The Story of the Stones and the Hat

Kevin’s recent post on abstaining from commentary (or having seizures, I couldn’t tell from the title), brought to my mind the fact that our current level of discussion about Smith’s use of seerstones in translation hovers around the voyeuristic (rather than exploit my well-intentioned threadjack on Kevin’s thoughtful post, I started a new thread). I would like to think about implications and broader narratives for the mode of Book of Mormon translation. First, though, the “facts”:

The best evidence we have confirms that Smith claimed exclusively supernatural access to the hieroglyphs of the gold plates (this would not remain the case throughout his career, but it was so for the Book of Mormon). Reliable evidence suggests that he used the mode of folk seeric usage for at least some and probably much of the Book of Mormon translation. Specifically, the seerstones were placed in the top of a hat, into which the seer gazed, his face covered by the hat. Classically, the seer saw visions in this pose. Some have felt Smith saw words in the stones, others have felt he connected thereby with the meaning of the glyphs. This has not been settled, and Smith did not give much direct indication for historians. Throughout most of the translation, the plates were covered in a shroud of sorts, a linen tablecloth if late eyewitness accounts are reliable. Smith was not squinting at the hieroglyphic grooves of the plates while he revealed the English text of our foundational scripture, at least not usually.

How shall we interpret the use of seerstones in their traditional seeric mode (at various times denominated Urim and Thummim and often merged with the “spectacles” that are more familiar to modern readers)?

I see a number of possibilities.

The one most compelling to me is a visual image corroborating the deep meaning of seerhood. Though I am still revising the relevant manuscript, I argue in my cultural history work that seerhood, particularly in Joseph Smith’s hands, was an act of recovering the voices of the dead. The most persistent early description of the meaning of the Book of Mormon was an exegesis of Isaiah 29:4. In Smith’s hands, the gold plates provided a communication channel between America’s ancient dead (personified by Moroni, whose voice Smith actually heard) and those then living. Smith, as a seer, was responsible for making sure the living heard from the dead. Though Smith never commented, I easily imagine that he saw the seerstones at the base of the hat as symbolically reburied in the bowels of the earth, the darkness and depth a visual metonyme for the grave. For me spiritually, the story of the stones in the hat is the story of Mormonism, a ritual and eternal reconnection of all the generations of humanity. Not the insipid biological memory of pseudo-religious scientism or merely the poetic discharges of Romanticism, but a robust and nourishing connection of all humanity.

Another, better documented, interpretation of the stones in the hat is a criticism of scholarly modes of knowing. Though Smith and many of the inner circle would later aspire to great scriptural and linguistic erudition, in the late 1820s Smith was unabashedly supernaturalist in his claims to knowing. How did he translate the hieroglyphs from the plates? Certainly not how Mitchell and Anthon attempted and failed. In fact their failure was prophecied according to Mormon exegesis of Isaiah 29. No learned scholar or overschooled divine could hear the voice of truth in lost hieroglyphs. Only a seer, guided by God’s supernatural power could learn those truths. Though many of us will find this uncomfortable, the story of the Stones and the Hat seem to tell us that God can and will reveal things to us that defy our attempts at logical rigor and scholarship, that surprise and sometimes embarrass us. However much God allows me to love him with my mind, there will always be a defiantly supernatural thread in his communication with us.

Another fruitful mode of interpretation of the stones and the hat will rely on the use of physicality in spirituality. Smith (and Young) loved to remind people that the dualistic division into body and soul, mind and spirit, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal was artificial, ad hoc, and ultimately unsupportable. Through this call for unity, he emphasized and amplified the meaning of touch. His descriptions of the resurrection are filled with handclasps and embraces, and whatever the Masonic echoes of these modes of touching, they were also emotionally and spiritually real. Though he rejected more traditional views of [(tran)|(con)]substantiation in the Eucharist, I believe he loved that the emblems of the Lord’s Supper were touched and sensed by the body. For Mormonism’s first seminary, meant to be a microcosm of heaven, Smith adapted Methodist footwashings and Catholic chrism, situating them strongly within New Testament precedent and a Gospel of physicality. To be an early Mormon was to touch and be touched. Smith did not, in his translation of the Book of Mormon, merely channel a spirit’s voice (as some commentators caught in a post-Enlightenment hiccup around the turn of the twentieth century would argue) or pronounce a merely verbal revelation. He held a collection of metal epitaphs in his lap or on the table, while he handled and pushed his face against stones, physical relics that connected him with the mind of God and the words of lost prophets. We oughtn’t forget that in the Book of Mormon narratives of stones, such stones were the recipients of the touch of God’s sacredly physical hand. At Moriancumer’s request, God touched a collection of stones directly, endowing them with the power of illumination and by extension salvation. Through those stones God first (according to the Book of Mormon narrative) connected the scriptures of the Old and New world.

