How Joseph Smith Translating with a Hat is Stronger Evidence Than You Might Think

For many, Joseph Smith’s claim that he translated the Book of Mormon from ancient plates has been a topic of interest, confusion, and uncertainty. But thanks to better research methods, and by looking more closely at the accounts of those closest to Joseph Smith during the translation process, we have a clearer picture of how it happened. The evidence suggests that Joseph would typically sit down, look into a hat with a seer stone in it, and somehow know what words to dictate to his scribes. Joseph Smith’s wife said that Joseph would sit “with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us. (1)”

emma-scribe
Emma as Scribe by Robert T. Pack

Yes, that is very weird. But despite how strange it is, how would it even have been possible to create the Book of Mormon under such circumstances? One thing should be clear: the method of burying your face in a hat is actually amazing evidence for the Book of Mormon!

Book of Mormon Challenge

There used to be a challenge that the renowned LDS scholar Hugh Nibley would give to his students. In essence, students were asked to recreate a book similar to the Book of Mormon. Requirements included finishing it in a certain time period (Joseph had under 90 days), dictating it in a first draft, with complex chronologies, complex source texts, complex culture, Hebrew literary devices, characters with their own voices, and more. The full list of requirements can be found here. Nibley’s conclusion was that,

“To date no student has carried out this assignment, which, of course, was not meant seriously. But why not? If anybody could write the Book of Mormon, as we have been so often assured, it is high time that somebody, some devoted and learned minister of the gospel, let us say, performed the invaluable public service of showing the world that it can be done.”

Now, this challenge has been updated. Today, we are asking people to not only do all of this, but to do all of it with their head buried in a hat! In a sense, we are asking others to create the Book of Mormon with their eyes closed, in one take! Has anyone ever completed such a feat, under all these circumstances? J.R.R. Tolkien took years to masterfully craft his story, but Joseph Smith did it when he was only 23 years old, in a very small amount of time, and he had never written a book before. Don’t get me wrong, it is a strange and weird way to translate. But perhaps it’s supposed to be strange and weird. It makes it more miraculous.

To be clear, while this article focuses on the hat, in reality, it could have been anything. Joseph Smith simply used a hat for convenience to block out the light. But this hat makes the translation so much more amazing.

I chuckle sometimes when I see critics of the LDS Church poke fun at the “stone in a hat”, or even make memes of Joseph Smith as a magician with a magician’s hat. Sure, it’s funny and silly. But the irony is that they are pushing a narrative that makes it even more impossible for Joseph Smith to pull off without some divine help. Joseph Smith literally pulled the Book of Mormon out of a hat! Alternative explanations for such a miraculous process haven’t been convincing. And to date, no one has created such a book under these circumstances and meeting these criteria.

1
Translating with Martin by Anthony Sweat

Now, is this miraculous translation evidence enough to convince us of the Book of Mormon’s truth? Not really. No matter how many physical evidences come forth for the Book of Mormon, the only thing that can prove the spiritual aspect of the Book of Mormon is a spiritual witness from God, through prayer. This is why so many Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon. This witness has helped many of us deal with the weirdness of such an account, and wonder at how it came to pass. And hopefully this miracle will pique people’s curiosity to read the Book of Mormon, ponder whether Joseph Smith could have made this book himself, and to pray and ask God, with a sincere heart, if the book is true.

If you are interested in learning more about the Book of Mormon’s beautiful complexity, watch this video while keeping in mind how Joseph translated!

Sources

  1. “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Herald 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90.

4 thoughts on “How Joseph Smith Translating with a Hat is Stronger Evidence Than You Might Think

  1. This whole article turns on the assumed fact that “The evidence suggests that Joseph would TYPICALLY sit down, look into a hat with a seer stone in it, and somehow know what words to dictate to his scribes.”. I think this probably not so. Or at the very least, it is not necessarily so.

    There is no doubt that on various occasions, various people did see Joseph using a stome in a hat. The question is – was that the method that was used for the bulk of the “translation process? Probably not, I think – Or at least it is not necessarily so.

    The evidence is that the main bulk of the work involved Joseph and Oliver with no one else present. I may be wrong, but Im pretty certain that all Joseph and Oliver themselves are ever on record as having said about the process is that it was done (a) “by the power of God” and (b) “with the assistance of the Urim and Thummim.”

    I can fully understand that the hat and stone may might occasionally have been more convenient. But Im sure that I have read somewhere that this method was actually inferior to using the Urim & Thummim. ie why use a kitchen knife as a screwdriver when there is a purpose built tool available?

    I believe that Im right in saying that Joseph always refused to give any specific details of the translation process itself (other than (a) and (b) above), saying that “it was never intended that the details of the process should be revealed.”

    My point is that just because he was seen on various occasions using the stone & hat, that does not neceassarily indicate that that was the default method.

    If Im wrong about any of this then no doubt someone will correct me.

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    1. I agree we don’t know the details. However I think the evidence supports a consistent use of the hat.

      According to the Church’s Translation essay, when describing what most of the accounts suggest, it says, “According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”

      We have Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s Brother, David Whitmer, Joseph Knight, and others mentioning the hat. We even have people mentioning the hat AFTER the Book of Mormon was published.

      Jonathan Hadley, a Palmyra printer who may have spoken with Joseph Smith about translation, claimed that the plates were found with a “huge pair of Spectacles,” and that “by placing the Spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”

      Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery don’t seem to be correcting these statements. True, they said little. But others said a lot which they didn’t necessarily correct.

      I think LDS scholarship is more in agreeance with the regular use of the hat. Here are some recommended readings that I suggest

      https://www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng

      https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-spectacles-the-stone-the-hat-and-the-book-a-twenty-first-century-believers-view-of-the-book-of-mormon-translation/

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      1. Even so, I still think “regular” is quite a considerable stretch.

        Im pretty sure that during the vast bulk of the total translation hours there was no one else present in the translation room. But thats just my personal opinion.

        On a different issue I can easily understand why Joesph sometimes / (often?) used a stone outside of the translating room. Obviously it would have been far more convenient / practicable for him than having to carry the U&T around. Apart from the risk of loss or damage.

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  2. Have you read/listened to the Saints Volume 1 that is in the Gospel Library App under Church History? It is really good. One thing it talked about that I hadn’t heard about before, was Joseph’s use of the urim and thummim to view the plates from afar. Emma heard that men were seeking for the plates. She got word to Joseph who was off working tryin to earn some money. When he heard this he used the urim and thummim to see the plates and that they still were safe in their hiding place (they were hidden in the hollow of a log).

    Some people seem to think that if he wasn’t looking directly at the plates that he couldn’t have been translating them. This incident shows why that doesn’t have to be the case.

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