CES Reply: A Rock in a Hat

Book of Mormon Translation Concerns & Questions: 

Unlike the story I’ve been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, Missionary Training Center, and BYU…Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon.

What did they teach you in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, etc.? In my experience, there was some discussion about the Urim and Thummim, which were, in fact, used during the process, although it’s true that the rock in the hat never came up. But, for the most part, no one really brought up any real specifics about the process, which means that, once again, in the absence of solid information, speculation fills in the gaps. I think each of us had different ideas about the process and never thought to question our assumptions.  I don’t recall hearing any official rejection of the rock in the hat taught in any of the places you cite. And if you did, I would think you’d be able to provide a link to a manual or article that explicitly rejected the rock in the hat idea.

Ironically, the first time I heard the rock-in-the hat story was on my mission, when Joseph Fielding McConkie, son of Bruce R. and grandson of Joseph Fielding Smith, quoted David Whitmer on the subject and claimed that Whitmer didn’t know what he was talking about. Whitmer’s account about the process came decades later, after Joseph Smith’s death, and J.F. McConkie, taking a position he attributed to his father and grandfather, insisted it couldn’t have been that way, because reading words off a seer stone seemingly contradicts D&C 9, which is the only contemporaneous document on the subject that we have. D&C 9 chastises Oliver Cowdery for his translation attempt because he “took no thought save it was to ask” the Lord rather than trying to “study it out in [his] mind.” So if the rock in the hat idea wasn’t widely disseminated, which it wasn’t, it may have been because there was significant disagreement among the Brethren as to its veracity, with President Smith and Elder McConkie on the side that (probably incorrectly) maintained it was nonsense.

(I wish I had some kind of link for you, but I don’t. I do know that J.F. McConkie gave recorded speeches on this that were at one time sold by Deseret Book, but since his passing in 2013, all his stuff is out of print.)

Joseph Smith himself dodged questions about specifics of the translation process, saying only that it was accomplished “by the gift and power of God” and that it “was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon.” That was largely the extent of the official story I heard until the Church published its essay on the Book of Mormon translation.

In other words, he used the same “Ouija Board” that he used in his days treasure hunting where he would put in a rock – or a peep stone – in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure.

Those are some other words, all right. How is a stone the same thing as a Ouija Board? Have you ever seen Ouija Boards? They don’t look like rocks in a hat.

He used the exact same method while the gold plates were covered or put in another room or buried in the woods during translating the Book of Mormon. These facts are not only confirmed in Rough Stone Rolling (p. 71-72), by FairMormon here and here, by Neal A. Maxwell Institute (FARMS), but also in an obscure 1992 talk given by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Update: The Church’s December 2013 essay admits this.

It admits that the translation process included the rock in the hat method, but, contrary to the implication you’re making, it was not the exclusive method. From the Church’s essay:

Nevertheless, the scribes and others who observed the translation left numerous accounts that give insight into the process. Some accounts indicate that Joseph studied the characters on the plates. Most of the accounts speak of Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim (either the interpreters or the seer stone), and many accounts refer to his use of a single stone. [Emphasis added]

The fact that both “unofficial” apologists like FAIR, quasi-official apologists like BYU, respected Mormon scholars like Bushman, and entirely official apologists like Elder Nelson openly acknowledge the seer stone in the hat make it hard to argue that the church was actively engaged in “deception,” to use your word. We’ll talk more about it after looking at the pictures you provide.

Book of Mormon translation that the Church portrays to its members:

rock in hat 1

Book of Mormon translation as it actually happened:

Rock in hat 2

Actually, there are a number of inaccuracies in this second group of pics, too. Which hat did he use – the straw hat in the far right, the top hat in the bottom center, or the cowboy hat in the top center? The one on the far left looks like it has some kind of feather in it.

Those are quibbles, of course. The second group of pictures is undoubtedly more historically accurate than the first. Although many of the first group of pics can be interpreted as being consistent with the reports that Joseph, at least occasionally, “studied the characters on the plates.” I especially like the one on the top left, which shows Joseph wearing the breastplate and using the Urim and Thummim, something that witnesses insist was a part of the translation process, at least early on. (Looks weird, though doesn’t it?) But the two showing Joseph and Oliver with the plates in full view are clearly wrong, as all accounts say that the plates were hidden from Oliver’s view at all times during translation. Although I’ve always wondered what resources Oliver had at his disposal when he attempted to translate. Was he only given a stone and a hat? Maybe just his rod, which you complain about later? Wouldn’t it have been likely that he’d insist on having the plates, too? We’ll probably never know how that worked.