These are the three modes of interpreting the Story of the Stones and the Hat that strike me this morning. I am eager to hear other explanations. While I am sympathetic to other faith walks, my purpose in this post is to explore explanations of the Stones and the Hat other than the journalistic drivel of New Atheism or the schizophrenic railings of anti-Mormonist evangelical critics. (While I recognize that reasonable people can and do believe that the use of folk-seeric implements in the translation of the Book of Mormon discredit the Mormon scripture, proposing that such an interpretation is the only one possible is what I criticize in that small patch of vitriol; I give Steve permission to limit egregious trolling).

Time limitations have limited the annotation of this essay. Feel free to fill in blanks. Others should feel free to revisit the historiography if desired.

The main useful reading on this subject is contained in two sources: Ashurst-McGee’s MA thesis (“A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” USU 2000) and van Wagoner and Walker’s “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing” in Dialogue 15:2:49-68. Quinn’s famous book (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View) lacks interpretive sophistication but is a useful annotated bibliography. Please add others you find of relevance here. Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents is a useful compendium of primary sources as well.


  1. I have just recently read Rough Stone Rolling (CHristmas gift) so your post here has good timing for me. Very well done by the way.

    I think there is a faith value in having object and symbols to focus one’s faith. I think there was a strength available for JS to have the plates and the U&T and the seerstone, etc.

  2. To me the Urim and Thummin are nothing but seer stones. Why is it that some react negatively to Joseph’s personal stones but are quite accepting of what is basically the same thing when found with the plates? This never made any sense to me.

    It’s basically the idea that “really old = more authentic.” Which, when you think about it, is a stupid instinct.

    Thus the reason why people are more accepting of miracles done a few thousand years ago then any claim for contemporary miracles.

  3. Thanks for this post. I like your approach of looking at different implications of Joseph’s use of the seer stone/U&T to translate.

    Your penultimate paragraph portrays Joseph as a much deeper and analytical thinker than (I would think) most people view him as, although I could be wrong about that.

  4. Clark, I think people’s issues with the seer stone in the hat (although I am not convinced that a large number of Latter-day Saints have an issue with it) stem from at least three possible sources:

    (1) the idea of it is embarassing — even moreso than making use of an ancient, mechanical-seeming artififact (the U&T), particularly since the U&T is mentioned in the Old Testament. But artists’ renderings of the use of seer stone in the hat to this point (because Latter-day Saint artists to this point seem to have favored rendering Oliver Cowdery’s reading from the plates/use of a dividing screen description as the more aesthetically or artistically pleasant picture) have put Joseph into an unflattering pose when using the seer stone in the hat. Of course, the idea of using the U&T should be just as embarassing as the idea of the seer stone in the hat since neither are an academically accepted method of translation;

    (2) discomfort with the idea that the seer stone was the same one that Joseph used in his treasure seeking adventures, in the course of which some have accused or postulated that Joseph participated in some fraudulent behavior;

    (3) discomfort with the idea that the plates weren’t present (or weren’t always present) during those times in which Joseph used the seer stone in the hat to translate. Despite the fact that use of the U&T or seer stones at all is a miraculous means of translation, it seems to go too far to believe that in addition to using miraculous means to translate, the translation could occur without the plates even being present.

    David Whitmer’s account coupled with Emma’s account read together provide a compelling narrative, however, of the process of translating using the seer stone in the hat. The idea that Joseph read for hours on end with his head buried in the hat intrigues me. That is an amazing feat.

  5. jf, I don’t know that we always understand the broader implications of what we’re doing. For prophets as well, I think often their actions are multivalent in ways even they might not explicitly recognize. And though the story of Joseph Smith’s intellect is awfully contentious, it would not shock me that he appreciated the meaning of physicality at some level as it applied to U&T.

  6. Sam,

    I like the concept of the physicality of the seerstones as a means of focusing ones spiritual efforts, especially as Joseph Smith was learning how to be a prophet, and to tap into the spiritual promptings coming his way. To some extent, we have the similar usage of the scriptures as a physical token, reading and marking and studying that brings us into finer spiritual focus, more able to perceive those promptings. I would argue also that for many, the temple serves a similar purpose, a symbolic physical space that becomes a sacred space when we enter into it.

