October 27, 2009

The "Stone-In-Hat" Translation Method in Art

It may sound silly, but one of the reasons I started the "Translation Witness Account" project is because I want a nice picture of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by use of his seer stone and hat.1 Perhaps it really doesn't matter in the long run; it seems to be a small detail of a miraculous translation. Still, I find it fascinating and strange. The stone-in-hat method isn't typically described in detail among Mormons, but it hasn't been altogether ignored, either. Usually it is simply stated that Joseph translated the book "by the gift and power of God" using the "Urim and Thummim."2 This description can be confusing because the title "Urim and Thummim" was applied to all translation devices—the Nephite "Interpreters" found with the plates as well as the various seer stones Joseph used. Moreover, Joseph appears to have adjusted the translation method over time, according to the accounts of witnesses.3

No official LDS art depicts the stone-in-hat method. Various versions show separating curtains, the plates in open view to scribes, Joseph reading the plates like a book, and other possible anomalies compared to various witness statements.4 It isn't clear whether artists who have tried to depict the translation were aware of the stone-in-hat method. Several LDS leaders have mentioned it in official Church publications, however, including B.H. Roberts.5 More recently, Elder Russell M. Nelson noted:
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.”6
A painting by Earl Jones accompanied this talk but did not depict the stone-in-the-hat method despite the included quote:

This post includes some of the art I have collected depicting the translation of the Book of Mormon. Because art can be a powerful teaching device, having something like an official depiction of the stone-in-hat method would help familiarize members of the Church with what otherwise might surprise them. Later this week I'll be posting a paper I have been working on regarding "Visual Culture, the Myth of Photographic Truth, and LDS Church Art."

The last three pictures demonstrate non-conventional styles and approaches depicting the translation. I'd like to see the stone-in-hat method presented in the former, more conventional style. In the end why does it matter? Familiarity would be one good reason. It would also help to have depictions that don't border on the homemade or cartoony.

Here's one that depicts Joseph using the breastplate and the "spectacles."

The Children's Friend magazine featured a comic strip called "Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon." This image is available under “Coloring Pages by Topic" in the Friend section of LDS.org. In the pane depicting the translation itself the plates are nowhere to be seen, although they might be blocked by Joseph in the chair, and there is no breastplate. His right hand is brought up against the side of his face as though concentrating.

 Where's Liz Lemon-Swindle when you need her? Thoughts?

There are many other depictions of the translation, I might add more later.

*It's later (March 4, 2014). As far as I can tell these other hat images were created for anti-Mormon websites with two exceptions: The bottom left image below was created for Wikipedia, apparently, and the other for a cartoon show called "South Park."

The award for "creepiest malevolent depiction" goes to this person's attempt:

And here's an interesting depiction of Joseph Smith from a 1904 newspaper, though it is not intended to depict the translation itself. It depicts Joseph looking for gold:

The TWA project aims to gather all known witness statements regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon. Currently there is no single place to review all known witness explanations of the translation, so TWA will provide the most comprehensive source of witness statements possible in one convenient location.

Joseph Smith was reluctant to share specific details about the translation process. See BHodges "Joseph Smith's Descriptions of the Book of Mormon Translation," lifeongoldplates.com, 28 September 2009. W.W. Phelps appears to have been the first to use the name "Urim and Thummim" to describe the implements of interpretation in print. See "The Book of Mormon," 1/8 Evening and Morning Star (January 1833): 58.

See Mark Ashurst-McGee's excellent thesis, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000). See also Brant Gardner, "Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?" FAIR Conference address, 2009.

David Keller has compiled the curtain statements at fairblog.org. See "TWA Project: The Curtain Accounts," 24 October 2009.

Roberts discussed the seer stones in his Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 1:129.

Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, Jul 1993, 61, citing David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12. In this instance the quote provided does not match the picture. The image of Jones's painting in this blog post is from James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 44. The caption in the book reports: "Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in various settings over a two-year period. Oliver Cowdery acted as scribe for a major portion of the work, shown here in an upstairs room at the Whitmer cabin at Fayette."

Picture captions:
1. "Joseph Smith Translating," Harold T. Kilbourn, circa 1970.
2. "Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon," Del Parson, 1996.
3. "Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates," Harold T. Kilbourn, 1978.
4. "Joseph Smith Translates the Golden Plates," Robert Barrett, 1988.
5. "Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery Translate the Book of Mormon," Earl Jones, n.d.
6. From Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 25:2 (Summer 1982), p. 48.
7. From Grant Palmer's An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, p. 3.
8. From the anti-Mormon site imagesoftherestoration.org.
9. I need to get the exact source on this, it looks to be from one of the comic book-style Church publications for children.
10. This image is available under “Coloring Pages by Topic" in the Friend section of LDS.org.


Clean Cut said...

Great idea! And what a great (TWA) project!

Emerson said...

Innocent Question: What makes the TWA project different from the compilation in Welch's Heavens Resound?

BHodges said...

One difference is the number of inclusions. TWA will include everything in Welch's compilation in addition to all the stuff that was left out or has been found since the book was published.

WVS said...

One would think of the stone-in-hat episodes as not using the curtain. So would the curtain be employed when JS was trying to look *at* the plates with the spectacles. Anyway, a worthy project. I've found stone-in-hat references for the Abraham translation too.