Why is the Church not being honest and transparent to its members about how Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon? How am I supposed to be okay with this deception?

You call those paintings “deception?” Brother, you haven’t seen nuthin’ yet. Let me show you some real deception in Mormon art.

Witness “Abinadi before King Noah” by Arnold Friberg, which has appeared in every edition of the Book of Mormon in my lifetime.


I’m pretty sure that just about everything about this picture is wrong, from Abinadi’s ripped physique/six-pack to the weird fez things the priests are wearing, but, especially, to Noah’s pet leopards. Where’d he get the leopards? Aren’t they African? How’d they get to America? How did he domesticate them? Do they share a litter box?

[Note: Since first writing this, I found an interview with Friberg where he states these are jaguars, not leopards, which, alas, undermines my point, as, according to the infallible Wikipedia, jaguars are “the only extant Panthera species native to the Americas.” So Noah could conceivably have had jaguars. Although, really, no, he couldn’t. The Book of Mormon says nothing about jaguars, and people don’t have pet jaguars, even if they’re kings. Again, how did he domesticate them? Do they share a litter box?]

Here’s Friberg’s depiction of Ammon:


Those pecs! Those biceps! Man, they had good gyms back in ancient America, as well as funny looking hats. But guess what? All research we have suggests what they didn’t have is domesticated sheep. In fact, the Book of Mormon never mentions sheep in connection with Ammon, who was defending the kings “flocks,” but never says what animals were in those flocks. In my daughter’s Book of Mormon class at BYU her freshman year, the teacher made a convincing argument that these were flocks of turkeys. Turkeys, of all things! Yet here Friberg paints a bunch of sheep, or, at the very least, the hairiest turkeys I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Or howsabout Friberg’s stripling warriors?


Again with the zero percent body fat! Didn’t the Nephites have access to carbs?

And there’s our friend Helaman, leading his troops on horseback.

Wait a minute. On horseback? As we established earlier, nobody rode a single horse in the Book of Mormon. Nobody rode anything, not even a tapir. And why does Helaman get a horse while making all his troops walk on foot? What a jerk. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure this isn’t how it happened.

And on it goes.

The fact is that religious art has a very long history of inaccuracy, in and out of the church. It’s undeniable, for instance, that a Jewish fellow born just over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem wouldn’t grow up to look anything like this:

heartjesusThis blonde, pale, delicate-featured blue-eyed waif looks more likely to be the lead singer of ABBA than anyone with a drop of Middle Eastern blood in their veins. Yet pictures like this one have been the dominant artistic depictions of Christ for centuries, and long before Joseph Smith came along.

And, to be fair, I don’t think Mormon depictions of Christ do it much better. In every chapel, you can’t help but come face to face with this guy:

mountainjesusI love that he’s standing in front of a background you’d find in a modern photography studio, as if he’s posing for a senior portrait or something.

This seems to be the favored image of Jesus among most Mormons, but I confess I’ve never liked it at all. This doesn’t look like a kind and loving savior to me; it looks like a cross between a young Grizzly Adams and a BYU football player, the kind of guy who would have probably beaten me up back in middle school. Did Jesus work out at Arnold Friberg’s gym, too?

While we’re at it, let’s talk Christmas for a moment. You do realize that every nativity scene on display in every home is terribly, hopelessly, and woefully wrong, right? Mary and Joseph were poor people taking shelter in a dirty, stinky cave they shared with livestock, and they had to put their baby in a filthy pig trough, probably stepping through piles of poop to get there. Every nativity set I’ve seen shows a well-dressed couple in a rustic wooden cabin that’s entirely poop-free.

The Three Wise Men, who are always beatifically swooning over the child as the shepherds stand back in awe, didn’t arrive until at least a year after the birth, and, in fact, we don’t know if there were, in fact, three of them. There may have been two; there may have been a dozen or more. But tradition says three, so that’s how many strike a contorted swooning pose in deceptive plastic figurines that are hauled out of the attic in every Christian home during the month of December. And if your kids are anything like my kids, the figures all get rearranged and stuck in weird places, and maybe Luke Skywalker or My Little Pony end up making an appearance in the stable sometime along the way.

