October 31, 2009

Review: Matthew B. Brown's "Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons"

Title: Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons
Author: Matthew B. Brown
Publisher: Covenant
Genre: Apologetics/History
Year: 2009
Pages: 211
ISBN13: 9781598118933
ISBN10: 1598118935
Price: 19.95

The connection between Latter-day Saint temple ceremonies and Freemasonry has yet to be fully explored. To be frank, the connections may never be adequately explored due to the obligations of privacy placed upon participants of the respective rites. Of course, this hasn’t stopped exposé artists from publishing details about Mormon and Mason rites—including Captain Morgan’s 1827 book on Masonry and the Salt Lake Tribune’s 1878 publication of a former Mormon’s recollections of LDS ceremonies. These pot-boilers only hamper fruitful dialog. Several brave cartographers have attempted to respectfully navigate the issues, providing various maps comparing the rites.1 Matthew B. Brown’s latest book Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons hopes to take the conversation “a few significant steps forward” (Brown, p. 1). Before discussing the specifics regarding Exploring, I want to provide a territorial guide of a few trails thus far trod—four general LDS approaches to the Mormon/Mason topic.2 I’ll situate Exploring within that dialog then briefly review its contents chapter by chapter.

Maps of Masonism & Mormonry

1. The LDS endowment is a ritual that was revealed directly to Joseph Smith and is unchanging in every respect from all eternity. It has no relationship whatsoever to Masonic rituals.

This is the weakest of the four options. I don’t recall anyone ever making this claim, including Joseph Smith and his contemporaries. Even the most casual study of the two rituals would eliminate it as an explanation.

2. The LDS endowment has been revealed during different time periods beginning in antiquity. It was revealed during the time of Solomon’s Temple from whence the Masons acquired it. As part of the apostasy the endowment was changed over the centuries. It was revealed exactly as it was in the beginning to Joseph Smith in 1842, independent of his becoming a Mason.

Brown does a fine job of putting the first part of this theory to rest, pointing out there is no conclusive historical evidence showing a direct descent from Solomon’s Temple to current Freemasonry. 

3. LDS and Masonic ceremonies share a connection to rituals used in Old and New Testament times. The Masons acquired certain specific elements of the ritual from the orthodox Christian Church (medieval monks, etc.) and passed it along with some changes, whereas the entire endowment was revealed anew to Joseph Smith, independent of his involvement in Freemasonry. 

As discussed in the rest of the review, this is close to Brown’s position.

4. Joseph Smith used the 19th century Masonic ritual as a template for the development of the endowment ritual in addition to revealed instructions and scripture from God.

This is the approach of Greg Kearney and others.3

I personally see the best argument residing somewhere between options three and four, and that Masonry played some role in Joseph Smith’s formulating many of the already-revealed temple principles into an enacted and institutionalized ritual. There are interesting similarities between Masonic elements and early Christian initiation rites and ceremonies, but the historical record is too vague to provide a reliable genealogy of influence either way. Brown situates himself under number three, arguing that the elements of the endowment were fully revealed to Joseph Smith independent of Masonry.

Chapter 1: “The Lord’s House and the Mason’s Lodge” (pp. 7-23).
In the first chapter, Brown contrasts LDS Temples and Masonic lodges by answering a set of ten questions for each tradition. He is careful to employ “common courtesy” by using “respected” sources for each tradition and avoiding discussion of more private elements (p. 7). He is also careful to mainly contrast as opposed to compare; similarities are downplayed and differences exaggerated. He concludes: “The fundamental natures of the two institutions (as presently constituted) are completely opposite each other” (p. 14). This overstatement doesn’t fruitfully account for similarities that could better help members of the Church understand and appreciate the role ritual can play in binding a community together, be it Masonic or Mormon. Brown’s decision in this chapter to contrast the institutions “as presently constituted” misses the opportunity to compare similarities that existed during the milieu when Joseph first administered the endowment. The possibilities for comparison here are ripe!

For instance, consider Brown’s question: “Who is allowed to enter within their walls?” Comparing the requirements for entry is a fascinating subject and because interview requirements have changed over time for both groups an entire chapter could have been devoted to this question alone. Worthiness interviews, recommendation of current members, qualifications—and these possibilities are latent in only one of Brown’s ten questions from this short chapter.4 Again, the goal of the chapter seems to be to describe differences rather than to trace respective historical developments or influences.

