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Image for Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates

In the July 1993 Ensign article, “A Treasured Testament”, Elder Russell M. Nelson quotes David Whitmer (an early member of the LDS Church and signatory to the 1830 statement, The Testimony of Three Witnesses) for a succinct summary of Joseph Smith’s method of translating the language etched on the Golden Plates into the Book of Mormon:

“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.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, Chapter 1, p. 12.)

The image above depicts Joseph Smith translating the Book of Lehi, with Martin Harris (another signatory to The Testimony of Three Witnesses) serving as his scribe. Harris reported that Joseph, while translating, “would sit in a different room, or up stairs.” (See Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, 2002, p. 10. See also, E.B. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 1834, p. 14, reproduced here and here).

No eyewitness account of Joseph Smith’s translation process includes him reading (or making any other direct use of) the Golden Plates. Martin Harris, Emma Smith, and others stated that while Joseph dictated the text of the Book of Mormon, the plates were concealed in a box or under a cloth, or even buried outside in the woods or in the mountains. (See An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp. 2-4.)

Despite the existence of Elder Nelson’s 1993 article, Joseph Smith’s method of translating the Golden Plates does not seem to be widely known amongst members of the LDS Church. One reason for this may be the inaccurate imagery utilized in official LDS Church publications and presentations to depict the process. Click here and here and here for several examples of this.

27 Responses to “Joseph Smith Translating the Golden Plates”

  1. RBO Says:

    This is a nice drawing. I haven’t seen very many of these. You should tell people that this is the most extreme possible interpretation of the historical accounts.

    Your link to the LDS Church website seems misleading too. I hope you are not trying to imply that there is some kind of Church coverup here, because I don’t think that is true. The Church must use the images that artists create, and while the artists obviously excel at capturing the miraculous spirit of the translation of the Book of Mormon, we ought to forgive them for not being historians. I think this trend among artists will change soon because the story is becoming more and more available for people who want to find out about it. For example, it was freely described just this spring in the PBS presentation “The Mormons”.

    There are probably better uses for artistic talent than this.


  2. admin Says:

    I don’t think this image represents the most extreme possible interpretation of the historical record. The artist has based this drawing on the Martin Harris account to emphasize the fact that, according to the known eyewitnesses, the elements of the actual translation process were radically different from what most people would expect the translation of an ancient document to look like. I assume you feel the “extreme” aspect of this image is Joseph Smith sitting up the stairs, above the scribe. I believe the Harris account is, in all other material respects, consistent with the other eyewitness accounts. Please let us know if that is incorrect.

    I’m not trying to imply that there is a Church conspiracy to cover up this information, but I think you should give LDS artists more credit than you are giving them. Having artistic talent does not mean that they can’t figure out how to research their subject matter. They produce art to meet demand, and apparently the demand for accurate Mormon historical art is not sufficient to justify artists’ efforts to produce it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the LDS Church itself seems to provide a significant portion of the demand for new Mormon art. I don’t think the Church is at the mercy of the artists — in fact, I believe the exact opposite is true.

  3. Stephen M (Ethesis) Says:

    I have to note that being up the stairs (or upstairs) is different than sitting on the stairs.

  4. Margie Says:

    I appreciate your wonderful art work. I too belong to a restoration church and my hobby for the past 30 years is the study of the Latter Day Saint movement.Your representations appear to be true to the history of the church.

  5. JV Says:

    Stephen M (Ethesis),

    Are you noting what you see as a material problem with the image? What is the difference between what the Martin Harris account says (”up stairs”) and what is depicted in the image?


  6. LDS Art Collector Says:

    Great Post

  7. GD Teacher Says:

    Thanks JV, I just stumbled across your site today. I’m glad you were able to put your historically accurate artwork in a place where people can see it. Thank you very much.

