[Page 223]ABSTRACT: The interpreters were a pair of seer stones used by Book of Mormon prophets and provided to Joseph Smith for translating the Nephite record. Martin Harris described them as two white, marble- like stones that could be looked into when placed in a hat. Joseph Smith described them as spectacles with which he could read the record and later as two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow. Others described them as smooth stones, diamonds, or glasses. Reconciling these various descriptions and determining the actual appearance of the interpreters requires an assessment of the credibility of each source and an understanding of how the interpreters were used in translating. It also requires an understanding of how words such as glasses, transparent, and diamonds were used in Joseph Smith’s day, particularly in reference to seer stones. An assessment of the various descriptions of the interpreters in light of these factors lends support to both Martin Harris’s and Joseph Smith’s accounts. By these accounts, the interpreters were smooth, mostly white, perhaps translucent stones set in a long metal frame. Although they superficially resembled eyeglasses, the stones were set much too far apart to be worn as such. They were not clear like eyeglasses but were transparent in the sense that they, like other seer stones, could be “looked into” by a person gifted as a seer of visions.
Joseph Smith used the term the Urim and Thummim to refer to the both the “interpreters,” a pair of seer stones he obtained for translating the Book of Mormon, and his own seer stones, which he used for the same purposes and in the same manner.1 There is no mystery regarding the description of the single seer stone that Joseph Smith used to translate most of the Book of Mormon — we have pictures. It is brown, banded, opaque, oblong, and about two inches in length. The other seer stone [Page 224]Joseph Smith sometimes used in his revelatory work has also been described quite well. It is about the same size as the brown one, but white, translucent, and egg-shaped.2
Historical descriptions of the interpreters, on the other hand, vary widely. Martin Harris described them as “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks,” set in a silver frame about eight inches long.3 An account attributed to Lucy Mack Smith describes them as “smooth three- cornered diamonds set in glasses.”4 Orson Pratt described them as “two transparent stones, clear as crystal.”5 It is the image of clear eyeglasses suggested by the latter two descriptions that has most inspired the imaginations of artists and Sunday school teachers. Martin Harris’s odd description of the interpreters cannot, however, be easily dismissed. He saw the interpreters, whereas Lucy Mack Smith only handled them through a cloth. Pratt did neither. In addition, Martin Harris’s description was personally dictated and then checked for accuracy, while the description attributed to Lucy Mack Smith was likely composed by someone else.6
This article is an attempt to derive an accurate image of the interpreters from scripture and descriptions of the instrument in the most authoritative historical accounts. Each account will be assessed for credibility and its meaning evaluated in light of the local culture and language of the time.
Descriptions of the Interpreters in Scripture
The interpreters are described by Mormon as two seer stones fastened together:
And now he translated them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow … And whosoever has these things is called seer, after the manner of old times. (Mosiah 28:13, 16).
When first obtained by the Jaredites, the interpreters were simply “two stones” (Ether 3:23, 28). Although both passages, in referring to the interpreters as “stones” without mention of any clarity or gem- like quality, may be seen as supporting Harris’s account, they are not inconsistent with the other accounts.7
A seer “after the manner of old times” was a “see-er” of visions.8 This meaning of seer accords with the way the stones were used, as noted by Ammon:
[Page 225]I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer. (Mosiah 8:13)
The statement that the stones could be looked into suggests they were clear; yet even Harris, in speaking of the interpreters as white, marble- like stones, uses similar language: “I never dared to look into them.”9 Apparently, seer stones need not be clear to be “looked into.” Moreover, if the interpreters were clear like eyeglasses, we might expect them to be looked through rather than into. Because of their ambiguous language, these passages are ultimately of little help in evaluating the disparate nineteenth century descriptions of the interpreter stones.
Use of Stones in Translating the Book of Mormon
All of the most authoritative accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon have been reviewed in a previous article: “Seers and Stones: The Translation of the Book of Mormon as Divine Visions of an Old-Time Seer.”10 These consist of a few firsthand accounts by Joseph Smith and individuals who likely saw him translate, along with several accounts by other individuals to whom he apparently described the translation process. A few of these accounts are presented or summarized below.
