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The translation of the Book of Mormon was done by Joseph Smith looking into a hat, which held his seer stone. This is contrary to the narrative that the Mormon Church has supported through its publications and artwork.

Part of the confusion around this issue has to do with terminology. When Joseph Smith first started translating the Book of Mormon, he used the stones that he found with the plates (called the Nephite interpreters). Other historical accounts record that Smith used a single seer stone or one of the Nephite interpreters to translate. He would place the single stone in a hat, look into it, and dictate the translation. The hat helped block out the light. Early Mormons, including Smith himself, began to refer to all of these stones as the “Urim and Thummim.” Over the years, this terminology has led to misunderstandings about which translation device Smith used. 

For much of the Mormon Church’s history, many of the accounts about Joseph Smith’s use of the seer stones weren’t published, widely known, or sometimes even believed to be true. The LDS canon records two accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon: Smith’s and his scribe’s, Oliver Cowdery. Smith wrote that he translated some of the characters of the Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim (JS-H 1:62). Cowdery’s account says that Smith “translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’” Since these are in the LDS canon, they are the most likely accounts that artists have used to depict the translation of the Book of Mormon. It is worth noting that all historical art is subject to the availability of sources as well as to the artists’ interpretation of the historical event.

The accounts that record that Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon were written by his wife, Emma Hale, and David Whitmer and Martin Harris. Emma recorded that Smith used a seer stone in a hat, as did Whitmer. Harris recorded that Smith used both seer stones and Urim and Thummim to translate. None of these accounts are published as part of the official scriptural canon of the Mormon Church. These sources can be found on Mormon Church websites, but have not been readily available in decades past.

  • References
    1. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones, (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 341-342, 387-388. Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, “Firsthand Witness Accounts of the Translation Process,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey and others (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 65–71.