There are 13 thoughts on “What Did the Interpreters (Urim and Thummim) Look Like?”.

  1. I have spent a considerable amount of time going through all of the accounts of seer stones and the spectacles published in official LDS literature from 1880-2010. Based on my reading, I have to say that I found your conclusions regarding the spectacles compelling.

    I would have liked to see a little more about the size of the object and the beliefs of Joseph and/or his contemporaries that the ancient American race consisted white ‘giants’, but perhaps that is the topic for a future article. I also would have liked to see more regarding the concept that one or two of the stones was placed in the hat. I understand that this was the case, but haven’t found the original sources. Nevertheless, on the whole very well done!

    • Thank you, Scott. I have not seen anything authoritative that says the interpreters were disassembled for use. That idea may derive from the logic that with a length of about 8 inches (Harris’ 1859 interview for Tiffany’s Monthly, which gives the most precise and detailed dimensions of the interpreters), the frame would probably not have fit comfortably in the bottom of a hat. Nor have I seen any authoritative account that says the stones were used individually, but they could have been if Joseph considered each one to be a seer stone in its own right. As for giant white men, the only reference that comes to mind is Peterson’s late recollection (1891) of his interview with William Smith. Peterson says, “He also informed us that the instruments were too wide for his eyes, as also for Joseph’s, and must have been used by much larger men.” Speculation abounded then, as now.

        • Hi Stan,
          There is actually a much earlier account of the giants that I came across (an interview with Joseph Smith Sr. from 1830 (printed much later). Fayette Lapham, “Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Fourty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates,” Historical Magazine [second series] 7 (May 1870): 305-309, Reprinted in Early Mormon Documents (Vogel) Vol 1, pg 466:

          “…they [Lehi and his descendants] came to a county where there were a great many lakes; which country had once been settled by a very large race of men, who were very rich, having a great deal of money. For some unknown cause, the nation had become extinct; “but that money,” said Smith, “is here, now, every dollar of it.” When they, the Jews, first beheld this country, they sent out spies to see what manner of country it was, who reported that the country appeared to have been settled by a very large race of men, and had been, to all appearances, a very right agricultural and manufacturing nation. They also found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates.”

          From my perspective this is a clear reference to the Jaradites and that they were giants or “very large men”.

          Also, I am coming across a couple more references which give a hint as to the size of the spectacles. From the same source:

          “Under the first plate, or lid, he found a pair of spectacles, about one and a half inches longer than those use at the present day, the eyes not of glass, but of diamond. ”

          The size commonly used at that time was about 4.75″ wide, which puts Smith sr. estimating the size at 6.25″. Still very large, but considerably less than Harris.

          The 3rd hint regarding size comes from a late source (Parley Chase to James T. Cobb?, 3 April 1879 in Early Mormon Documents, Vol 3 pg 135):

          “When [Joseph] Smith first told of getting the book of plates he said it would tell him how to get hidden treasures in the earth; and his father, soon after they got the plates, came in to my mother’s on morning, just after breakfast, and told that Joe had a book and that it would tell him how to get money that was buried in the ground, and that he also found a pair of EYE-GLASSES on the book by which he could interpret it, and that the glasses were as big as a breakfast plate…”

          My research into breakfast plates of the period (limited at best) points to 8″ being likely. Anyhow, I think that this helps to establish size limits for the spectacles at about 6.25″ on the small side and (much more likely) close to 8″ on the maximum size.

  2. Fine article, Stan. I’ll just add a small anecdote, for what it might be worth. In the late 1970s, when I was an editor at the Ensign magazine, I had occasion a few times to pick up the phone and call Eldred G. Smith, who was still patriarch to the Church. The first time I called, I apologized for interrupting what must have been his busy schedule. But he put me completely at ease, saying that in truth he really didn’t have much to do as patriarch and would be happy to talk to me anytime I called. In our conversations he told me about things in his possession that belonged to Joseph Smith–for example the box that Joseph used to keep the plates in, etc. The most interesting conversation we had concerned the Urim and Thummim. He was convinced that Lucy Mack Smith’s description was the best one–that is, that she had been permitted to feel the two stones under a cloth, and found that they were triangular in shape. He then told me about a visit he had previously with a visiting professor of antiquities from Israel. They had a very fine and friendly discussion, and when Patriarch Smith told him of the stones in the Urim and Thummim being triangular in shape, the professor was in complete agreement, saying that description was in the Jewish tradition. He also said that the six-pointed Star of David was actually formed by placing one triangle on top of another to form the six-pointed star, and that the Star of David actually represents seer-ship in the form of the Urim and Thummim.
    Somewhere in my files I have some intriguing information about the implications of the two stones being triangular. I’ll summarize from memory here. Having a modest thickness–say, for example, one-quarter to half and inch–the stones couldn’t be convex like a magnifying glass; rather, each stone would have three faces whose adjacent edges would meet at a point in the center, in the manner of a “squashed” tetrahedron. Eldred G. Smith told me that the three faces represented past, present, and future. In other words, if you viewed the two stones in the Urim and Thummim from one angle, you would be able to learn of things past; from another angle, you could receive revelation about things present; and from a third angle, things future.
    This immediately reminded me of the true order of prayer in the temple. At the altar, the one praying routinely uses the sign appropriate for blessings or knowledge of things present (just as the associated name is one’s present name). However, one seeking knowledge of things past would use the first sign given to us (just as the associated “new name” is always an ancient name). And if one were seeking knowledge of things future, one would use the next appropriate sign, whose name is (we hope) a name describing our future stature.
    I don’t know the source of Patriarch Smith’s information about the three faces representing past, present, and future, but my conversations with him are things I treasure.