In Joseph Smith’s reference to the translation in the earliest manuscript of his history, he says, “the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the book.”11 This accords with the description of the translation process in the Book of Mormon itself: “thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee” (2 Nephi 27:20). Near the end of his life, in a letter he wrote to the Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith quoted Mormon 9:32– 34 and then stated:
Here then the subject is put to silence, for “none other people knoweth our language,” therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were dead.12
According to these accounts, Joseph Smith’s part in translating the Book of Mormon was not a matter of interpreting but of reading a text that God provided.13 In his other published statements, Joseph Smith gave little additional information, indicating only that he translated [Page 226]“[t]hrough the medium of the Urim and Thummim … by the gift, and power of God.”14
David Whitmer provided the most detailed account of the process of translation. In a pamphlet he published in 1887, he testified that he was “an eye-witness to the translation of the greater part of the Book of Mormon” and shared his understanding of the translation process and testimony of its divine nature:
I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. 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. …
God gave to Brother Joseph the gift to see the sentences in English, when he looked into the hat in which was placed the stone. Oliver Cowdery had the same gift at one time.15
According to Whitmer, then, “the gift and power of God” by which Joseph Smith translated was nothing more than the “gift to see the sentences in English.” In this, Whitmer’s account is consistent with 2 Nephi 27:20 and Joseph Smith’s accounts quoted above.16
David Whitmer did not observe Joseph Smith translating until he began using a single seer stone.17 Joseph Smith’s brother William and Joseph Knight knew of the translation from an earlier period, when Joseph Smith was using the interpreters. Except for the instrument used, their descriptions of the translation process agree quite well with David Whitmer’s. In a pamphlet he published in 1883, William Smith wrote,
[H]e translated them by means of the Urim and Thummim, (which he obtained with the plates), and the power of God. The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the [Page 227]light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.18
Joseph Knight was a close friend of Joseph Smith, who remained true to him and the church he established throughout his life. He was present at the Smith home when Joseph Smith first obtained the plates and interpreters. He also provided material support for the translation and visited Joseph Smith several times during the translation period. He likely would have been permitted to observe Joseph translating. In his history of Joseph Smith’s early life, Joseph Knight describes Joseph Smith’s reaction to obtaining the interpreters and gold plates and how he used the interpreters in translating.
But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummem then he Did of the Plates for says he I can see any thing they are Marvelus Now they are writen in Caracters and I want them translated Now he was Commanded not to let no one see those things But a few for witness at a givin time.
… Now he Bing an unlearned man did not know what to Do. then the Lord gave him Power to Translate himself then ware the Larned men Confounded, for he By the means he found with the plates he Could translate those Caricters Better than the Larned. Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentence and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it.19
The other firsthand accounts by those who saw Joseph Smith translate or heard him describe the process are consistent with these descriptions. These accounts indicate that he would place either the interpreter stones or one of his own seer stones in a hat, pull the hat to his face to exclude the light, and then read the English text that miraculously appeared. The text is described as appearing “in the hat” (Whitmer’s 1881 account), “in the stone” (William Smith’s 1883 account), or on “parchment” that “would appear” (Whitmer’s 1879 and 1887 accounts).20 None of the most authoritative accounts claim the text appeared on the surface of a stone, as is sometimes assumed. The different descriptions of where the text appeared are all consistent with a visionary experience.21 In David Whitmer’s 1887 statement quoted above, he portrays the translation as an imaginative (though not imaginary) vision in which Joseph read the scriptural text from something like parchment.22 This is reminiscent of how the founding scripture of the Nephite nation was revealed to [Page 228]the seer Lehi. Lehi read the scriptural text from a book (likely a roll of papyrus or leather) that he saw in imaginative vision (1 Nephi 1:8– 13, 16–17; 6:1).23 Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:8–10) and John (Revelations 10) had similar visionary experiences. Isaiah, Amos, and Micah also “saw” the words of the Lord (Isaiah 1:1–2; Amos 1:1–3; Micah 1:1–6). As the word seer implies, seer stones were traditionally used for facilitating visions — perhaps as aids to faith or objects of mental focus — and Joseph Smith used both his individual seer stones and the interpreter stones for that purpose.24 It makes sense that a translation obtained by the use of seer stones would be revealed in vision.25 As portrayed in the Book of Abraham, the biblical Urim and Thummim by which God revealed his word anciently was itself a visionary instrument.26
We know that Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone was completely opaque, as were most seer stones of his time, yet these were used in the same manner as the interpreter stones. Thus, there is no obvious reason for the interpreter stones to have been clear, as Pratt described them. Moreover, in the interior of a hat pulled “closely around his face to exclude the light” in a room lit only by candle or lamplight, the stones would probably not have been seen, much less seen through in the normal sense. This doesn’t mean the interpreters could not have been clear, but only that clarity in the stones was not needed for the stones to function as visionary aids.