Chapter 2 “From Stonemasons to Freemasons” (pp. 25-39).
This chapter digs at the foundations of Freemasonry as an institution to discover where it came from, as opposed to where the actual “practices” came from (p. 41). Brown rightly notes: “Masonic history is very problematic for historians” (p. 25).

This is probably Brown’s strongest historically-based chapter. After describing a few of the best available primary sources on the subject he explains the “romantic school” and the “authentic school” of Masonic history—the first is older, based largely on lore, while the second makes better use of contemporary academic tools. The authentic school has practically overturned the romantic idea that Masonry directly descended from workers on Solomon’s Temple. Brown follows suit—an important and responsible conclusion based on the available historical data and current thought on the matter. Even though the romantic idea is all but demolished, however, “there seems to be no solid consensus on where the Masonic organization and its rituals came from” (p. 28) so historians currently offer a best plausible case and leave it at that. In the rest of the chapter Brown does likewise, outlining the “operative” origins of the movement (consisting of actual masons of stone who created a sort of workers union in the 1300s) to the “speculative” Freemasons who “do not [necessarily] engage in any such physical activities but are concerned with integrating a system of ethics into their lives” (p. 28). Brown briefly describes religious, political and social influences, internecine Masonic debates, and the ideological backgrounds of key participants, up to 1813 when Joseph Smith turned eight years old (p. 34). This is a subject that could fill volumes but Brown does a workable job in fourteen pages. A full treatment from an LDS perspective has yet to be completed.

Chapter 3 “The Origins of Masonic Practice” (41-67).
This chapter is where much of the meat ought to be. It's also one of the most challenging historical questions of the venture. Exploring reads more like a summary of potential starting points than a set of documented conclusions here. For Brown, “Orthodox Christianity is the place to start looking when it comes to the question of Masonic origins” (p. 42). Though he leaves out many specifics, he lists similarities between Masonic lodges and early Christian churches in architecture, ornament, furniture, and symbolism. Next he notes a parallels between Masonic ceremonies and early Christian initiation rites including catechism formulae, dramatization, oaths and obligations, and secrecy.

Some of the parallels seem quite striking on the surface and I wish Brown spent more time detailing specific connections and actually arguing for (or demonstrating) connection or dependence; admittedly a particularly sticky realm for historians. This chapter seemed incomplete.

Chapter 4 “Freemasonry in Nauvoo” (69-83).
Brown breezes through the institution of Masonry at Nauvoo in fifteen pages. His history of the actual intersection of Masonry and Mormonism begins in this chapter in the year 1841. Unfortunately, this leaves unexplored the previous interactions Joseph Smith and other Mormons had with the institution prior to the petition to start a Nauvoo lodge—a  critical gap in the book. (Fortunately he does include useful bios of nine participants of the first LDS endowment session including their Masonic involvement and degree in the next chapter, pp. 106-111.)

He argues that Masonry was implemented largely under the influence of John C. Bennett and there is “no evidence Joseph Smith played a direct role” in establishing a lodge among the Saints (pp. 69-70). Nevertheless, Brown says Joseph would have seen the attraction of Masonry in its capacity to forge alliances with non-Mormons and other influential people throughout Illinois. Or, in the words of Lorenzo Snow, it could help “obtain influence in furtherance of the purposes of the Lord.”5 After describing the process of installing a lodge at Nauvoo he notes Joseph Smith’s initiation into Freemasonry which took place on 15-16 March 1842 (p. 73). He dispels the myth that Joseph was made a “Mason at sight” in that Joseph actually participated in the Masonic initiation rituals (p. 74).

After a somewhat confusing table of dates listing when Joseph participated in other Masonic ceremonies Brown notes a forty-eight day interim between Joseph’s becoming a Master Mason on 16 March 1842 and his institution of the temple endowment on 4 May 1842 (p. 77). Over the next four pages he lists an “abbreviated day-by-day accounting of what the Prophet is known to have been doing during this time frame” as described in vol. 4 of the History of the Church (pp. 78-81). It’s unclear what is paraphrase and what is left out of this accounting, and Brown doesn’t investigate what sources the information in that volume of the History of the Church was gleaned from, so this accounting seems problematic.6

Brown concludes the chapter arguing that Joseph was “an exceptionally busy man who had little time to prepare for the inauguration of the endowment” during the forty-eight day interim he outlined, and his limited involvement with Masonry indicates he did not rely upon it to help formulate the endowment (p. 81). Instead, “when a much broader survey of time is taken by the student of the past and the events of history are scrutinized in a much more careful manner” it will become obvious that “the Nauvoo-era temple ordinances and doctrines did not suspiciously materialize after Joseph Smith became a Freemason” (pp. 85, 98). Which leads to the next chapter.