    I hesitate to use the word, but I like the term “medium”, as in using these physical objects as media for communication with God in a spiritual sense, making the otherworldly more tangible for us.

  7. By the way, smb, what did you make of Noah Felman’s description of the seer stone essentially as a crystal ball in the recent NY Times piece on Mormonism? This description is particularly jarring, I would think, for Latter-day Saints. Despite that, even the crystal ball would retain the material aspect you are touching on in this post.

  8. Mark AM discusses crystal balls at length in his thesis.
    I think the crystal ball as a microcosm (literally) is the most fruitful and interesting. I can’t remember whether Mark pursues it much or not, but the 1843 revelation that the earth itself is a U&T in the next existence pushes directly into ideas about “correspondence,” physicality, resurrection, and the deep and eternal meaning of earth.

    To be fair to Feldman, Enlightenment-saturated observers have always seen seerstones as the equivalent of crystal balls, so it’s not unreasonable for him to make the association, but I think it’s an oversimplification of the meanings of physicalized celestiality in Mormonism.

  9. kf, i also like the idea of the physicalized Word represented by the scriptures. i wonder what role those red marking pencils I see the traces of in people’s scriptures here plays in this regard.

  10. Sam,

    Thanks, this is great! I had been ruminating on this very topic all weekend long so I was so happy to read this post. I also see the stones as a physical device, much like Jesus spit on the ground and made clay to help bolster the faith of the blind man. It may have not been anything but a piece of quartz, but it helped Joseph to have something tangible through which the real revelation could flow. I can’t remember if it I read here, or in RSR, but I thought at some point later on, Joseph had learned to internalize this process without the use of the stone. Is this correct?

  11. MattG, Joseph stopped using the stones for receiving revelation quite early, and if I remember right, he only briefly used them in his Papyri translations. Still, I like the magical world view. I’m loath to toss the seerstones in the “Dumbo’s feather” bin…just as I am loath to do the same with consecrated oil.

    Nice write-up Sam.

  12. …I should add that despite Joseph’s decreased usage of them, seerstones remained theologically important up to his death and well into the Utah era.

  13. So, the last time I read seriously about the translation process, it seemed to me that there were several accounts that highlighted different processes. I’ve not had time to find and read Mark Ashurst-McGee’s thesis, but is that the primary reason why everybody buys the one account of the face in the hat over the other accounts?

  14. Stapley,

    Dumbo’s Feather, not quite what I had intended in my comment about JS learning to be a prophet. IMO, the seerstones, both his personal and the U&T, are more symbolic than placebo,and the conscecrated oil, I agree, is not placebo, but a symbolic representation in physical form of so many things spiritually.

    The sacrament is also a symbolic physical representation of things spiritual, as the repentance process is mostly an internal event. The physical event of taking the sacrament serves to remind us of the physical being of Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice he made in mortal form.

  15. I can’t remember if it I read here, or in RSR, but I thought at some point later on, Joseph had learned to internalize this process without the use of the stone. Is this correct?

    Yeah, eventually he doesn’t even use the seer stone. It seems an aid. Which is probably why the U&T was given.

  16. ANM, the other explanations of the translating process are quite late. The accounts closest to the experience, either by degree of association or by time, tend to emphasize the seerstones we are discussing.

  17. I’m not entirely persuaded by the argument that Smith abandoned the stones. As late as the 1840s he is actively preaching about the meaning of U&T and continued to have some of his stones. My best sense is that he began to struggle more against pretenders to authority (several of whom closely mimicked him, including sacred stones) and with his own sense of how a prophet ought to behave when receiving revelations. This pushed him to deemphasize the stones per se, but I think he continued, as evidenced at least by his temple innovations, to believe strongly in the meaning of physical symbols and the centrality of the supernatural to the church.

  18. The argument that interests me has to do with Joseph’s continuing to use the stones during translation because they were familiar to him and had been used by him in his treasure hunting. This implies, to me at least, that the stones were in fact effective (or at least informative) in his treasure hunting which is something that I really can’t understand. Does anyone know how these stones were used in the treasure hunting, what they did, and if they actually did something?

  19. Quick question: Does “Sam MB” = “Sam B” = “smb”? I have assumed so previously, but certain posts today leave me unsure . . .

    I’m pretty sure I have the various handles for other BCC permabloggers figured out (including Mark B, John C., and JNS).

