I recently saw an argument on social media over Book of Mormon translation. It’s not a subject I usually find interesting—I never saw much material difference between seer stones and ancient “interpreters”—but I was struck by two difficulties in the conversation.

  1. Detailed eyewitness accounts of the translation process were recorded years (if not decades) after the fact, thus questionable due to memory error and/or changing allegiances.1
  2. The term “Urim & Thummim” is inexact. Is it just the interpreters found with the plates, or did it also refer to seer stones?2

My curiosity was piqued, and I eventually found myself on the “Urim & Thummim” glossary topic page at the Joseph Smith Papers website. I was shocked to learn that the first use of the biblical term Urim & Thummim in connection with Book of Mormon translation wasn’t until August 1832, two years after its publication!3

This got me thinking… what if I could locate early (1829-1832) newspaper accounts of the Book of Mormon translation? These would be much closer in time to the events in question and we wouldn’t need to try to decipher possible meanings of Urim & Thummim.

Pre-1833 Newspaper Accounts

I’m a sucker for researching old newspapers, albeit usually for family history. In looking at both subscription databases and free resources, I was able to locate twelve distinct newspaper accounts of Book of Mormon translation between 1829 and 1832 mentioning both the plates as well as some sort of translation instrument.4 I expected to find references to seer stones, peep stones, or interpreters. Several accounts mentioned a single stone, but the predominant narrative was two stones or “spectacles” viewed in a hat or other dark place. No mention was made of breastplates.

Spectacles or two stones in a hat

  • “[T]he Bible was found, together with a huge pair of spectacles!… It was said that the leaves of the Bible were plates of gold, about eight inches long, six wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hierogylphicks [sic]. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so at least,) interpret these characters.”
    Author: Palmyra Freeman editor Jonathan Hadley.5
  • “You have probably heard of the Gold Bible taken from the earth by Joseph Smith, the money-digger. This he has translated from the Egyptian reformed language to English, by a pair of stone spectacles (provided by an angel) and a dark hat before his eyes.”
    Author: Unnamed New York resident via letter dated 18 October 1830.6
  • “[I]t is a translation made through stone spectacles, in a dark room, and in the hat of the prophet Smith from the reformed Egyption!!
    Author: Alexander Campbell via letter dated 10 February 1831.7

Spectacles or two stones in the dark

  • “Joseph Smith Jr. found it, and he translated it, not from any knowledge of the language on the plates, but by means of two stones or glasses found with it in the box, which give light, and exhibit objects, when looked into in the dark.”
    Author: Brattleboro’ Messenger correspondent “Clericus.”8
  • “The preacher [William McLellin] said he [Joseph Smith] found in the same place two stones, with which he was enabled by placing them over his eyes and putting his head in a dark corner, to decypher the hieroglyphics on the plates!”
    Author: Illinois Patriot editor reporting on preaching by new convert William McLellin in Jacksonville, Illinois, on 10 September 1831.9

Spectacles or two stones, no further detail

  • “He [Joseph Smith] further states that the angel gave him a key to the language, with an enormous pair of spectacles which he exhibits to assist him in translating it.”
    Author: American Traveller correspondent “E. B.” via letter dated 25 August 1830.10
  • “To Smith was given the power to translate the characters which he was enabled to do by looking through two semi-transparent stones, but as he was ignorant of the art of writing, Cowdery and the others wrote as Smith interpreted.”
    Author: Geauga Gazette editor summarizing accounts given by Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and Peter Whitmer, Jr., near Painesville, Ohio, in November 1830.11
  • “Fortunately for this embryo of a new religious faith, a pair of spectacles of strange and peculiar construction, were found with the plates, to aid the optics of Jo. and his associates. Soon after, another very fortunate circumstance occurred. This was the introduction of no less a personage than Oliver Cowdry [sic], to whom, and whom only, was given the ability—with the aid of the spectacles—to translate the mysterious characters.”
    Author: Lockport Balance editor.12
  • “Q.—In what manner was the interpretation, or translation made known, and by whom was it written?
    “A.—It was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim; and was written partly by Oliver Cowdery, and partly by Martin Harris.
    “Q.—What do you mean by Urim and Thummim?
    “A.—The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows, something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.”
    Author: Boston Investigator transcript of Q&A with Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde on 5 August 1832.13 This is the first known public association of Urim & Thummim with the Book of Mormon translation.