    • Thanks for the anecdote. Very interesting. I was aware of this idea but did not know the source. I don’t recall this Jewish tradition from Van Dam’s book on the biblical UT, but there were dozens if not hundreds of traditions regarding the UT, and he would have only covered the oldest traditions that he considered most reliable. The earliest information on the UT is in the Bible itself and unfortunately says nothing of its physical characteristics. I think the anecdote you provided is valuable because it points to a possible source for the description of the Interpreters as three-cornered. There are no other accounts that support this description of the interpreters and it is not original to Lucy’s dictation (was added later, and then rejected before publication under Brigham Young). If this Jewish tradition about the UT was was being passed around among the saints, that may explain why someone added it to Lucy’s manuscript.

  3. Well, while I think this is a good article, there are just questions and facts that are totally ignored. I just disagree with the conclusion based on the “most economical explanation.” Why was the brother of Jared provided the two interpreter stones on the mount directly from the Lord? Why didn’t he just go find some rocks? The sixteen stones were prepared (and btw were white and clear and also transparent, apparently having the same contradictory language used to describe the interpreters) by the Lord. What is the “economical explanation” for those? That the light in the barges which appeared from the stones as they were catalysts for psychological illuminations? How does one imagine light to exist and light up a barge? Why were there two interpreter stones and not one? Why did the Nephites mount them on the breastplate? Why where they mounted in what is described as a silver bow (spectacle)? Any explanation of the interpreters must include all the elements and descriptions. The approach of strategically ignoring elements from the Book of Mormon and other important relevant elements is the bane of Book of Mormon research.

    • Good questions.

      >> Why was the brother of Jared provided the two interpreter stones on the mount directly from the Lord? Why didn’t he just go find some rocks?

      As I noted in “Seers and Stones,” the one thing that seer stones seem to have had in common was some characteristic that made them meaningful to the seer. See my discussion in “Seers and Stones” on sacramental bread and annointing oil as analogies. What gives these their psychological significance is their prior blessing or consecration to the Lord. What gave the interpreters psychological significance was their being provided by the Lord. This psychological significance would have enabled the seer to have the faith he needed to see the visions. In other words, just any old rock won’t do.

      >>The sixteen stones were prepared (and btw were white and clear and also transparent, apparently having the same contradictory language used to describe the interpreters) by the Lord. What is the “economical explanation” for those?

      The 16 stones were not seer stones as for as we know, but you make a good point that stones can be both white and clear at the same time. Notice that I mention this Book of Mormon passage in note 7, contrasting it with Book of Mormon descriptions of the interpreters. But it could have been discussed further. “White and clear even as transparent glass” could mean different things. For example, it could mean that some of the stones were white and others were clear. Or that parts of each stone were clear and other parts were opaque white. Or that the stones were clear, without any coloration (white). The most detailed and one of the most credible accounts (Harris’s) describes the interpreter stones as “white like polished marble.” There is no suggestion of any clearness in this account or in other accounts describing them as white. No account describes the interpreter stones as partially opaque and partially clear, and the accounts that describe the stones as clear are of lesser reliability. The point of the paper is that we can’t treat all historical accounts equally, since some are more credible than others. All data are not created equal. To get a clear picture, you need to separate the signal from the noise, or, if you prefer, evaluate the data for credibility and favor that which is more credible. Careful source analysis helps you do this.

      >> That the light in the barges which appeared from the stones as they were catalysts for psychological illuminations? How does one imagine light to exist and light up a barge?

      The 16 small stones for the barges were used for lighting, not as seer stones, so the analogy is not informative.

      >>Why were there two interpreter stones and not one?

      I don’t know. Since they were too large to be worn as glasses or looked through at the same time (even according to the Peterson accounts attributed to William Smith), and since Joseph didn’t use them that way in translating (according to the best evidence), it was apparently not for the purpose of stereoscopic vision.

