Joseph Smith uses Stone in a Hat

© 2010 by H. Michael Marquardt. All Rights Reserved.

In Joseph Smith's Manuscript History he told about searching for a lost mine in 1825 for Josiah Stowell. But Joseph Smith did not mention his association earlier with a special stone located on a neighbor's property in 1822. As Joseph Smith told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon he mentioned to earlier followers and others that he was able to find and later translate the Book of Mormon by having a stone in a hat. This peep stone has since been called a seer stone. This seer stone would be placed in a hat.

One definition of translation is "The act or process of translating, esp. from one language to another."(The American Heritage Dictionary [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., Second College Edition, 1985], 1,287). In the 1828 Webster's Dictionary one of the meanings under the word translate is, "To interpret; to render into another language; to express the sense of one language in the words of another." (An American dictionary of the English Language [New York: S. Converse, 1828]

Contemporary records suggest that money-digging activities (treasure hunting) had been one of the Smith family occupations in the Palmyra/Manchester, New York area since the early 1820s. Willard Chase, a friend of the family recalled:

I became acquainted with the Smith family, known as the authors of the Mormon Bible, in the year 1820. At that time, they were engaged in the money digging business, which they followed until the latter part of the season of 1827. In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me; the latter of whom is now known as the Mormon prophet. After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat. It has been said by Smith, that he brought the stone from the well; but this is false. There was no one in the well but myself. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alledging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but would lend it. (Affidavit of Willard Chase, circa December 11, 1833, Manchester, Ontario County, New York in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville (Ohio): Printed and Published by the Author, 1834], 240-41, emphasis omitted); also in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998], 2:65-66, cited hereafter as EMD).

During the month when the church was organized Willard Chase said he talked to Hyrum Smith, older brother of Joseph Smith: "In April, 1830, I again asked Hiram for the stone which he had borrowed of me; he told me I should not have it, for Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible" (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 247; in EMD 2:73).

Plates Found with a Stone

A story was told by Joseph Smith Jr. that with the gold plates were found a pair of spectacles for the purpose of translating. These spectacles were called interpreters in the Book of Mormon, which also mentioned two stones put together into two rims of a bow, like being set in eye frames. These spectacles would soon be identified as the biblical Urim and Thummim. Peep stones which were in the possession of Smith were called by the faithful seer stones. These stones were also called a Urim and Thummim and may have confused people who were trying to understand what instruments were claimed to have been used to to translate the Egyptian language on the plates of gold. As Joseph Smith wrote in 1832, "but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book."

Willard Chase said he talked with Joseph Smith in the fall of 1827 and that Smith "then observed that if it had not been for that stone, (which he acknowledged belonged to me,) he would not have obtained the book." (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 246); in EMD 2:71-72). This stone was the stone (he had more than one stone) through which Joseph Smith discover the ancient record engraved in Egyptian hieroglyphics on plates of gold. Among those who heard the story of finding the plates by the Chase stone were the following individuals:

Martin Harris became one for the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. In 1859 he was interviewed and reported that Joseph told him that he found the gold plates by this stone. Harris said, "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase [brother of Willard Chase], twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by [the] means of this stone he first discovered these plates" (Tiffany's Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:163; in EMD 2:302). Later Harris explained, "Joseph had before this described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The [Smith] family had likewise told me the same thing" (Tiffany's Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:169; in EMD 2:309).

Henry Harris was another individual who spoke with Joseph Smith. Harris related that Joseph Smith Jr. "said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit; that an angel appeared and told him he could not get the plates until he was married" (Affidavit of Henry Harris, no date [circa 1833], in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252; in EMD 2:76).

Joseph Smith Inspired to Translate the Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics
by Looking into a Stone or Two Stones

The Rochester Gem told about Martin Harris visiting Rochester about June 1829 and reprints the following information.

A man by the name of Martin Harris was in this village a few days since endeavouring to make a contract for printing a large quantity of a work called the Golden Bible. He gave something like the following account of it. "In the autumn of 1827 a man named Joseph Smith of Manchester, in Ontario County, said that he had been visited by the spirit of the Almighty in a dream, and informed that in a certain hill in that town was deposited a Golden Bible, containing an ancient record of divine origin. He states that after a third visit from the same spirit in a dream, he proceeded to the spot, removed earth, and there found the bible, together with a large pair of spectacles. He had also been directed to let no mortal see them under the penalty of immediate death, which injunction he steadfastly adheres to. The treasure consisted of a number of gold plates, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved hieroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language.

Harris states that he went in search of some one to interpret the hieroglyphics, but found that no one was intended to perform that all important task but Smith himself. Smith has interpreted the whole, and it is now in press in Palmyra, Wayne Co. The subject attracts a good deal of notice among a certain class, and as it will be ere long before the public, we shall endeavor to meet it with the comment it may deserve.--Ed Gem. ("Golden Bible," Rochester Gem 1 [September 5, 1829]:70, Rochester, New York, emphasis omitted.)

Josiah Jones, a resident of Kirtland, Ohio, wrote about the first church missionaries arrival in that town:

In the last part of October, 1830, four men appeared here by the names of [Oliver] Cowdery, [Parley P.] Pratt, [Peter] Whitmer [Jr.] and [Ziba] Peterson; they stated they were from Palmyra [Manchester], Ontario county, N.Y. with a book which they said contained what was engraved on gold plates found in a stone box, in the ground in the town of Manchester, Ontario Co.,N.Y., and was found about three years ago by a man named Joseph Smith Jr. who had translated it by looking into a stone or two stones, when put into a dark place, which stones he said were found in the box with the plates. They affirmed while he looked through the stone spectacles another sat by and wrote what he told them, and thus the book was all written.