  8. Bernagen Says:

    I know that Joseph Smith is and was a prophet of God. I know what voices or promptings that Joseph’s heard, I myself experienced it too and I know that I am not the only one. Because of that experience, nomatter how much you are trying to prove that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a true church, it will not and will not change my heart. I do not claim myself to be another prophet, I claim myself as one of the witnesses of what Joseph’s had. Because of that experience I had for I followed what book of James (in the Bible) said, ask in faith, nothing wavering…I did it and nothing and nothing can shake my faith in LDS church. I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

  9. JV Says:


    Your post reminds me of an article I wrote last year. You can find it HERE. With that analysis in mind, do you think the advice given in the Book of James (see verses 5-7, in particular) is similar at all to the persuasive techniques employed in Moroni’s Promise?


  10. Mark Says:

    This website is pure crap! The author needs to get a life, and find something more constructive to do than pull down the faith of others! Those of us who believe Joseph Smith was a prophet believe because of the feelings of the Spirit we have experienced. As much as people like the author of this website enjoy tearing down the Church, he/she can never challenge the convictions of our hearts. Sure, some things in early MOrmon history are a bit bizarre, but who cares? Details such as Joseph translating the Book of Mormon with his hat over his face conform well to the fundamental principle we are taught from the Book of Mormon, that by small and simple means, great things are brought about. By the way, your pencil work sucks! Your figures are completely non-animated – look like statues. YOu should go back to art school – provided you ever went.

  11. Matthew Says:

    Dear Artist:

    Standing Ovation Kudos and Dittos to your outstanding artwork!

    I am so excited to use your images to show others the truth about how the Mormon movement began.

    I just want to help you point out to your viewers and readers that one of the most important scholars on this subject is the historian/author and retired Institute teacher, Grant Palmer.

    In a podcast with broadcaster John Dehlin, Palmer said, when asked, “Did Joseph use the plates in the translation process?”:

    “From what I’ve found, there’s no relative who ever said he used the plates. There’s no scribe, there’s no friend, there’s no acquaintance, there’s no observer, zero, none, EVER…”
    Palmer points out that, despite pictures you see in the Ensign, “There are no evidences of any first-hand observer. There are at least 20 that say they [the plates] were never used.” And that there are numerous first-hand witnesses who describe Joseph placing his face in a hat to both, supposedly find buried treasure in the hills, as well as to supposedly dictate words from an ancient gold record.

    This podcast can be accessed here: http://mormonstories.org/?p=92

    Mormons profess to idealize truth above all else:

    Yes, say, what is truth? ‘Tis the brightest prize
    To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
    Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
    Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
    ‘Tis an aim for the noblest desire.

    Your images help the seeker of truth find it. Thank you!!!

  12. srm Says:

    Mark you said

    “This website is pure crap! The author needs to get a life, and find something more constructive to do than pull down the faith of others!” “By the way, your pencil work sucks! Your figures are completely non-animated – look like statues. YOu should go back to art school – provided you ever went”

    Is this the most constructive thing YOU can find to do? To criticize what others have actually investigated? Before you start pointing fingers try looking into your own mirror and look at your own personal character.
    God Bless you Mark and may God open your eyes to the truth.

  13. Andrea Says:

    I think your artwork is amazing. Anyone who says otherwise clearly has no understanding of artistic license or perhaps they are used to stick figures? Anyway, I appreciate the fact you are trying to be true to the actual accounts from people that were “there”. Thank you for sharing this. I hope you continue to enlighten us.

  14. Paul A. Lethes Says:

    Thanks so much for your web site.

    “I would like to bear my testimony that I “NOW” know that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by placing his seer stone into his hat.” (Too bad it took me 31 years as a member to learn this unexpectedly and unintentionally.)

    The next day I went out and found my own seer stone; I placed it my hat and it told me to stop paying 10 percent for all this deceptive, dishonest Mormon CRAP!!!!

    I encourage all Mormons to bear your testimony in the next fast and testimony meeting that you “KNOW” that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by placing his seer stone into his hat – to prevent members like me who feel spiritually raped, robbed and abused by Joseph Smith for not having been taught this truth in their entire life.

  15. Ross Eldridge Says:

    These are lovely illustrations. Quite different to the attractive, if misleading, pictures in the missionary binders some 40 years ago. I joined a church that showed (me) Joseph Smith and his scribes sitting with golden plates often visible, always nearby and included in the pictures.