      ≫Why did the Nephites mount them on the breastplate?

      I don’t know. Since they were too large to be worn as glasses, it was apparently not for the purpose of stereoscopic vision. First let’s be clear that the account that describes the interpreters as mounted on a breastplate is a very late secondhand or third hand account and has other problems as noted on pages 240-241 and note 73. Joseph described them as “fastened to a breastplate” which does not necessarily have the same functional implication. In any case, it is possible that the Nephites, rather than creating darkness by placing the interpreters in a hat, simply used them in a dark room. In that case, they could have functioned as aids to faith for seeing visions while they were somehow mounted on a breastplate. Joseph could have used them the same way at some point.

  4. Actually, as a scientist, I have never modified the data to fit the “most economical” explanation. The data is the data. In this case, the information indicates that the interpreters were white, and they were also clear and transparent. As you identified, Martin Harris was able to visually observe them as white but did not dare look into them. All of the data (of course some of which has varying levels of reliability) indicate that the interpreters were observed as both white and transparent and can be looked into. The most unreliable data that you include is your apparent eyewitness to the interpreters where you indicate:

    “Apparently, seer stones need not be clear to be “looked into.””

    It should be no surprise that Moroni includes a description of the other sixteen sacred stones also on Mount Shelem as “white and clear, even as transparent glass.”
    While they were described this way prior to being “prepared” it is consistent with the expectation of sacred stones.
    It is likely no coincidence that Mesoamerican divinitory practices included the use of concave mirrors (typically as divinatory breastplates) where one could look at the surface of the mirror, but, because they were concave, can provide the optical illusion that things are actually coming out of the mirror. The surface of water was also utilized the same way where, depending on how one looks at it, it has a reflective surface and is effectively opaque, and also can be looked into when approaching close to it because it is then transparent.
    As far as the brown stone not being translucent, the entire rock itself isn’t, but it looks to be a metamorphic gneiss, which involves a level of micro recrystallization of the original rock, typically giving a very thin micro surface that looks to have at least some level of translucency, perhaps with the ability to support some sort of lighted projection. Of course that is not really data, just observation based on pictures.
    In any event, I think the article was good, but seemed to reach a conclusion that was not consistent with the data. As is typical with most historical analysis of data sources, it is subject to some extent of the pre-conceived bias or pre-conceived conclusions of the particular historian, so this is no different.

  5. What I like about this article the most is the reluctance to assume any and every source has something useful to say. Often they are just wrong. David Whitmer recognized this. I enjoyed the overall analysis.

    • I think what might be a useful exercise (although it can be exhaustive) in this and perhaps other articles related to conflicting church history is to actually more thoroughly identify all the sources and then rate, classify and evaluate all of them based on first hand, consistency, etc. It seems like authors tend to think they need to reach a final definitive conclusion on all issues, when in fact it may be better to leave open multiple possibilities when apparent contradictions occur, recognizing that some are more plausible based on better evidence etc. This article definitely does some of that, but I find it better to identify all sources so that future researchers may know what the basis is as new information comes to light. For example, I think the Brian Hales books on polygamy come close to that standard on that topic.