Chapter 5 “Return to Mount Zion” (pp. 85-102). 17
Here Brown traces a chronology from Joseph’s first conversations with the angel Moroni in 1823 to Joseph’s death in 1844, tracing revelations that would inform the endowment ceremony proper. Temple themes are pinpointed in the instructions from angelic messengers like Moroni, John the Baptist, Elias, Elijah and others, as well as chapters from the inspired translation of the Bible resulting in the Book of Moses. This is an interesting chapter arguing that the concepts, keys, and rituals of the endowment were made known to Joseph before he actually became a Freemason in 1842.

I enjoyed many of the parallels Brown included, he points out concepts in Doctrine and Covenants section 76 that I hadn’t considered in light of the Temple before, for instance. But at the same time Brown flatly rejects the possibility that Masonry provided a Joseph with a useful tool to help formulate the endowment, which has been a successful apologetic angle for other LDS writers.  

Chapter 6 “A Provisional Temple” (pp. 105-123).
Next, Joseph’s institution of the endowment on 4 May, 1842 is described. Brown adroitly avoids specifics that might make Latter-day Saints uncomfortable outside of the sacred space of the temple. He includes Joseph’s interesting follow-up instructions to Brigham Young, that “this is not arranged right but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed and I wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.”7

This is another area that demands fuller attention than Exploring affords—how to untangle the endowment as given by Joseph compared to what later became more “set in stone” over time. Evidently, Joseph himself acknowledged some flexibility and adaptation regarding the endowment in his instructions to Young, who later assisted Wilford Woodruff and others in formulating the ritual. Brown rightly notes none of the brethren accused Joseph of stealing from the endowment despite their being Masons; indeed, they saw it as part of the restoration of apostatized elements of true religion. Discovering where the soul of the endowment meets its body, so to speak, is perhaps the most difficult task facing a Mormon historian on this subject.8 Again, this chapter left me wanting more.

Chapter 7 “History, Theory and Myth” (pp. 125-169).
The longest chapter addresses “fifteen of the more commonly championed ideas about the relationship between Mormonism and Masonry” (p. 125). In question two Brown argues directly against the idea that Joseph would have “borrowed” elements from Freemasons in constructing the endowment, emphasizing Joseph’s statement that the “ordinances must be kept in the very way God has appointed,” and that God would “not acknowledge that which He has not called, ordained, and chosen.”9 However, one should
still consider, in light of these statements, Joseph’s own instructions that the endowment still needed formulating even after his death. Moreover, this simply begs the question as to how influential God and man are in the process of revelation itself—an area budding with possibilities for analysis, especially with the Joseph Smith Papers Project in full motion.10

Brown confronts some of the statements of early Church leaders to the effect that the temple endowment is “true Masonry,” or “Freemasonry as being a counterfeit of the true Masonry of the Latter-day Saints.” He rightly concludes many of these Saints were informed by the “Romantic school” of Masonic origins tracing it back to Solomon’s Temple, and thus would have understood Masonry as being a more directly apostate version of the endowment (pp. 153-154). Earlier in the book he outlines a less direct, but still Christian-influenced source for many Masonic elements (see chapter 3).

Brown’s fifteen questions are interesting, but Exploring runs through them too quickly without enough time to sit near a stream and stretch ones legs before moving to the next turn in the trail and I could think of fifteen more before the book was over.

Appendices, etc. 
Brown’s first appendix, “Early Mormon Symbolism” (pp. 171-177), is too skimpy to provide much food for thought, it is a list of some scripture references and quotes that touch on temple or Masonic elements from Mormon sources. The second appendix, “An LDS View of Derivation” (pp. 179-181), lists seven one-line quotes from early Mormons to the effect that similarities between Masonry and Mormonism exist “because Masonry is a product of apostasy or degeneration from a priesthood-based prototype” (p. 179). Perhaps it would have been better simply to include the quotes directly in one of the chapters instead. Brown doesn’t provide a rubric regarding the reliability of any given quote, though he sometimes notes the problematic nature of late reminiscences when they counter his theories.11 A rubric isn’t necessarily required in every historical work, but it would have been useful for Brown to be more consistent or explicit regarding what quotes he employed or doubted. A thirteen-page selected bibliography and a thirteen page Index round out the book at 211 pages.