BHodges said...

WVS, that's what is funny about the illustration in Palmer's book. It actually runs counter to the available witness accounts! IE, we never have JS using the seer stone in a hat from behind a curtain.

Clean Cut said...

Are there ANY accounts about a curtain? I seem to remember listening to an interview with Richard Bushman describing that the whole "curtain" idea was simply based on conjecture.

BHodges said...

See footnote four link:


I vaguely recall that interview, it was w/ John Dehlin. I don't remember exactly what Bushman was saying though.

Enrique's blog said...

I can't stop wondering why is it that there are so many out there trying to prove that Mormon doctrine is false. To me is nothing but proof of the "dark side" attempting to deceive others who might be looking the truth.
One thing I know, it doesn't matter how hard y'all try to discredit God's work, still every one of His plans will happen as He Himself has declared.

BHodges said...

Who are you referring to, Enrique? Are you under the mistaken impression that this site (or at least this single blog post) is intended to "discredit God's work"?

And what Mormon doctrine were you referring to? This post is about historical accounts of the BoM translation method compared with the sort of art Church members might encounter. There is certainly no questioning of God's "plans" here. I suggest spending more time becoming acquainted with my site before hinting that I'm deceived by the "dark side." :D

BHodges said...

Interestingly, the piece of art from Grant Palmer's book doesn't match a single historical witness account. He made much of accurate artwork, but appears to have failed in his own attempt to provide such. It is nitpicky to say so, but it seems none of the descriptions involving a curtain match what the picture shows:


BHodges said...

Witness statements here:


Kai said...

Ok. I'm here. The pictures I mentioned over on BCC from the 'Book of Mormon Stories' and the 2002 edition of 'Doctrine and Covenant Stories' are the same as those in the pdf files for those books currently on the church website. See chapter 1 of BoM Stories, and chapters 4 & 5 for D&C Stories. The picture of the Urim & Thummim from the 1995 edition of D&C stories is the one you have above: breast-plate and glasses. See chapter 5 of the same book for the post-116 pages picture.
There are quite a few 'subtle' changes comparing the 1995 to 2002 editions erring towards 'palatability' I think...
I hope that helps.

Blair Hodges said...

Thanks, Kai. Will come back to this at some future point I hope.

coltakashi said...

Current critics love to ridicule the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith by evoking the image of him looking at either his seer stone or the "interpreters" that he found with the plates, in a hat covering his eyes. As is evident in the drawings here, looking at a man with a hat over his eyes, when we can't see an object in the hat, or the vision he sees, is mystifying and easily ridiculed. And realizing that, I think Joseph Fielding Smith was reluctant to invite the Latter-day Saints to keep that image in their minds when they thought about the miraculous translation process. If it were to be depicted in a new Church video, we would want to use computer generated special effects to hint to the observer that something unnatural was going on, with the viewpoint zooming in as we face Joseph seated, his elbows resting on a table to prevent fatigue, seeing the inverted hat and the outline of something small and dense in the crown of the hat, and just above the rim of the hat we see Joseph's eyes looking at the object, heavy with significance, real gravitas, his face illuminated by the light projected from the object, and as we slowly zoom in on his eyes we see a mirror image of what he sees projected on the surface of his eye, a line of unusual characters above a line of carefully hand drawn, printed English words, black letters on a sepia-tone parchment, similar to the images we see in the National Archives of the original text of the Declaration of Independence. The viewer realizes he can read the mirror image, an evocative phrase from the Book of Mormon that would also have meaning to a non-Mormon, perhaps something about Jesus Christ, as we hear Joseph's voice reading it aloud. And in his voice, and his facial expression, we see that Joseph is reading this for the first time. He is the first reader of the Book of Mormon, and its meaning affects him the way it will later affect Parley P. Pratt, and millions of others, as we zoom out slightly and can see the expression in his eyes, and hear the emotion in his voice.

If that visual sequence were produced so that it could.communicate to us what this miraculous process was like from Joseph's perspective, it could transform the image we see in our minds from one that is mysterious , irrational like a Magritte painting, and easily ridiculed, into one that let's us see that something miraculous was going on. In poetry we read about seeing the world in a grain of sand, and we can depict this event as a window into the eternal perspective of God.

Anonymous said...

If not for the will of God, man would loose his faith...The Book of Mormon is the word of God (yes) but not the only word of God. The Bible is the word of God...defined as a testimony and a witness of Christ...Those who wrote these words...Moses, Peter, Paul, John, and others ate witnesses to Christ...Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni are witnesses...get the connection...please do not speculate as to how Joseph Smith - a witness...translated the BofM, Do you think Moses did the same thing when he took five books of records and abridged them...

Anonymous said...

If not for the will of God, man would loose his faith...The Book of Mormon is the word of God (yes) but not the only word of God. The Bible is the word of God...defined as a testimony and a witness of Christ...Those who wrote these words...Moses, Peter, Paul, John, and others are witnesses to Christ...Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni are witnesses...get the connection...please do not speculate as to how Joseph Smith - a witness...translated the BofM, Do you think Moses did the same thing when he took five books of records and abridged them...

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I have never seen the gold plates.
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