  20. It seems to me that the options are:

    1. The “blessed objects” of our faith (oil, bread, stones, etc.) have inherent physical powers not belonging to everyday unblessed oil, bread, stones, etc.

    2. The blessed objects are, in fact, physically identical to unblessed objects of the same sort, and any power they have is due to the divince recognition of the blessing or the focusing power of a physical apparatus.

    Is there any middle ground, or another possible interpretation?

  21. Dane,

    If I read you correctly, my vote is # 2, the “blessed items” are identical to the unblessed objects. Certainly the leftover bread and water from our sacrament is routinely discarded either in the waste basket, or down the sink, with no thoughts of blasphemy involved, apart from telling the teachers quorum not to eat the leftover bread, especially on Fast Sunday.

    How do catholics handle the leftovers of the eucharist? Anyone know?

  22. I suppose you do read me correctly. Though as I think about it, #2 is really two seperate interpretations. Divine recognition of a blessing implies that the power of the object comes from outside ourselves, whereas interpreting the blessed object as a physical focus point implies that the divine power comes from within us. I admit that sounds a little new-age-y, or perhaps Star-Wars-force-y, for me, but then again, it also sounds like faith. I suppose the fundamental question is whether, when we apply faith to achieve miracles (speaking even of the mundane miracles), we have created the miracle through a personal power within us, or we have moved God to perform a miracle through His power.

  23. smb is the BCC Sam MB. there are several other Sam B types that have similar handles but distinct identities. Some or all may be pseudonyms.

    I personally favor the second view but am open to the possibility of the first view.

    Treasure hunting was not particularly profitable for anyone, Smith included, a point he himself made gentle fun of in the Elders Journal ca 1838.

  24. The consecrated hosts are kept in a special, locked tabernacle for later distribution. The wine, if any is left, is poured into a drain that discharges directly onto the earth. Not much wine is used in Catholic or Orthodox consecrations.

  25. Mark Brown says:


    Sam MB = smb

    Sam B. is a different person, though equally insightful and interesting.

  26. “Some have felt Smith saw words in the stones, others have felt he connected thereby with the meaning of the glyphs.”

    These aren’t mutually exclusive, as Stephen Ricks, Kevin Barney, and others have pointed out…

  27. If I remember correctly the 116 lost pages were translated in a different way than the current BOM we have today. I seem to recall that when Joseph received the plates back after losing the manuscript, he did not receive the Urim & Thummim again. Would this imply he translated the 116 pages with the U&T and the rest of the BOM with his seer stone?

    From the limited amount I have read, the seer stone and hat were part of that day and time – Joseph learned this technique from his contemporaries prior to receiving the plates. If this is true, what does it mean for future translations, i.e. the remaining sealed portion of the plates which have yet to be translated? What would signify a current construct a prophet could use for translation today? Possibly using technology in some way as a medium rather than a stone?

  28. kevinf,

    Regarding the Eucharist, it’s my understanding (according to my wife’s Catholic family) that the leftover Eucharist is consumed by the priest if possible. I have also read that there is a separate plumbing system that empties excess wine into consecrated ground so it does not mix with the sewer system. This link is by no means an authoritative source, but it offers what seems to be a coherent explanation.

  29. sorry,

    This link

  30. I don’t have time to comment on the nature of our sacral metaphysics, but for the first 116 pages Joseph appears to have removed the spectacles from their bow and placed them in his hat. I can’t recomend Mark’s thesis too much for those curious about the details.

  31. Mattg, thanks

  32. Left Field says:

    I had always understood that, when not using the U&T, Joseph used a single seerstone in translating the Book of Mormon. I was startled when I saw a clip of the famous South Park episode showing him putting two stones in a top hat. Sam and others have mentioned plural stones. Was I mistaken about the single stone? Are there historical sources that indicate the use of two or more stones in a hat at the same time? Also, a top hat does not seem like the most convenient choice of headwear for excluding light. I have read some comments on the bloggernacle that indicate it was a top hat. Is there any source that specifies a top hat, or are people sometimes conflating history with a satirical cartoon?

  33. Probably just one stone at a time (the U&T are what make one think of two stones, and many people conflate, as did early LDS, U&T with seer stones).
    Probably a soft hat would be my guess. Smith was unlikely to own a stovepipe top hat as per my memory.

  34. I can accept almost any means of Joseph rendering the message of the plates and its prophets, as he said very little about the means himself. The notion of the prophets speaking to Joseph out of the dust through a stone is compelling in its own right.

