The Old Testament describes something called the Urim and Thummim a few times. In Exodus, it says that the High Priest of Israel would insert the Urim and Thummim into a breastplate.1 It’s not entirely clear from the text of the Bible what the Urim and Thummim was or its purpose, but scholars believe that it was two small objects used by the High Priest to judge whether someone was innocent or guilty of an offense. To me, it sounds like an ancient way of flipping a coin but instead of deciding something by heads or tails, it was decided in some way with these two small objects.
Whatever the Urim and Thummim actually was anciently, in Mormonism the Urim and Thummim plays a central role in the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. In the Pearl of Great Price, when Moroni showed Joseph Smith the plates in the Hill Cumorah, the Urim and Thummim and a breastplate was there too. It also says that Joseph Smith took the Urim and Thummim with him when he received the plates and that he used the Urim and Thummim to translate some characters on the plates.2
Despite all the descriptions about using the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, in other places the church explains that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.3
Which is it? Did he use the seer stone? Or did he use the Urim and Thummim? Or both? It can be difficult to determine the truth because it involves reading several old church records, some of which have been edited over time, but this is the conclusion I have come to:
Everything that says Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate to translate the Book of Mormon is misleading.
Let me explain.
In 1833, Joseph Smith published a book called the Book of Commandments. This book contained the text of many revelations received by Joseph Smith. This was the first time any of Joseph Smith’s revelations had been published. In 1835, the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published. This edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contained the same revelations that were in the Book of Commandments and also contained new revelations that had been received since 1833. Over time, many editions of the Doctrine and Covenants have been published, most notably in 1844, 1876, and 1981.
The first time the Urim and Thummim was ever mentioned in connection with the Book of Mormon was in 1833, when an account of the origins of the Book of Mormon was given by Joseph Smith’s close associate W. W. Phelps in the Evening and Morning Star.4 He wrote:
It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of Interpreters, or spectacles—(known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim or Urim and Thummim)
Prior to this mention in 1833, no one had ever heard that the Urim and Thummim was used in the translation of the Book of Mormon, even though Joseph Smith supposedly saw the Urim and Thummim in the Hill Cumorah for the first time in 1823. If the Urim and Thummim was real, why was it never mentioned until 10 years after he supposedly first saw it? Also, if it was real, why did W. W. Phelps say “perhaps?”
This is where things start to get a little tricky. If you turn to D&C 10, the section heading says this revelation was written by Joseph Smith in 1828 or 1829.5 Verse 1 says:
Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.
Wait a minute. I just claimed that the first mention that the Urim and Thummim was used to translate the Book of Mormon was in 1833 but D&C 10 clearly mentions the Urim and Thummim in a revelation written in 1828 or 1829. With is it? 1833 or 1828/29?
Here’s what’s going on:
When D&C 10 was originally published in the 1833 Book of Commandments, this is what the first sentence of verse 1 looked like:6
Pay attention to third line where it says “power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man.” In 1835, the first edition of Doctrine and Covenants republished this revelation. Here is the first sentence of this revelation when it was republished in 1835:7
Clearly, the phrase “by the means of the Urim and Thummim” was inserted in 1835.
Once the puzzle is put together, here is a brief timeline of the Urim and Thummim:
- Joseph Smith receives revelation that later becomes D&C 10 in 1828 or 1829. No mention of the Urim and Thummim.
- The Book of Mormon is published in 1830. It mentions “interpreters” but contains no mention of the Urim and Thummim. Currently, the church interprets “interpreters” to mean “Urim and Thummim” but in 1830 no one would have made this connection because up to this time the Urim and Thummim had never been mentioned in connection with the Book of Mormon.
- The Book of Commandments is published in 1833. It contains what is now D&C 10. No mention of the Urim and Thummim.
- In an edition of the Evening and Morning Star published in 1833, W. W. Phelps writes that perhaps the “interpreters” Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon was the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Bible.
- In 1835, the Doctrine and Covenants is first published. It reprints what is now D&C 10 and changes the text to say Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon.
- The Urim and Thummim becomes the dominant story in the church for how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
Why did the story change from the seer stone to the Urim and Thummim?
I believe there are a few reasons.
Remember in my last post where I described how Joseph Smith had been convicted of a defrauding people out of money using the same seer stone he used to translate the Book of Mormon? Well, as people converted to the church, some of them would have heard about this aspect of Joseph Smith’s past and this would likely cause them to question the church itself. Moving away from the seer stone and towards the Urim and Thummim was a way to distance the seer stone from Joseph Smith’s past.
Also, as the church grew I believe Joseph Smith wanted to move away from the magical roots of the Book of Mormon so he changed the story to something that sounded more biblical and less magical. The original story was the magical seer stone. The new story was the biblical Urim and Thummim.
While there have been a few times during church history that the seer stone has been mentioned, the Urim and Thummim has become such a dominant story in church culture that many people have never even heard of the seer stone or understand it’s history or role in creating the Book of Mormon.
At the end of the day, inserting the Urim and Thummim into the story at a much later date and making that story become the dominant story in the church is one reason I believe that the Book of Mormon was all a made-up story from the very beginning.
4 https://archive.org/stream/EveningAndMorningStarReprint/Evening%20and%20Morning%20Star%20Reprint#page/n117/mode/2up (see page 116, near top of right column)