Continuing Jones mentions that he and a few others talked to Oliver Cowdery:

A few days after these men appeared again, a few of us went to see them and Cowdery was requested to state how the plates were found, which he did. He stated that Smith looked onto or through the transparent stones to translate what was on the plates. I then asked him if he had ever looked through the stones, to see what he could see in them; his reply was that he was not permitted to look into them. I asked him who debarred him from looking into them; he remained sometime in silence, then said that he had so much confidence in his friend Smith, who told him [Cowdery] that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead. (1831 Account by Josiah Jones published as "History of the Mormonites," in The Evangelist 9 [June 1, 1841]:134-35 as cited in Brigham Young University Studies 12 [Spring 1972]:307-308); also in EMD 2:413-15.)


Reformed Egyptian is mentioned in LDS Mormon 9:32. The title page states, "To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof." The explanation later, but not always given, is that the Book of Mormon was translated by the Urim and Thummim.

The term Urim and Thummim is a post-1829 development and is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In a short time it replaced interpreters (spectacles) or seer stone in a hat. The following are some early statements on how the Book of Mormon was claimed to be "translated." Early stories mention that an object was put in a hat and Smith interpreted or read the words from what appeared in the hat. The idea to discover or interpret things by looking in a hat was the way Joseph Smith developed into one who claimed he could locate hidden treasures and also discover the meaning of a lost language without the object actually being in his presence.

The Book of Mormon told about its production: "And blessed be he [Joseph Smith Jr.] that shall bring this thing to light; for it shall be brought out of darkness unto light, according to the word of God; yea, it shall be brought out of the earth, and it shall shine forth out of darkness, and come unto the knowledge of the people; and it shall be done by the power of God" (LDS Mormon 8:16). The character King Mosiah translated or interpreted engravings on plates "by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow. Now these things were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages" (LDS Mosiah 28:13-14; the stones were known as "interpreters," verse 20). These two stones (said to be spectacles) were to be used to read the inscriptions on the plates, "wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee" (LDS 2 Nephi 27:20).

Abram Willard Benton who was a physician and lived at South Bainbridge at the time. commented on what he had learned concerning the activities of Joseph Smith:

For several years preceding the appearance of his book, he was about the country in the character of a glass-looker: pretending, by means of a certain stone, or glass, which he put in a hat, to be able to discover lost goods, hidden treasures, mines of gold and silver, &c.

Writing about a court appearance in the summer of 1830 Benton wrote:

Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates"

Addison Austin testified that Joseph Smith told him he could not see with the stone. At a time when Josiah Stowell Sr. "was digging for money, he, Austin, was in company with said Smith alone, and asked him to tell him honestly whether he could see this money or not. Smith hesitated some time, but finally replied, 'to be candid, between you and me, I cannot, any more than you or any body else; but any way to get a living.'" (Letter by A.W.B. [Abram W. Benton] to editor, March 1831, "Mormonites," Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 [April 9, 1831]:120, Utica, New York).

These two stones would soon become the biblical Urim and Thummim.

William W. Phelps who was the editor of the Ontario Phoenix published in Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, south of Manchester where the Smith family used to live wrote in January 1831:

Mr. [Martin] Harris, whose name is in the book, is a wealthy farmer, but of small literary acquirements; he is honest, and sincerely declares upon his soul's salvation that the book is true, and was interpreted by Joseph Smith, through a pair of silver spectacles, found with the plates. The places where they dug for the plates, in Manchester, are to be seen. (W. W. Phelps to "Dear Sir" [E. D. Howe], Jan. 15, 1831 as quoted in Mormonism Unvailed, 273).

Isaac Hale, Joseph Smith's father-in-law stated:

The manner in which he [Joseph Smith Jr.] pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time in the woods!

(Affidavit of Isaac Hale, given at Harmony Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania on March 20, 1834. "Mormonism," Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (May 1, 1834):1, Montrose, Pennsylvania.)

While preaching in Boston, Massachusetts, questions were asked of missionaries Orson Hyde and Samuel H. Smith. It was apparently Hyde who answered the questions. This presently is the earliest use of the term Urim and Thummim. This would indicate that its use would have been even earlier, at least by January 1832 before they left Ohio on their mission.

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. ("Questions proposed to the Mormonite Preachers and their answers obtained before the whole assembly at Julian Hall, Sunday Evening, August 5, 1832," Boston Investigator 2, August 10, 1832)

Orsamus Turner (1801-1855) wrote in 1851 what he learned through his investigations regarding the Joseph Smith Sr. family:

They said it was by looking at this stone, in a hat, the light excluded, that Joseph discovered the plates. This will be observed, differs materially from Joseph's story of the angel. It was the same stone the Smiths' had used in money digging, and in some pretended discoveries of stolen property. (O. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase [Rochester: Published by William Alling, 1851], 216).


This means that what is represented as the Book of Mormon is not a product of Joseph Smith's linguistic ability. Smith produced a text with no knowledge of an ancient language. No one translates a real language by looking at a peep stone (seer stone) or interpreters (spectacles) or Urim and Thummim in a hat. To translate a person needs to correctly know the language from which he or she is translating. Also there is a need to know, in this case, the English langauge. There is no shortcut method in spending time learning a language before making a translation. The fact is if you do not know the language you are translating you cannot translate.
The idea in the Book of Mormon is that a person who has the gift will read the interpretation of the engravings on the ancient record. In Joseph Smith's case he did not have the plates in his presence but had his face buried in his hat. He did not use the spectacles that were to be with the plates.

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