    I never heard of seer stones in hats (or anywhere else), and the golden plates were often depicted with Joseph with his finger on them, presumeably reading the translation to Oliver, Martin or Emma or … so on.

    I don’t blame the well-meaning missionaries who “taught” me eternal truths some 40 years ago. I have no doubt that they had no knowledge of these things that have recently been uncovered. I was a member of a branch presidency, held many church offices in branches and wards … and went to the temple. And I had no idea. In fact, the texts I was to teach from in Sunday school and priesthood were obscuring or ignoring so much that we now know. (I never knew Joseph had upwards of 33 wives. Of course, Emma didn’t know this either!)

    Time, science, correspondence, documents, computers and the internet will reveal more and more. If the LDS missionaries are teaching from the same books they used when they taught me and my generation, then they are misleading and being mislead. Give us the TRUTH and let us pray about THAT. If it is true, we’ll know, won’t we?

    As I’ve said … lovely artwork.


  16. Ross Eldridge Says:

    There is a notion in the Mormon Church that Joseph Smith actually wrote or created the Book of Mormon, by way of translation. Apparently he “saw” words on his seer stone inside his darkened hat. We now know that Joseph was out of direct sight when he dictated to his scribe. He never, ever, sat with his finger on the golden plates and read the English translation. The whole business of the Urim & Thummim is so muddled and confused, the accounts revised to “fit” in the first decades of the church’s history, that it is probably safe to say that Joseph never sat around wearing his magic spectacles.

    It is not, it seems to me, impossible that somebody very much human and of Joseph’s time actually wrote the Book of Mormon, and passed it along to Joseph to “read” from behind a curtain, or up the stairs, or out of sight. Perhaps somebody who concealed his connection to Joseph until after the Book of Mormon was well under way. Perhaps somebody who had attempted (as a number of others had in those times) to write an “American Bible”. And that true writer of the Book of Mormon, having put so much into it, and having fallen out with Joseph over subsequent behaviors and bizarre “revelations” would try to restore the Book of Mormon himself after Joseph’s death. The man who really wrote another American Bible. Sidney Rigdon. Sidney always seems to be the real brains behind early Mormonism. He did most of the preaching at meetings. Joseph was not much for addressing church services.

    Perhaps people far wiser than I am will look at that possibility.


  17. marvin Says:

    I have attempted to give this faith credit. Since I got on this site, I am astounded! I do not understand how a religion can be built off a man looking into a white top hat with a stone reading egyptian translated into english as if on parchment paper. Joseph Smith had to be high on mushrooms or some kind of herb!

  18. Glenn Says:

    It’s amazing how powerful this image is. When I logged in to this site, I was a strong faithful member of the church, confident in my convictions that this church is true, cuz I felt it and nothing or nothing could tell me nothingwise. But then I saw Joseph with his face in a hat, and now I have lost all faith and plan to shave my head, don an orange robe, and pas out flowers at the airport.

    Ok, you got me. I am being facetious. A big word for some of the other commenters, maybe, but it feels like icicles tickling the inside of your brain.

    You know I love your stuff oh Mr Admin sama. And I anxiously await your muse to strike again — if for no other reason than to be entertained by the loving reaction it provokes from the true followers and representatives of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who’s pure love of charity is spelled out so clearly yet ignored so blatantly by so many knuckle draggers that it make me wonder sometimes why I am still an active member of the church. But actually — no, I don’t really wonder that. I know exactly why I am. It’s just too bad that they don’t.

  19. Kay Says:

    The gospel is built on truths and testimony of the spirit. Whatever man thinks, it is his choice. I believe the LDS Church is the true Church no matter what little inuendoes they like to pick. Why not criticize the Muslim Religion too that advocate violence and Mohammed had many wives and Islam was founded by the sword.

  20. Brother Ormond Says:

    If you think Joseph Smith was lied or part ,

    or theory/mason or guilt etc.

    BUT What I can do???????????

    YOU??????????????? your responible??

    May I can follow to Who?