I also want to share a story with you that doesn’t really help my point here, but it does give some insight into where the Brethren are coming from on this.

I once had a meeting with a high-level church employee, and we had a very interesting conversation that included the following story:

It seems that, on one occasion, the Church commissioned an artist to paint a depiction of the First Vision. In this case, the artist did a considerable amount of research, and he determined that, back in the early 19th Century, a 14 year-old impoverished farmboy who went out into the woods to pray would almost certainly have been barefoot at the time. That makes sense – shoes were expensive, after all, and wearing them outside while working crops in the Spring would likely have been ridiculously extravagant and probably uncomfortable to boot.

So the artist painted his shoelessly and historically accurate portrayal of the First Vision, turned it into the Church, and found himself in the center of a controversy he had not anticipated, but which I’m sure you’ve guessed.

The Church wanted to know where Joseph’s shoes were.

The artists began by patiently explaining his research and conclusion, but it didn’t matter. The Church was unwilling to accept the painting as is. They insisted that the artist paint some suitable footwear, and the artist refused. One of the members of the committee suggested a compromise – that Joseph be depicted in a position where his feet would not be visible. The artist was unwilling to do that, either, and he ended up rejecting the commission altogether and withdrawing the painting. I have no idea what happened after that – I don’t know if he left the Church or if he just chalked it all up to experience and sucked it up, but I am interested in the questions this thing raises.

First off, what would I do in this situation? The artist has a point, certainly, but with regard to my relationship with the Church, I doubt this would be the hill I would want to die on. I’d probably just accept the compromise option, paint Joseph with his feet hidden, and recognize that the focal point of the painting shouldn’t necessarily be 19th Century podiatry.

But it has to be asked: why on earth should the Church care? Who are they protecting? What member of the Church is going to be offended by the idea of a barefoot prophet?

This is a problem of cultural groupthink more than deliberate deception.

I once asked a high-ranking mucky-muck on the Church’s Temple Committee why we didn’t see more original, interesting art in temples instead of the prints of prints of Harry Anderson and Del Parson magazine illustrations that you see everywhere else. His answer was that every piece of art that is approved to hang in temples has to go through umpteen layers of committee approval, and particularly with any portrayal of the Savior, it’s almost impossible to get consensus. So that’s why we stick with the tried and true – and boring.

Which is sad, really. Harry Anderson’s paintings are the ones that are used more often than any others, and the guy was a Seventh-Day Adventist! Can’t we rely on homegrown artists for a change?

Back to the main point, which is that religious art isn’t now and, really, never has been about historical accuracy. Like all art, it’s largely about evoking an emotional response by telling a story in a single static image, even if it has to take “artistic license” to do so. An image of Joseph poring over the plates by candlelight is evocative, and it tells a story that helps people feel an emotional connection to the translation process. An image of Joseph with his face in a hat just looks like he’s throwing up.

That’s not to say that excuses the fact that the art you provide is misleading and inaccurate, as it is definitely both of those things. But it’s noteworthy that the only way you can demonstrate that the church has been deliberately deceptive is to produce pieces of art, not actual false statements. Art is seldom, if ever, truly accurate, and every painting of the First Vision has Joseph Smith in shoes.

But if the Book of Mormon itself isn’t infallible, why should we expect Arnold Friberg to be?

The Church, to my knowledge, has never denied the rock in the hat; they’ve just chosen not to talk about it because it’s weird and embarrassing. Like you, I think that’s the wrong choice, and that bringing the weird, embarrassing bits of our history out in to the open is a much better approach. Thankfully, it’s the approach that the Church is starting to take. Although, like you, I believe there’s a lot more they can and should do on that score in the days ahead.

Tomorrow: The First Vision




CES Reply: Joseph Smith - Trinitarian? (Part II)
CES Reply: The First Vision (Part I)

10 thoughts on “CES Reply: A Rock in a Hat”

  1. As this is one of the hottest topics for ex-Mormons I’m surprised they don’t debate you, Jim, on this point. True, your facebook page has a debate raging right now about the rock/hat controversy. Jeremy Runnells was on Randall Bowen’s Facebook page a few days ago, as Randall took issue with Jeremy’s advertising his upcoming church hearing (happened yesterday, actually) and the possibility of not having an accompanying interpreter.