Martin Harris: “White, Like Polished Marble”
The most detailed description of the interpreters is from an 1859 statement by Martin Harris:
The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the centre; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow. They were joined by a round bar of silver, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks. I never dared to look into them by placing them in the hat, because Moses said that “no man could see God and live,” and we could see anything we wished by looking into them; and I could not keep the desire to see God out of my mind.27
[Page 229]This account of the interpreters and how they were used is particularly strong. Martin Harris was one of only four individuals (including Joseph Smith) chosen to see the interpreters (D&C 17:1) and thus qualified to describe their visual characteristics. The account was dictated by him and read back to him to check for errors in transcription.28 Few if any of the other witness descriptions of the interpreters received this degree of verification. As it relates to the translation of the Book of Mormon, Harris’s account is corroborated by scripture and by other authoritative accounts, as quoted and summarized above. It agrees with these accounts in indicating that the interpreters were used, not by wearing them like eyeglasses, but by placing them in a hat. It agrees with these accounts and with Mosiah 8:13 in indicating that the interpreters were used by looking into them rather than through them or at their surfaces. It agrees with Mosiah 8:13 in suggesting the stones might be used to see or look for things that one “ought not.” In addition, the account is specific, with the most detailed and precise description of the interpreters of any surviving account.
[Page 230]Harris describes the interpreter stones as white and marble-like with gray streaking. He provides relatively precise measurements and shape characteristics — the stones were perfectly round, slightly convex disks, about two inches in diameter and five-eighths of an inch thick at the center.
The only other detailed description of the interpreters attributed to Martin Harris is somewhat less credible. Edward Stevenson heard Martin Harris speak at a Sabbath meeting on August 4, 1870. In a letter he wrote to the editor of the Deseret Evening News eleven years later, Stevenson reported his recollection of what Harris had said:
Martin said further that the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembled spectacles, only they were larger.30
Stevenson’s account differs from Harris’s detailed description in calling the interpreters “clear stones.” Note, however, that these are not presented as Harris’s words. They are Stevenson’s words and represent his memory and understanding of ideas Harris had been trying to convey eleven years earlier. If Harris spoke of looking into the stones as he did in his 1859 account, especially after having compared them to spectacles, Stevenson may have just assumed the stones were clear, and that assumption may have influenced his memory and choice of words.
The Interpreters as “Spectacles”
Set in metal frames, the interpreters as described by Harris would have superficially resembled spectacles but would have been much too large to be worn as such. According to the measurements he provided, the stones were set about twice as far apart (six inches, center to center) as would be needed to align with the eyes. Stevenson’s account agrees that the interpreters were too large to be used as spectacles. The extraordinary size of the “spectacles” is also attested by descriptions attributed to David Whitmer and William Smith that will be discussed below, as well as by other sources. For example, the earliest known account of Joseph Smith’s method of translating mentions both the extraordinary size of the “spectacles” as well as how they were used. This account was published in August 1829 by Jonathan A. Hadley, editor of the Palmyra Freeman, soon after Martin Harris and perhaps Joseph Smith came to him, seeking a publisher for the Book of Mormon. Hadley reported that Joseph Smith had found a “huge pair of Spectacles” with the engraved [Page 231]gold plates and that “[b]y placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least) interpret these characters.”31
Hadley’s account suggests that Joseph Smith was calling the interpreters spectacles as early as 1829, just as he did in his 1832 history. Besides their superficial resemblance to eyeglasses, the interpreters could be considered spectacles by analogy, since they were used to “read the words” of “the book” as they were divinely given (2 Nephi 27:19–20).
Seer Stones as “Glasses”
In Joseph Knight’s account quoted previously, he calls the interpreters “glasses” yet notes they were used, not by wearing them, but by placing them in a hat. In calling the interpreters glasses, he was not likely thinking of eyeglasses as Joseph Smith had been, since eyeglasses were usually called “spectacles,” not glasses. Glass was a colloquial term for a seer stone. Knight had previously referred to one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones as “his glass.”32 Ezra Booth called Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone a “dark glass.”33 A neighbor had a seer stone Lucy Mack Smith called “a green glass.”34 Peter Bauder, a minister who interviewed Joseph Smith at the Whitmer home in 1830, referred to the interpreters as “a glass.”35 Isaac Hale, Joseph Smith’s father-in-law, reported that Joseph Smith referred to his use of seer stones to search for buried items as “glass- looking.”36 Accordingly, the two seer stones comprising the interpreters, whether clear or not, would be two “glasses.”