  21. Nikita Says:

    Everyone is entitled to there opinion, but I am also a believer ans at least like all these other churches that con people out of money on there belief our church is set to where no one gets paid and be living in a million dollar home, jesus dint do it, we all volunteer our time to the lord, all these other religon that is getting paid it is a sin, well its your life and we will see who will be on top the second comming.

  22. Teri Says:

    Beautiful artwork indeed! Let the shackles fall and the truth be made known. Let all that live be given knowledge of the truth, as clearly as it can be understood, that each individual may choose for himself. Each of these pictures convey more than words can possibly say. I am deeply moved; I thank you.

    I believed without doubt for 51 years, then studied ONLY from church approved sources, read the J of D among other things, and left mormonism at age 56. My divorce followed a year and a half later. My life and family will never be the same, but someone HAD to speak up. The truth from deep within me demanded to be set free. A mother of 3 sons that all served honorable missions, in total 5 temple married very active mormon children and 21 grandchildren, I stand alone. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, yet I have no regrets. No matter the cost, I will always choose the truth.

  23. Tim Says:

    “I picture tells a thousand word” regarding the churches current images used to teach investigators and children how the BOM was translated i would like to point out that although artists are allowed certain licence in creating their work they are also following a design brief. The Church Artist whose work is used to promote the idea of smith translating was obviously NOT told to show Joseph with his face in his hat or the way most member over a certain age have been taught that of translating with the seer stones in spectacles attached to a breastplate with a curtain between him and the scribe. The church chooses to use this picture knowing it is not true! I do not need to read the gospel principle chapter on honesty to know that this is a blatant dishonest attempt to sanitize a piece of history the church would rather not reveal.

  24. Your tax dollars support polygamy! « Notes from the West Says:

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  25. Dave Says:

    In the Seer Stone In The Hat method of translation – Joseph isn’t even looking at the gold plates – which begs the question, “If he didn’t need to look at the plates in order to translate them – why did he even need to dig them up in the first place?”.

    According to Martin Harris, the words Joseph saw in the seer stone would not disappear and new words appear – until Oliver Cowdery and Joseph both spoke the translation – with 100% accuracy.

    So, WHY have there been nearly 4,000 changes and corrections made to the “most correct of any book on earth” since 1830? How is this even possible? There should have been NO need for correction to the Book of Mormon – since the new words would not appear until Joseph had the previous ones translated perfectly.

  26. Sam Smith Says:

    I’m a 45 year LDS member, served a mormon mission and more and still mostly active. I have a conviction as strong as standing on the pulpit to say that I have researched, prayed and did come to the truth on Joseph Smith. The answers I received surprised me…. that he (Joseph) was a documented con-man and yes he did read out of a hat or make it up. He published the Book of Mormon with many flaws, which were later fixed and copyrighted to profit off of it. Another manuscript around that time was stolen from a publishing company that Oliver Cowdrey owned, and it was a fictional novel about characters in South America named Nephi, Lehi and more. I’m not making this up. With that said it seems where there’s smoke there’s fire and Joseph probably hallucinated while having help from a publisher to write and profit off of the book. It quickly turned into a religion when Joseph realized how much money could be made. The law of consecration was “revealed” for this. My relation is Newel Knight, who’s own journal of Joseph Smith was quoted by the church for so many spiritual purposes. His father also kept a journal that documented how Joseph got help early on…. (summarized). Then the Smith boy came over to my farm and told me of a load of gold he had found, and that his wagon could not haul the load for fear of breaking his wagon. He promised me a share of the gold and so I gave him my heavy wagon and six horse teams, I never saw the horses, wagon or gold after that….” I know joseph was a con-man, he used his hat with the stone he had found to point to water, buried treasure and more and accepted money for the deception, which later came back to haunt him as one town after another took him to court over his practices. Then he created the church, and defrauded by making a bank with fake gold as collateral, then skipped town citing “persecution” of the saints. Guys this stuff is all online and available, court records and more. I like the social part of the church as it exists today, I pay nothing to them and never will. At some point I will probably leave as I do now have a testimony of the truth. Seek and ye shall find my friends. All the best to you in your research for the truth and nothing more.

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