    As Jeremy Runnells himself posted and engaged (I admit, I was shocked to see the object of so much debate share a fb thread), I personally (and repeatedly) encouraged Jeremy and the numerous (reading and commenting) other ex-Mormon sympathizers to visit your blog and let you have it, Jim. Or at least engage you with their opinions.

    I explained that Jeremy had questions and you just may have answers. Perhaps at least one point you share may be valid and change his mind a fraction of a degree. After all, you spent countless hours creating a 300+-page response. They may find at least one bit of valid counterargument I hope they’ll change and come on here today, as this rock/hat subject is loaded with (in my view, mostly unneeded) controversy…

  2. You’re missing recent articles in the Ensign where this has been covered. Joseph Smith described the process and changes in the way he did things as a result of what he had learned about working with the revelatory process and the Spirit.

    Your rather adolescent-sounding whines and put-downs don’t come across well to serious readers, in case you hadn’t known that. I doubt I’ll be back in this dry desert waste.

    1. For anyone else coming to this comment years after the fact, this commenter and I had a lengthy discussion offline about this. He had only read this article, not the whole CES Reply, and he mistakenly assumed I was attacking the Church, which I was not. When he realized my intent, he did a complete 180 and was much kinder than he is here.

  3. This was a discussion on the veracity and misrepresentation of fact in the translation story of the BoM, the basis of the LDS church’s existence. It has been turned into a discussion on Church art and the dumbness of the members, and bureaucratic embarrassment. You state in conclusion, “The Church, to my knowledge, has never denied the rock in the hat”. So what was McConkie’s position when he denied the hat/rock story or the multiple movies versions of the “First Vision’. McConkie was your Mission President who was formally called and a financially remunerated employee of the LDS church. I fear you know fine well the LDS church actively and intentionally misrepresented what it knew about the translation over an extended period of time with the direct objective to further its own aims and benefit from misrepresentation. McConkie was your hierarchal leader and placed in a position of authority over you and he is the representative of the Church. Pretending that if God himself doesn’t lie to you directly that the LDS Church is absolved of its active misrepresentation by its leadership – well it just doesn’t wash. This has to be placed into context with multiple other cases of active misrepresentation of history and doctrine which establishes an unsavoury pattern. This is the crux of the discussion not a critique of sample art to belittle or detract from the discussion. This is reminiscent of political techniques of conflagration multiple unrelated topics to divert attention and a tad disingenuous, no?

    1. I don’t think so, no. As I make clear in the post, President McConkie was wrong. I don’t make excuses for it beyond the fact that I don’t believe in infallible leaders, whether they be mission presidents, prophets, or scoutmasters. To say President McConkie’s error in this instance is evidence of a church-wide coverup is silly.

  4. I think this is a perfect example of Mormon apologetics giving answers where some might claim there are none. The problem (as it so frequently is) is that the answer is not a good one.

    When someone is struggling with the idea that the Book of Mormon, “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion” came from a translation process that involved a rock in a hat. The best answer is not; well if you think that is weird, look at all of this other weird stuff.

    The simple truth of the matter is that the only good answer to this problem is the simplest and most understandable one. That the rock in the hat, the urim and thummin, the plates not being in the room (or existing at all), all speak to a fabricated history. That the whole translation process is just part of a larger invented narrative. Joseph and others just made it all up.

    That answer, being simple, believable, and consistent with other truths, is a good answer. And until apologists can find an answer as good as that, they will struggle to be convincing.

  5. “And if you did, I would think you’d be able to provide a link to a manual or article that explicitly rejected the rock in the hat idea.”

    In fact way back in 1974 the seer stone was mentioned in a Friend article:

    “To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone.” (“A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sep 1974, 7)

  6. You lost me here. You cannot tell me I was not taught what I was taught all my life. All my life I was taught that the BOM was translated using the Urim and Thummin. JS reading the writing of the golden plates through the spectacles fashioned to the breast plate. Don’t tell me I wasn’t taught this by the church!

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