In Joseph Smith’s day, glass was also a common term for a telescope, spy-glass, or other instrument used for viewing distant objects, and it may have been by analogy to such instruments that seer stones were called glasses.37 According to Lucy Mack Smith’s history, Joseph Smith had a reputation for using his seer stone to “discern things that could not be seen by the natural eye.”38 Joseph Knight quotes Joseph Smith as saying, after using the interpreters, “I can see any thing they are Marvelus.”
Joseph Smith: “Two Stones in Silver Bows”
While Joseph Smith referred to the interpreters functionally as “spectacles” in his 1832 history, he gave a purely physical description in the Manuscript History of the Church. The portion of this history describing the interpreters was first published in Times and Seasons in April 1842:
[Page 232]Also that there were two stones in silver bows, and these stones fastened to a breastplate constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim.39
Here the interpreters are simply “two stones in silver bows.” An article published by Joseph Smith as “Church History” in Times and Seasons in March 1842 includes greater detail:
With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.40
Here the two stones are “transparent” and “set in the rim of a bow.” Although Joseph Smith may have written parts of “Church History” himself or more likely dictated them to one of his scribes, some of the text was borrowed from at least one other source. The section of the article that includes the description of the interpreters was taken with some modification from an earlier publication by Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records. Pratt’s description of the interpreters reads as follows:
With the records was found “a curious instrument, called by the ancients the Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones, clear as crystal, set in the two rims of a bow …”41
In using Pratt’s description of the interpreter stones, Joseph Smith (or his scribe) made one substantial change: the phrase, “clear as crystal,” was excised. The specific rejection of this phrase by Joseph Smith or his scribe suggests that whatever the “transparent stones” looked like, they were not, exactly, “clear as crystal.”
Seer Stones as “Transparent”
If “transparent” in Joseph Smith’s description of the stones did not mean clear, what did it mean? There are two possibilities.
“Transparent” may have meant merely translucent (semi- transparent). The word was sometimes used this way in Joseph Smith’s day. For example, British diplomat James Morier published a book in 1818 in which he mentioned hot springs in Persia that produced “that beautiful transparent stone, commonly called Tabriz marble.”42 Tabriz marble is a somewhat translucent, often banded travertine used as a decorative stone [Page 233]in Persian palaces, tombs, and baths. The interpreter stones, described by Harris as “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks,” may have been similar in appearance to Tabriz marble. They may have also been similar in their color and optical qualities to Joseph Smith’s own white seer stone. Richard Robinson, who was shown the white seer stone in 1900 by President Lorenzo Snow, described it as “the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but with no holes.”43 Had Robinson or Morier seen the marble-like interpreter stones described by Martin Harris, they might have called them “transparent” as well. At least one early source unambiguously describes the interpreter stones as translucent. An 1830 article in the Auburn Free Press states that Joseph Smith translated by “looking through two semi-transparent stones.”44
Stones that are semi-transparent, by definition cannot be looked through in the usual sense. The seemingly self-contradictory statement in the Auburn Free Press article suggests a second possible meaning of “transparent” in Joseph Smith’s account. According to an 1851 history of the Palmyra area of New York, Martin Harris told Palmyra residents that the interpreter “stones or glass … were opaque to all but the Prophet.”45 Other seer stones were likewise said to be transparent only for some individuals. William Stafford, who lived near the Smiths in Manchester, had, according to his son, a “stone which some thought they could look through.”46 A notice in the December 1, 1842 issue of Times and Seasons warned of false revelations from a boy (James Brewster) who claimed to have “the gift of seeing and looking through or into a stone.”47 The “gift of seeing” is the gift Brigham Young, David Whitmer, and Orson Pratt all attributed to Joseph Smith in his use of seer stones. It is the gift of a seer, the gift of looking seemingly “through or into a stone” to see visions.48 While this ability was expressed in Joseph Smith’s gift of visions by which he experienced many divine communications, it must also have been expressed in his prior use of seer stones, which his father- in-law referred to as the occupation of “seeing.”49