  6. Not sure about the statement “None of the most authoritative accounts claim the text appeared on the surface of a stone, as is sometimes assumed.” I don’t think this is an assumption. An interview with David Whitmer included in his obituary stated that the words “would appear on the lenses.” Another problem is the implied assumption that the interpreters operated the same as the seer stone. There is a likely reason that there were two interpreter stones, they each likely had different functions and names (just like the Urim and Thummim). Gazelem is the likely name for one based on the context of discussion of the interpreters just before it is mentioned, which based on its etymology would have been the one where lighted letters would appear. They were also mounted in spectacles by the Nephites as platinum is the only metal that was known to be worked (in Central America) at that time that was silver and would not have been tarnished and corroded (See the book Ziff, Magic Goggles, and Golden Plates), which were then mounted on the divinitory breastplate by a rod that was flipped up, so that the lenses were in a fixed position a certain distance away from the users eyes. That is why they weren’t really spectacles in the true sense because they were never designed to be used sitting on the face but needed to be a fixed distance away from the eyes, likely indicating an optical technological element. The interpreters also had more functions than a seer stone. They are also called directors in the Book of Mormon (original text), and based on the Lapham recounting the Liahona ceased to exist once they were found. Joseph Smith used them to keep on eye on the plates when he was away. The Lapham account also indicates they were best used when not in the light. There is no reason to exclusively believe that the stones were just somehow some spiritual catalyst for getting a vision. The description of the breastplate is that it is concave, and certainly is not a protective battle breastplate, and best matches the Mesoamerican reflective divinatory breastplates that could concentrate light at various focal points. This configuration is indicative of some sort of technology at work, not exclusively a spiritual catalyst. We know that Joseph Smith successfully translated individual characters with the interpreters, it is not all that clear that the seer stone could do so in the same way. The plates were covered during the ‘translation’ so there wasn’t any real sequential glyph comparison. He certainly was unable to do it in the context of the Book of Abraham glyphs, indicating the seer stone method did not have this capability. It is also possible that the technology of the interpreters allowed them to be both somewhat translucent and also clear and transparent. The description best fits the transparent state when they were actually in use and not so when they weren’t. Such a technology is known and is currently in use in a variety of places involving ferroic piezoelectric glass (Smartglass). Instead of assuming that David Whitmer was contradicting himself perhaps one should take his and others description at face value and look at other possibilities. The fact that they were technologically complex unlike the seer stone (which just appears to need to be smooth with a slightly translucent surface sufficient to project some projected lighted text) is also a good reason that they were taken from Joseph after the 116 page debacle.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jerry. By “most authoritative accounts” I mean firsthand accounts of Joseph and those who likely saw him translate as well as reports by those to whom he apparently described the process. The article you refer to that claims words “would appear on the lenses” doesn’t meet this definition, and the claim itself appears to be an assumption of one reporter or another. The phrase is from an article published in the Richmond Democrat after Whitmer’s death. I think you will see some reasons to be suspicious of the accuracy of this article if you expand your quotation out a bit. It claims that “Smith would put on the spectacles, when a few words of the text of the Book of Mormon would appear on the lenses. When these were correctly transcribed by Oliver Cowdery…” More reliable accounts state that the interpreters were placed in a hat rather than being put on like spectacles, and were too large to wear. Also note that the article has Oliver Cowdery as the scribe when the interpreters are in use. It then contradicts this by saying that “all of the present book” was translated with the brown stone. This means (correctly) that Oliver was present only during translation with the brown stone, since he was not present for the translation of the lost portion. If the article is wrong about how the interpreters were used and what scribe was present, how much confidence can we have in the rest of the sentence? Regardless, these are not presented as Whitmer’s words. They are only “the facts” as the author of the article understood them. The article does not even claim to be reporting an interview, but is, in part, something of a summary of an earlier article published in the Omaha Harold, which was based on a discussion with Whitmer during which the interviewer did not take any notes (according to Whitmer, who complained about the inaccuracy of the subsequently published article; see Saints’ Herald 33:764; also Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents). Since they are not Whitmer’s words, we can’t accuse Whitmer of contradicting himself with them. We can’t say with any confidence that the author of the article understood the facts or reported them accurately. Also, Whitmer would not have likely provided a detailed description of the use of the interpreters, since he did not see them being used. In his firsthand accounts, he only describes the use of the single seer stone. I have tried to show that we can’t take statements from secondhand or third hand reports or secondary sources at face value. The facts presented in the most authoritative accounts are quite consistent, but once you get beyond those accounts, there are many contradictory claims, based in large part, I believe, on faulty assumptions and misinterpretations of terms. The idea that the Biblical Urim and Thummim consisted of two stones with different names and functions is one of many competing ideas. We have very little reliable descriptive information on the instrument. See Van Dam’s book on the Urim and Thummim. That’s interesting about the platinum being used in ancient America. I downloaded your book to learn more. I don’t see any evidence that the interpreters had functions that other seer stones did not have. They were all used for “seeing” things–whether plates or hidden things or words or people. They were all used with the light excluded, as you mention for the interpreters (also, see “How Young Joseph Smith and His Contemporaries Used Seer Stones” and “Why Would Joseph Smith have Needed a Hat and Stone to See Visions” in “Seers and Stones”). Elizabeth Whitmer, who observed Joseph translate, also refers to the brown seer stone as a “director” (see “Reflections of Urim”). The interpreters were used in a hat like other seer stones used by Joseph and his contemporaries. They could have replaced the function of the Liahona (as the Lapham account suggests, saying the brass ball “ceased to direct them”) by facilitating visions in which direction were revealed. The reason to believe the stones functioned as a psychological/spiritual “catalyst for getting a vision” is that this is the most economical explanation. It’s sufficient to explain their function as well as that of other seer stones used by Joseph and others of his time, whether sacred or profane. A more complex explanation with additional technology is not required to account for the various uses of these stones (or the breastplate). Anything can potentially be seen in vision, whether the translation of an individual character or a whole book, but what is seen in a vision, as in a dream, is not necessarily up to the viewer. From the photos available, Joseph’s brown seer stone does not appear to me to have a translucent surface. His white stone, on the other hand, probably was translucent.

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