I wanted to put together some historical accounts that show that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in his translation of The Book of Mormon. This page shows accounts of some of the people close to Joseph (specifically Emma Smith, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and William Smith) stating that he did in fact, use a seer stone in the translation of the text.
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the two people closest to the translation of the Book of Mormon, both state that a Urim and Thummim was used in the translation. While I believe that Joseph did in fact use the Urim and Thummim as a tool to translate the text, I also believe that he also used a seer stone, and so share some of these historical accounts here. On another page I show accounts which state he used a Urim and Thummim in the translation. The accounts of his use of the Urim and Thummim seem to indicate to me that he probably used this tool before the loss of the 116 pages, and that after this event he started to use the seer stone (see quotes #6 and #7 for example).
1. William Smith 1888
“The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God.” (William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book, 1883), 80. William was excommunicated in 1845 and joined the RLDS Church in 1878.
In this account by William Smith, he seems to be using “Urim and Thummim” synonymously with the seer stone. I have seen this as I have examined accounts like William’s. In fact, in the following account by David Whitmer, he seems to indicate that the seer stone functioned for “the same purpose”.
2. David Whitmer 1888
(After the loss of the 116 pages, Smith) again found favor with the Lord, and was presented with a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg but more flat, which it was promised should answer the same purpose (as the Urim and Thummim). With this stone all the present book was translated. The prophet would place the stone in a hat, then put his face in the hat and read the words that appeared thereon. (David Whitmer, Richmond (Missouri) Democrat, January 26, 1888; cited in Cook, David Whitmer interviews, 228, 230. According to Cook, this account was probably borrowed from the Omaha Herald).
3. David Whitmer 1887
At times when Brother Joseph would attempt to translate, he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is; and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in His sight, before he can receive revelation from him…
After the translation of the Book of Mormon was finished, early in the spring of 1830, before April 6th, Joseph gave the stone to Oliver Cowdery and told me as well as the rest that he was through with it, and he did not use the stone any more… (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ: By a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Richmond, Mo.: By the author, 1887: 6,10-11,12,30,55-56)
4. Martin Harris
On Sunday, Sept. 4, 1870, Martin Harris addressed a congregation of Saints in Salt Lake City. He related an incident which occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone. Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used. (Andrew Jenson, ed., “The Three Witnesses,” Historical Record 6 (May 1887):216-217)
5. Martin Harris – as interviewed by Edward Stevenson 1886
The stone was placed in a hat that was used for that purpose, and with the aid of this seer stone the Prophet would read sentence by sentence as Martin wrote, and if he made any mistake the sentence would remain before the Prophet until corrected, when another sentence would appear. (The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Millennial Star 48 (June 21, 1886):389-390. Edward Stevenson gave a similar account in Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: By the author, 1893), 30.)
6. Emma Smith Bidamon to Emma Pilgrim (1870)
Now, the first part my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost. After that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color. (John T. Clark, “Translation of Nephite Records,” The Return 4 (July 15, 1895): 2. Written from Nauvoo on March 27, 1870, the original letter is located in the Emma Smith Papers, Library-Archives, Community of Christ, Independence, Mo.)
7. David Whitmer to the editor of the Kansas City Journal
I stated that “he used one stone (not two) and called it a sun 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 referred to was furnished him when he commenced translating again after losing the 116 pages. (David Whitmer to the editor, Kansas City Daily Journal, June 19, 1881; cited in Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 71-72).