Whether a seer stone was transparent in this sense depended not only on who was using it but also on how it was used. An article published in a Palmyra newspaper in 1825 described a stone used for treasure hunting “which becomes transparent when placed in a hat and the light excluded by the face of him who looks into it.”50 After describing the interpreter stones as having the appearance of white marble, Martin Harris said that he dared not “look into them by placing them in the hat,” [Page 234]as though placing the stones in a hat would have made them clear. In the same account, he also described Joseph Smith’s own seer stone as transparent while in use: “In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge.”51
Whether a stone is transparent to physical light becomes irrelevant once it is placed in a hat and “the light excluded.” The stone disappears in the darkness and anything that is seen must be seen, in David Whitmer’s words, by the “spiritual light” of a vision.52 According to a report of an interview by James H. Hart in 1884, Whitmer described the disappearing act of Joseph Smith’s seer stone as it was replaced by a vision of sacred text:
The way it was done was thus: Joseph would place the seer- stone in a deep hat, and placing his face close to it, would see, not the stone, but what appeared like an oblong piece of parchment, on which the hieroglyphics would appear, and also the translation in the English language … When the seer-stone was not placed in a hat, no characters or writing could be seen therein.53
The English text of the Book of Mormon is described as appearing in the stone, not because the stone becomes a viewing device, but because the stone is no longer seen, being replaced by a visioned document. The stone thus seemingly becomes transparent to the seer.
Lucy Mack Smith: “Two Smooth Stones”
According to her written history, Lucy Mack Smith was permitted to examine the interpreters “with no covering but a silk handkerchief.”54 Through the cloth, she could have discerned shapes and textures but not much more. The most credible description of the interpreters attributed to her is found in the original, dictated (1844–1845) manuscript of her history, which says that the interpreters
consisted of 2 smooth stones con[n]ected with each other in the same way that old fashioned spectacles are made.55
As expected, this statement describes the texture and shape of the instrument but says nothing of its color or of the clarity of the stones. Neither does it call the instrument spectacles but simply notes the similarity in construction. This statement is similar to Martin Harris’s 1859 description of the interpreters, although less detailed.
[Page 235]Seer Stones as “Diamonds”
In a later (1845) manuscript of Lucy Mack Smith’s history, “2 smooth stones” is replaced with “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glasses, and the glasses were set in silver bows.”56 A similar phrase, but with “glass” instead of “glasses,” was also inserted in blue ink into the earlier, dictated manuscript of her history. By examining the interpreter stones through a cloth, Lucy could have only speculated that they were made of diamonds or glass. This description of the interpreters as “diamonds” is also unexpected since there is no hint that the interpreter stones were precious gems in Lucy’s original manuscript, in the scriptural accounts (Mosiah 28:13, Ether 3:23–28), or in accounts attributed to Joseph Smith or the three witnesses. The idea that the stones were three-cornered in shape likewise lacks support from other accounts. Brigham Young believed the manuscripts of Lucy’s history contained errors and requested that Church historian George A. Smith produce a corrected text for publication.57 The description of the interpreters as three-cornered diamonds was apparently one of those errors. It was struck from the 1845 manuscript and omitted from the corrected history, which was published in book form in 1902.58
Martha Jane Coray and her husband Howard apparently composed the 1845 manuscript based on the original (dictated) manuscript as well as other notes and sources. The idea that the interpreters were three- cornered diamonds in glass(es) may have come from one of those other sources or from the Corays’ own assumptions.59 It is likely, however, that Lucy Mack Smith did at times refer to the interpreters as glasses and diamonds, not as descriptions of their appearance but rather as colloquial terms for seer stones. As mentioned above, she once referred to a neighbor’s green seer stone as a glass. She is quoted as calling the interpreters “large bright diamonds set in a bow like a pair of spectacles” in an 1842 interview with Henry Caswall, and her husband apparently referred to the interpreters as diamond or diamonds in an 1830 interview with Fayette Lapham.60 Both the Caswall and Lapham reports contain many inaccuracies, but the reference to diamond or diamonds in each does seem significant. Diamond, like glass, was a local term for a seer stone in the New York area, and Lucy and her husband may have both been using the term in that sense.61 Because of these uncertainties, along with Lucy’s limited contact with the interpreters and the lack of corroboration from other sources, the description of the interpreters as diamonds in Lucy’s history is of little help in determining what the instrument looked like.