    He did make a specific comment, however, about the origin of the Title Page, which he said was, “a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf”. That page had a certain place within the plates – the last leaf – not a whispering from Moroni unconnected to the plates.

  35. Sam Kitterman says:

    For myself I found the impact as to learning the chief means whereby Joseph translated was that it contradicted what I had been taught by the missionaries and in Church classes (joined Church when I was 13 1/2), i.e., the standard painting showing the curtain, the plates and the U&T being used to translate.
    It raised questions in my mind as to why the Church would present one image to investigators regarding how the plates were translated with almost a blatant disregard for the historical record.

    Sam Kitterman

  36. I’ve always pictured it as a top hat, although as Sam mentions, it doesn’t seem like the kind of head wear Joseph would have owned. But a soft hat wouldn’t seem adequate to shut out the light and allow someone to read a glowing stone. It seems like it would be too shallow, with your face practically hitting the bottom.

    Yet if it was a top hat, and Joseph was reading off the stone, his voice would have been really muffled. Did he read the stone and then take his head out to relate the information?

  37. Sam K., the artistic renderings to which you refer are more or less consistent with Oliver Cowdery’s desription, so they are not dishonest or inconsistent. As to why many artists have preferred to use this scenario in their depictions of the translation, there could be many reasons.

    One main reason might be that due to Oliver Cowdery’s place in the Doctrine and Covenants in the context of his role as scribe during the translation process of the 116 pages (see Doctrine and Covenants Section 8 and Section 9), the Oliver Cowdery description of translation with Joseph sitting behind a screen reading from the plates with the use of the U&T seems to be the default depiction.

    It is also more aesthetically interesting or pleasing, I would think, since the face isn’t covered up.

  38. Left Field says:

    Katie, I would have thought that a soft hat of some sort would be preferable for excluding light since it could conform to the contours of the face better than a rigid top hat. Also with a soft hat, you could just cover the eyes and nose, leaving the mouth free for dictating. The large rigid opening of a top hat would probably have required covering the face all the way to the chin which would muffle the voice, as you said. How close the stone was to the face would really depend on the hat, but Joseph probably wasn’t afflicted with presbyopia at his young age.

    Perhaps South Park chose to depict a top hat because of its current association with stage magic.

    I’m not sure why, but my impression is that people often find the hat more troubling than the seerstone itself. I see the hat as just being a convenient way of excluding light. He could have drawn the blinds, but then the scribe would have had difficulty writing. He might have used a cloth or blanket of some sort, but the hat just seems much simpler to use. I don’t see the hat as being any more integral to the process than the chair he was sitting on. The use of a hat to exclude light reminds me of a photographer’s focusing cloth used with old large-format cameras, and to me seems a fairly mundane part of the translation process. But perhaps my perception is influenced by the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time with my face in a focusing cloth myself.

  39. John, I don’t believe O. Cowdery’s description mentions a screen/curtain.

  40. Justin, I think you’re right about that, actually. I wonder if anything can be inferred from the fact that some Latter-day Saint artists have chosen to depict it that way? It might be similar to the fact that people have invented a donkey in the Nativity story.

    On depictions of the translation, I should note one thing in response to smb. The original post states Some have felt Smith saw words in the stones, others have felt he connected thereby with the meaning of the glyphs. This has not been settled, and Smith did not give much direct indication for historians.

    David Whitmer’s account, however, relates the following about the time he served as scribe:

    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.

    Thus, according to this account, as Ben S. pointed out in # 25, the two are not mutually exclusive and at least one contemporary observer of the process explains that both glyphs and English words appeared in the stone together.

  41. The curtain motif seems to derive from Martin Harris. (D. Peterson discusses it here [see the text associated with footnotes 19-22].)

  42. Apparently, there was something about the Seer Stone that made it more than a placebo, or “Dumbo’s feather” if we are to trust the account of Martin Harris who, in attempting to “silence the mouths of fools” switched out the seer stone for a different stone while Joseph was out of the room. Harris reported that Joseph couldn’t translate, and was shocked, saying “what happened, all is dark as Egypt!”

  43. BH- either that or the spirit was withdrawn because Harris was tempting the Lord.

  44. Could go either way.

    Additionally, one of the most significant points about the translation process is Joseph’s reticence to personally explain it, saying the means were not given to this generation, only to say it was done by the power of God.

  45. *I should add I still don’t mind speculating about it.

  46. For me, Joseph’s use of “folk magic” is nothing more than another example of “the condisension of God”.

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