Stone in a hat

  • “Smith would put his face into a hat in which he had a white stone, and pretend to read from it, while his coadjutor transcribed.”
    Author: Wayne County Republican editor.14
  • “[P]risoner [Joseph Smith] was commanded to translate the same by the Lord; and from the Bible got from the hill, as aforesaid, the prisoner said he translated the book of Mormon, prisoner put a certain stone into his hat, put his face into the crown, then drew the brim of the hat around his head to prevent Light—he could then see as prisoner said, and translate the same.”
    Author: Josiah Stowell, testimony given at a trial 30 June 1830.15

Stone, no further detail

  • “These treasures [in New York] were discovered several years since, by means of the dark glass, the same with which Smith says he translated most of the Book of Mormon.”
    Author: Ezra Booth via letter dated 24 October 1831.16

So among these early public accounts of the Book of Mormon translation process, the best support is for the spectacles in a hat or dark place. This doesn’t prohibit a single stone in a hat argument, though. The current position of the Church is a hybrid one, with the spectacles in hat being used for the portion of the manuscript that was lost, and a seer stone in a hat used for the remainder of the translation.

Those who want to push a spectacles plus breastplate theory, however, will have a harder time using these early accounts to their advantage.17

BONUS! How did the spectacles and seer stones come to be associated with the Urim & Thummim?

For this, we may need to blame W. W. Phelps.

Church members at Kirtland liked their seer stones18 and some apparently associated them with the white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17. In my research, I came across a February 1831 report in the Cleveland Advertiser on activities of the “Mormonites” at Kirtland. “It is alledged that some of them have received white stones promised in the 2d chapter of the Revelations. Such of them as have ‘the spirit’ will declare that they see a white stone moving about the upper part of the room and will jump and spring for it.”19

This emphasis on personal divination instruments likely inspired W. W. Phelps to reinterpret Hosea 3:4 in the summer of 1832.

For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim.

Hosea 3:4

Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary on this verse gave an alternate reading from the Septuagint: “Without a sacrifice, without an alter, without a priesthood, and without oracles.” Clarke added authoritatively, “that is, the urim and thummim.” In his July 1832 issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, Phelps similarly interpreted teraphim in this verse as synonymous with the Urim & Thummim, and the teraphim, he explained, were “sacred spectacles or declarers.”20

With teraphim/Urim & Thummim being interpreted as “sacred spectacles,” it didn’t take long for others to make a connection. The following month, Orson Hyde and Samuel H. Smith declared in Boston that the spectacles found with the gold plates were the ancient prophetic instruments known as Urim & Thummim.21 Phelps suggested the same in his newspaper in January 1833. He wrote that the Book of Mormon “was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles—[known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim]” (brackets in original).22

Joseph Smith soon retconned earlier revelations with the new term. The 1833 Book of Commandments version of a May 1829 revelation stated, “because you delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man…” In 1835, however, the same revelation was expanded: “because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man…”

Similarly, Joseph Smith’s 1832 history stated, “he returned to me and gave them to <​me​> <​to​> translate and I said I said cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectticke spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters.” In 1838, the story became epic.

Also that there were two stones in silver bows and these (put in <​stones fastened​> to a breast plate) which constituted what is called the Urim & Thummin deposited with the plates, and <​the possession and use of these stones​> that was what constituted seers in ancient or former times and that God <​had​> prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834], p. 5, JosephSmithPapers.org.

Finally, in 1843, Joseph Smith came full circle. He taught that the white stone of Revelation 2:17 and the Urim & Thummim were one and the same.

Then the white stone mentioned in Rev. c 2 v 17 is the Urim & Thummim whereby all things pertaining to an higher order of kingdoms even all kingdoms will be made known and the a white stone is given to each of those who come into this the celestial kingdom…

William Clayton Journal, p. 69, JosephSmithPapers.org.

No wonder people got confused.


1 If you’re looking for a list of all the different accounts, there are two good resources that I came across. One is John W. Welch’s “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo, Utah, and Salt Lake City, Utah: BYU Press and Deseret Book, 2005). PDF viewable at Book of Mormon Central. Another one is Roger Nicholson’s “The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat, and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer’s View of the Book of Mormon Translation,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 5 (2013): 121-190.

2 An amazing resource on divination objects used by Joseph Smith is Mark Ashurst-McGee’s 2000 PhD dissertation, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet.” https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/etd/6873

3 “Questions proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and their answers obtained before the whole assembly at Julien Hall,” Boston Investigator, Friday, 10 Aug. 1832, p. 2, col. 3, GenealogyBank.com.

4 Subscription databases included Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank.com, and NewspaperArchives.com. The only freebies that proved useful for this project were ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov, NYSHistoricNewspapers.org, and Catalog.ChurchofJesusChrist.org. The Church History Library has images of the Painesville Telegraph, but their files aren’t text-searchable.

5 Citing the Palmyra Freeman. “Golden Bible,” Chautauque Phenix, Wednesday, 9 Sep. 1829, p. 4, cols. 1-2, GenealogyBank.com.