[Page 236]Descriptions Attributed to David Whitmer
David Whitmer left no firsthand description of the interpreters, although they are mentioned in reports of some of the many interviews he gave to newspaper correspondents and others. The accounts of these interviews are inconsistent in many details, probably due mostly to the interviewers’ inability to accurately remember and convey what Whitmer had told them. On occasion, Whitmer issued corrections to statements he was purported to have made. Before the use of recording equipment became standard practice, interviewers had to reconstruct statements from hastily written notes, filling in gaps and smoothing over rough spots with their own words based on their sometimes-faulty memories of what was said and assumptions of what was meant. The chance for error was high, especially when interviews included such esoteric topics as seer stones. This tendency for error limits the utility of secondhand accounts for reconstructing historical facts.
Three accounts of interviews with Whitmer include detailed descriptions of the interpreters.
On August 16, 1878, the Deseret Evening News published portions of a letter from Wilhelm Poulson that related an interview he had with David Whitmer, including a conversation regarding the interpreters:
I — Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim when he translated
He — The Urim and Thummim were two white stones, each of them cased in as spectacles are, in a kind of silver casing, but the bow between the stones was more heavy, and longer apart between the stones, than we usually find it in spectacles.62
In his letter, Poulson notes that the “conversation was mostly written down word for word half an hour after the interview with David Whitmer, Esq., who will recognize it as his words.”63 It is doubtful that Poulson could have accurately reproduced Whitmer’s statements word for word after leaving the interview, and, in fact, Whitmer wrote a letter to a friend a few years later complaining that he was misquoted in Poulson’s letter.64 Despite the possible errors, Poulson’s account of Whitmer’s description of the interpreter stones — two white stones set in a long silver frame — accords well with Harris’s detailed 1859 description. This suggests, at least, that Whitmer and Harris had similar visual recollections of the interpreters.
On June 5, 1881, the Kansas City Journal published a report of an interview conducted with David Whitmer a few days earlier. It includes [Page 237]a description of the interpreters, presented as a quotation of Whitmer’s words:
He [Joseph Smith] had two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shaped and perfectly smooth, but not transparent, called interpreters, which were given him with the plates.65
This statement appears to be an amalgamation of descriptions of the interpreters and Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone. There were other errors in the report, and Whitmer soon wrote a letter of correction to the editor:
I notice several errors in the interview had with me by one of your reporters as published in the DAILY JOURNAL of June 5th, ’81, and wish to correct them.
I am reported as saying that “the young men in the neighborhood saw the plates in the hill.” The language used was, that “we saw the place (not the plates) in the hill from which the plates were taken, just as he described them to us before he obtained them.” … I did not say that Smith used “two small stones” as stated nor did I call the stone “interpreters.” I stated that “he used one stone (not two) and called it a sun [seers] stone.” The “interpreters” were as I understood taken from Smith and were not used by him after losing the first 116 pages as stated. It is my understanding that the stone refer[r]ed to was furnished him when he commenced translating again after losing the 116 pages.
My statement was and now is that in translating he put the stone in his hat and putting his face in his hat so as to exclude the light and that then the light and characters appeared in the hat together with the interpretation which he uttered and was written by the scribe and which was tested at the time as stated.66
Whitmer later complained to a friend:
As to the interview published in the Kansas City Journal of June 5th 1881 there were So many Errors in it as published that I felt compelled to correct what I thought to be the most damaging Errors … and Even in publishing the Statement Correcting their former publication where I had written “Seers Stone” they made it read “Sun Stone.”67
[Page 238]On July 16, 1844, the St. Louis Republican published a report of an interview with David Whitmer. The report represents Whitmer as describing the translation of the Book of Mormon as follows:
In translating from the plates, Joseph Smith looked through the Urim and Thummim, consisting of two transparent pebbles set in the rim of a bow, fastened to a breastplate. He dictated by looking through them to his scribes.68
This description of the translation is uncharacteristic of David Whitmer, who, in the most credible statements attributed to him, spoke of Joseph Smith using a single seer stone and hat, not the interpreters.69 The reporter may have augmented his recollection of Whitmer’s words with other sources. In fact, this description of the interpreters appears to derive not from the interview with Whitmer but from Joseph Smith’s 1842 article, “Church History,” quoted previously. That article describes the interpreters as “two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” The only difference is that stones is replaced by pebbles in the 1844 report.
