hyrum Smith, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, May 1829. HC 1: 39–46. This revelation was received through the Urim and Thummim in answer to Joseph’s supplication and inquiry. “History of the Church” suggests that this revelation was received after the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 11, Introduction)


• "Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to David Whitmer, at Fayette, New York, June 1829..." This revelation and the two next following (Sections 15 and 16) were given in answer to an inquiry through the Urim and Thummim…" (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 14, Introduction)


• "Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, at Fayette, New York, June 1829, prior to their viewing the engraved plates that contained the Book of Mormon record…. The Prophet inquired of the Lord, and this revelation was given in answer, through the Urim and Thummim." (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 17, Introduction) 


4. "… a man by the name of Josiah Stoal, came from Chenango co., New York, with the view of getting Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine. He came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye." (Biographical Sketches… Smith, Lucy Mack, Liverpool, England: S. W. Richards. 1853, pp.91-92)    


Additional documentation on Joseph Smith's history of seer stone use:


■  "Statements of Joseph and Hiel Lewis, sons of Rev. Nathaniel Lewis, concerning what they saw and heard of the sayings and doings of the prophet Joseph Smith, jr. while he was engaged in peeping for money and hidden treasures, and translating his gold bible in our neighborhood.


'Their digging in several places was in compliance with peeper Smith's revelations, who would attend with his peep-stone in his hat, and his hat drawn over his face, and would tell them how deep they would have to go; but when they would find no trace of the chest of money, he would peep again, and weep like a child, and tell them the enchantment had removed it on account of some sin or thoughtless word; finally the enchantment became so strong that he could not see, and so the business was abandoned. Smith could weep and shed tears in abundance at any time, if he chose.


But while he was engaged in looking through his peep-stone and old white hat, directing the digging for money, and boarding at Uncle Isaac Hale's, he formed an intimacy with Mr. Hale's daughter Emma, and after the abandonment of the money digging speculation, he consumated the elopement and marriage with the said Emma Hale...'" (The Amboy Journal, Amboy, Illinois, Wednesday, April 30, 1879, page 1.)



■  "There had lived a few years previous to this date, in the vicinity of Great Bend, a poor man named Joseph Smith, who, with his family, had removed to the western part of the State, and lived in squalid poverty near Palmyra, in Ontario County. Mr. Stowell, while at Lanesboro, heard of the fame of one of his sons, named Joseph, who, by the aid of a magic stone had become a famous seer of lost or hidden treasures. … as a seer, by means of the stone which he placed in his hat, and by excluding the light from all other terrestrial things, could see whatever he wished, even in the depths of the earth.


He borrowed an old ax and a hoe, and repaired to the tree. With some labor and exertion he found the stone, carried it to the creek, washed and wiped it dry, sat down on the bank, placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated; that all the intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing-Eye." (CHENANGO UNION, Vol. 30, Norwich, N. Y., Thursday, May 2, 1877, No. 33, Joseph Smith The Originator of Mormonism, Historical Reminiscences of the town of Afton, BY W. D. PURPLE)