6 Brattleboro’ Messenger correspondent “Clericus” submitted an “extract, which I have just taken from a letter, written from a town in the State of New York, where as I had been previously told, this Jos. Smith has resided some years…. The letter is dated Oct. 18th, 1830.” “Communication,” Brattleboro’ Messenger, Saturday, 20 Nov. 1830, p. 3, col. 1, GenealogyBank.com.

7 “Delusions,” The Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1831), transcript available at https://webfiles.acu.edu/departments/Library/HR/restmov_nov11/www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/acampbell/tmh/MH0202.HTM#MH020208. Campbell’s analysis was later published as a pamphlet: Alexander Campbell, Delusions: An analysis of the Book of Mormon; with an examination of its internal and external evidences, and a refutation of its pretences to divine authority (Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1832), 15, Archive.org.

8 “The Book of Mormon,” Brattleboro’ Messenger, Saturday, 30 Oct. 1830, p. 3, cols. 3-4, GenealogyBank.com.

9 Citing Illinois Patriot. William McLellin likely obtained his information about the Book of Mormon translation from Hyrum Smith. McLellin reported that he talked alone with Hyrum Smith for four hours on 19 Aug. 1831, inquiring “into the particulars of the coming forth of the record, of the rise of the church, and of its progress and upon the testimonies given to him &c.” McLellin asked Hyrum Smith to baptize him the following day. On 10 Sep. 1831, McLellin preached for about three hours to several hundred people in Jacksonville, giving “a brief history of the book of Mormon, of its coming forth &c.” Hyrum Smith gave closing remarks. “The Mormonites,” New-York Evening Post, Monday, 10 Oct. 1831, p. 2, col. 6, Newspapers.com; Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836 (Provo, Utah, and Urbana: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 33-34, 39.

10 “Editor’s Correspondence,” American Traveller, Friday, 10 Sep. 1830, p. 2, cols. 4-5, GenealogyBank.com.

11 Citing the Geauga Gazette. The article mistakenly stated that one of the missionaries was David Whitmer, but it was David’s brother, Peter Whitmer, Jr., that was with Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris in Ohio. “The Golden Bible,” Franklin Repository, Tuesday, 7 Dec. 1830, p. 1, cols. 5-6, Newspapers.com.

12 Citing Lockport Balance. “The Golden Bible,” Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer, Thursday, 16 Jun. 1831, p. 1, col. 4, Newspapers.com.

13 Both Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde recorded in their journals talking about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon at Julien Hall in Boston on 5 Aug. 1832. “Questions proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and their answers obtained before the whole assembly at Julien Hall,” Boston Investigator, Friday, 10 Aug. 1832, p. 2, col. 3, GenealogyBank.com. Transcript of Orson Hyde journal here. Transcript of Samuel H. Smith journal here.

14 Citing the Wayne County Republican. “New Bible,” New-York Evening Post, Friday, 21 May 1830, p. 2, col. 4, GenealogyBank.com.

15 The trial minutes were copied, notarized, and submitted via letter dated 30 Aug. 1832 to the Boston Christian Herald. For more information about this trial, see “Introduction to State of New York v. JS–B and State of New York v. JS–C” at the Joseph Smith Papers website. “Mormonism,” Boston Christian Herald, Wednesday, 19 Sep. 1832, p. 2, cols. 4-5, GenealogyBank.com.

16 Ezra Booth was disciplined by church leaders shortly before he began his series of letters to The Ohio Star denouncing Mormonism. See Ezra Booth’s biography at the Joseph Smith Papers website. “Mormonism—No. III,” The Ohio Star, Thursday, 27 Oct. 1831, p. 3, cols. 2-3, Ancestry.com.

17 Admittedly, it seems like the breastplate supporters really like to use a 20th-century source citing the notoriously unreliable William Smith (see here, for example), so I’m not sure anything really matters at that point.

18 Samuel F. Whitney stated, “Mormon elders and women often searched the bed of the river for stones with holes caused by the sand washing out, to peep into. N. K. Whitney’s wife had one.” Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 177.

19 “The Golden Bible, or the Book of Mormon,” Cleveland Advertiser, Tuesday, 8 Feb. 1831, p. 1, cols. 2-3, GenealogyBank.com.

20 “Hosea Chapter III,”The Evening and the Morning Star, Jul. 1832, p. 6, col. 1.

21 “Questions proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and their answers obtained before the whole assembly at Julien Hall,” Boston Investigator, Friday, 10 Aug. 1832, p. 2, col. 3, GenealogyBank.com.

22 “The Book of Mormon,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Jan. 1833, p. 2, col. 1.