These are the most detailed descriptions of the interpreters attributed to David Whitmer. All have credibility problems, but the first is clearly the strongest and agrees well with Harris’s detailed 1859 account.
Descriptions Attributed to Oliver Cowdery
There are no firsthand descriptions of the interpreters from Oliver Cowdery. The best we have are two reports from individuals who heard him describe the translation process.
Oliver Cowdery was interviewed by Josiah Jones in 1830. A summary of the interview was recorded in an 1831 letter. In the letter, Jones reports what he learned from Cowdery:
He stated that Smith looked into or through the transparent stones to translate what was on the plates. I then asked him if he had ever looked through the stones to see what he could see in them; his reply was that he was not permitted to look into them. I asked him who debarred him from looking into them; he remained sometime in silence; then said that he had so much confidence in his friend Smith, who told him that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead.70
Jones is ambivalent as to whether the stones were looked “into” or “through,” but either word works in describing how a seer sees visions [Page 239]with a stone. Jones calls the stones “transparent.” Oliver Cowdery, like Joseph Smith, may have used this term in describing the stones, or Jones’s use of the term may reflect his assumption that stones that can be looked “into or through” must be clear. Ultimately, this account tells us little about the physical appearance of the interpreters.
In April of 1831, the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate published a letter by Abram Benton, dated March 1831. In the letter, Benton reports on testimony he heard in a July 1830 court hearing in which Oliver Cowdery and other acquaintances of Joseph Smith described how Joseph Smith used the interpreters as well as his own seer stone. Benton states:
For several years preceding the appearance of his book, he was about the country in the character of a glass-looker: pretending, by means of a certain stone, or glass, which he put in a hat, to be able to discover lost goods, hidden treasures, mines of gold and silver, &c.
… During the trial it was shown that the Book of Mormon was brought to light by the same magic power by which he pretended to tell fortunes, discover hidden treasures, &c. Oliver Cowdery, one of the three witnesses to the book, testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.71
Like Joseph Knight, Benton refers to Joseph Smith’s own seer stone as a “glass.” He refers to the interpreters as “two transparent stones, resembling glass.” He does not say how they resembled glass. Was it in their smooth surfaces, as in Harris’s “smooth, like polished marble,” or in their clarity? Likewise, “transparent” could mean either clear or merely translucent, or its meaning may be metaphorical. In any case, Benton does not claim to be quoting Oliver Cowdery. This is Benton’s summary, perhaps using his own words, of what he remembered and understood Cowdery to have meant. Benton’s understanding that Joseph Smith used the stones by “looking through” them may have led him to assume the stones were clear, and that assumption may have in turn influenced the language he used in his summary. Alternatively, if Cowdery referred to the interpreters as “glasses” (as Joseph Knight did) or as “spectacles” (as Joseph Smith did), that may have elicited the same [Page 240]hasty assumption. The assumption that stones looked into or through are clear would be a reasonable one in most cases but not when “the gift of seeing and looking through or into a stone” is the topic at hand. Looking “through” or “into” opaque stones to see visions is what seers like Joseph Smith did.72 Due to its secondhand source and the ambiguity of the language, this account tells us little about the physical appearance of the interpreters.
Descriptions Attributed to William Smith
As Joseph Smith’s younger brother, William Smith would likely have been privy to discussions about the interpreters and may have been permitted, like his mother, to examine them through a cloth.73 In July 1890 or 1891, William was interviewed by J. W. Peterson and W. S. Pender. About thirty years later, in May 1921, Peterson recorded his recollection of how William had described the interpreters:
Explaining the expression as to the stones in the Urim and Thummim being set in two rims of a bow he said: A silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, around over that one, and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles. That they were much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other.74
In a report of the same interview published three years later, Peterson provided a slightly different description:
He said a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow … 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.75
Any implication that Joseph Smith used the interpreters in translating by wearing them like spectacles, however awkwardly, is contradicted by William Smith’s personally published account, quoted previously, in which he states that “the Urim and Thummim, (which he obtained with the plates) … was placed in a hat to exclude the light” in order to translate.