In sum, Exploring does not provide enough evidence of the direct dependence of Masonry on ancient Christian rites, though it outlines many interesting possibilities that deserve fuller attention. Overall it feels incomplete and I disagree with some of Brown’s conclusions. More importantly, I was more interested in questions Brown didn't ask, such as how do the shared elements inform Masons and Mormons differently? Why have Masonic rituals been resilient over so many centuries and how are they holding up currently compared to how temple ceremonies continue to inform the faith of today's Latter-day Saints? I enjoyed  elements of the book that provided interesting food for thought from some of the revelations Joseph Smith received that later informed the endowment; there are enough leads to keep a reader busy if they want to dig into the sources. Exploring takes the third trail described in my imperfect taxonomy above, but the definitive work on the connection between Latter-day Saints and Freemasonry has yet to be fully mapped.

See for example, Michael W. Homer, “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry”: The Relationship between Freemasonry and Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27 (Fall): 2-113, and Greg Kearney, "The Message and the Messenger: Latter-day Saints and Freemasonry," 2005 FAIR Conference.

My gratitude to Greg Kearney for his e-mailed advice as I suffered in bed with the dreadful swine flu. I have made a few adjustments to his proposal. The categories may overlap depending on who is making use of them and they only deal with similarities in rites; i.e., they do not address supposed Masonic elements of the Book of Mormon, etc. A definitive treatment of Mormonism and Masonry would do well to explore that angle, and though it was not within the purview of Brown’s book he includes some footnote references on the subject. I also left out the obvious option that Joseph Smith simply stole the Masonic ceremony. I do not accept that theory, but a book review isn’t the best place to counter it.

Michael Homer gives a more precise overview of the various positions and individuals who have employed them. See his article referenced in footnote 1 above.

Andrew F. Ehat’s BYU Master’s thesis has a wealth of information that describe how the first endowed members were selected and found worthy compared to the temple recommend interview process today. Ehat hasn’t circulated the thesis widely, it remains slightly flawed due to the inclusion of a few yet-debunked forgeries. See “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question” (1982, 307 p.). See also Edward L. Kimball's "The History of LDS Temple Admission Standards," Journal of Mormon History Spring (1998): 135-175.

Brown, p. 71, cites Stan Larsen, ed., A Ministry of Meetings: The Apostolic Diaries of Rudger Clawson, (Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1993), p. 316.

For a useful collection of sources dealing with the compilation and reliability of the History of the Church, see “The Curriculum Department and the Search for the Authentic Joseph Smith,” Appendix II, LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 13 July 2009.

Brown, p. 112, citing Andrew F. Ehat, ed., “‘They Might Have Known That He Was Not a Fallen Prophet,’—The Nauvoo Journal of Joseph Fielding,Brigham Young University Studies, Winter 1979, p. 159.

Up and coming historian Ben Park recently mused about this fascinating and sticky subject in “Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence,” juvenileinstructor.org, 12 October 2009. He argues it may be faulty to fall into an “either/or” dichotomy of influence without acknowledging how environment and culture plays a part in the revelatory process. Others fear the danger of not acknowledging the hand of God enough when environmental influences are emphasized. This is a long-standing puzzle for Mormon studies and religious history generally.

Brown, p. 128, citing Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, rev. ed. (Grandin Books, 1990), pp. 40-41. Brown also cites WJS pp. 209-216 where Joseph explains that the “order and ordinances of the kingdom were instituted in heaven before the world was” and they have “not been changed.”  In the recorded notes Joseph specifies “baptism for the dead, washing, anointings, etc.” Again, I don’t see this as precluding adjustments for culture, space and time, though there are striking similarities across cultures that still puzzle anthropologists, sociologists and other researchers of cult and religion. In my view Brown is relying on Joseph’s recorded statements without fully exploring their implications or how they interact with available evidence regarding the temple. Again, Joseph’s statements to Brigham Young on the need to better formulate the endowment come to mind.

See BHodges, “‘In their weakness, after the manner of their language’: Joseph Smith's Revelations, Revisions, and Canonization,” lifeongoldplates.com, 21 October 2009. This is similar to ongoing conversations about Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible, and even the possibility of “expansions” in the Book of Mormon employing Joseph’s 19th century language to express ancient ideas in a meaningful way to contemporaries. Again, where “prophet meets God” in communication and language is a fascinating topic that deserves much thought and study.