Besides Martin Harris’s 1859 description and the 1878 description attributed to David Whitmer, these are the only authoritative descriptions of the interpreters that provide any detail about the form of the metal frame that held the stones. We must use these descriptions [Page 241]with caution, however. They are second- or thirdhand at best, and were recorded decades after the interview with William Smith, on which they were based. Even so, the descriptions of the interpreter stones in a metal frame are roughly consistent with those of Harris and Whitmer. The main difference is that the descriptions attributed to William Smith mention two lengths of wire extending between the stones, while Harris mentions a single “round bar.” All these detailed descriptions refer to the interpreters simply as stones (not diamonds, glasses, or spectacles) and describe them as set too far apart to be worn like eyeglasses.
In the discussion above, I have reviewed all the historical accounts that contain detailed descriptions of the interpreters and are attributed to persons who may have seen or handled the instrument. None of the descriptions of the interpreters in these accounts can be taken at face value, except for Joseph Smith’s description in the Manuscript History of the Church, Lucy Mack Smith’s description in the original 1844–1845 dictated manuscript of her history, and Martin Harris’s 1859 description. These three descriptions were dictated or reviewed by the respective witnesses and use relatively unambiguous language. Together, they describe two round, mostly white, perhaps translucent, smooth stones set in a long silver frame.76 Although superficially resembling spectacles, the instrument would have been much too large to have been worn as such. Joseph Smith instead used the stones by placing them in a hat the same way he and others of his time used individual seer stones.
Harris’s description of the stones as opaque suggests they functioned in the same way as other seer stones — not as optical instruments, but as objects for facilitating imaginative visions. The idea that the Book of Mormon and other revelations by “the Urim and Thummim” were received as visions is consistent not only with witness accounts but also with the way the Bible and Book of Mormon portray the revelation of new scripture to ancient seers such as Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Ezekiel, John, and Lehi.
Most other accounts describing the interpreters are secondhand at best, and many include terminology used differently in the past. When quoting such accounts, which may have been written from memory hours or even years after an interview, we cannot simply say “Lucy Mack Smith said …,” or “According to David Whitmer …,” or “Oliver Cowdery testified under oath that …” To be used responsibly, each account must be evaluated for credibility, its possible meanings explored in light of the [Page 242]culture and language of the time and place of its writing, and its claims tested against other sources.
Two descriptive phrases that have disproportionately influenced the popular perception of the interpreters — “three-cornered diamonds set in glass” and “clear as crystal”— are especially dubious. These descriptions have no apparent connection to any witness experience with the interpreters and were specifically rejected from histories prepared under the direction of Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, respectively.
The most credible description of the interpreters attributed to David Whitmer is similar to Martin Harris’s 1859 description but less detailed. Both say the stones were white and set in a long silver frame. The two secondhand descriptions attributed to Oliver Cowdery, like Joseph Smith’s 1842 description in “Church History,” refer to the stones as transparent.
Descriptions of the interpreter stones as transparent make sense from the perspective of the early nineteenth century and Joseph Smith’s local culture, where transparent could mean translucent, and even opaque seer stones became transparent to those who had the gift to “look into” them. Joseph Knight’s description of the stones as glasses made sense within a cultural perspective in which a glass was an instrument used to see what was otherwise invisible, and even opaque seer stones were called glasses. Descriptions of the interpreters as diamonds were also acceptable within the cultural context in which they were written. In the world of a New York seer, a “diamond” was a seer stone, “glasses” were placed in hats to see visions, and what was “transparent” was not always clear. This was the world in which Joseph Smith developed his “gift of seeing,” and he and others used the vocabulary of that world to describe the ancient seer stones that constituted the interpreters.
On the fourth of July, about 1891, in company with Elder W. S. Pender, I first met Elder William B. Smith, brother of Joseph Smith, the Martyr. He was then in his eightieth year. We remained with him at his home in Osterdock, Iowa, for several days, and our conversation often turned upon the early scenes with which he and his father’s family were connected during the rise of the church. Among other things we inquired minutely about the [begin p. 7] Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. We asked him what was meant by the expression, “two rims of a bow,” which held the former. He said a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breast-plate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate and his brother said Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating, as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates.
[Page 255]In answer to our question, William informed us that he had, himself, by Joseph’s direction, put the Urim and Thummim before his eyes, but could see nothing, as he did not have the gift of a Seer. 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. The instrument caused a strain on Joseph’s eyes, and he sometimes resorted to the plan of covering his eyes with a hat to exclude the light in part. William Smith imparted to us much information regarding other things, but this is about all I remember with regard to the Urim and Thummim. — J. W. Peterson.