The most obvious example of an interpretation of a historical source I strongly disagree with is from John D. Lee’s journal on Brown's pp. 149-151. Brown argues that “implements” refers to firewood and “degrees” refers to levels of a building, but it is evident Lee is simply using Masonic terms in the context of the LDS temple.

October 30, 2009

Visual Culture and LDS Church Art

Part 1- The following paper is a rough draft of something I am tinkering with.
The study of "visual culture" has attracted the attention of sociologists and historians alike. In the book Practices of Looking, Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright examine painting, photography, film, television, and new media to understand how images shape—and are shaped by—the communities that view them. It's interesting to consider how the beliefs of Latter-day Saints shape and are shaped by images they employ in official publications. In this series I hope to explore questions of visual culture, history and religion.

Images are like language. They are representations used to “understand, describe, and define the world as we see it.”1   On the surface, these systems of representation seem pretty straightforward: a picture shows us something, it represents an idea, feeling, or object. Sturken observes:
Images have been used to represent, make meaning of, and convey various sentiments about nature, society, and culture as well as to represent imaginary worlds and abstract concepts.  Throughout much of history, for example, images, most of them paintings, have been used by religions to convey religious myths, church doctrines, and historical dramas…2
Debates about representation have been waged over whether images should be interpreted “as they really are” as if they simply mirrored back reality, or “whether in fact we construct the world and its meaning through the systems of representation we deploy.”3 In other words, we should consider whether we as viewers help create the meaning of the images we view.

Ideology and images
In order to explore the meaning of images we must recognize they aren't created in a vacuum. Images are produced within an ideology, the often unstated assumptions regarding how the world works.4 Images help produce ideologies and ideologies are also projected back onto images by viewers. As I will discuss below, religious and political groups often employ images to both shape and express values and beliefs.5

Images have at least two levels of meaning
Roland Barthes formulated the concept of the “denotative” and “connotative” meaning of images. Denotation is the literal or descriptive meaning of an image. This is when an image is believed to depict “documentary evidence of objective circumstances.”6 For example: criminal mug shots are used to capture distinct facial features, dimensions of height, tattoos, and identification numbers.

In addition, a mug shot can connote a more culturally specific meaning. The viewer of the mug shot sees the image in the context of understanding the circumstances behind the image. A criminal is someone who broke the law. The image can connote fear, sympathy, contempt, or other emotions. The connotation changes depending on the ideology of the person viewing the image. The meaning of the image changes depending on the viewer. Connotation is shaped by the cultural and historical context of the image and its viewers’ experienced knowledge of those circumstances.   

Three interpretive positions of viewers
As viewers we can “decode” images in order to help them connote different things. Stuart Hall has outlined three decoding positions:7  

(1) Dominant-hegemonic reading.
Viewers can identify with the hegemonic (or widely-accepted) position and receive the dominant message of an image…in an unquestioning manner.

(2) Negotiated reading.
Viewers can negotiate an interpretation from the image and its dominant meanings. 

(3) Oppositional reading.
Finally, viewers can take an oppositional position, either by completely disagreeing with the ideological position embodied in an image or rejecting it altogether (by ignoring it, for example). 

Sturken argues that a negotiated reading is often the most fruitful because the viewer is more engaged in finding personal meaning in the image: “Negotiation calls to mind the process of trade [as we] haggle with the dominant meanings of an image when we interpret it.”8

So far I've briefly outlined how images are created and interpreted within ideological frameworks. Next, I'll discuss the rise of the “historical art” genre and how it applies to religion. Understanding this context allows for a more responsibly negotiated reading of (albeit often mundane) LDS Church art.


Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 12.

Sturken and Cartwright, Ibid., 13. The authors are not discussing “myth” in terms of a fable, but myth in terms of a foundational or shaping narrative that gives meaning to a group.

Ibid., 12.

Sturken and Cartwright define ideology as “the broad but indispensable, shared set of values and beliefs through which individuals live out their complex relations to a range of social structures” (Ibid., 21).

This is not to say that such images are mere propaganda, which follows “the crude process of using false representations to lure people into holding beliefs that may compromise their own interests” (Ibid.). Images can be used as propaganda to champion a given ideology but all images are created and help create ideology whether positively or negatively.

Sturken and Cartwright, Ibid., 19.

Ibid. 57.


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.