Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Skousen on witnesses-Part 2

This is the second section of my peer review of Royal Skousen's very important analysis of witness statements, published in the Interpreter here.

Page 9. This section is the most important of the book: Two different methods of translating the Book of Mormon. 

Skousen presents U&T as the method Joseph used for the 116 pages, followed by a transition to SITH, followed by SITH as the only method used to translate the text we have today. In doing so, he omits statements that contradict his theory, including those by Lucy Mack Smith.

Skousen starts off by explaining his bias, which I appreciate because so many authors don't explain their biases.


It's good of Skousen to qualify his claim by writing "most probably all translated by means of a seer stone." That leaves open the possibility that Joseph actually translated with the Urim and Thummim after all (although Skousen doesn't use the term here). 

However, he then constrains himself by accepting that possibility only with regard to the 116 pages.

Next, he discusses the relevance of the curtain or blanket.


The curtain narrative has been largely overlooked. It's a good example of something that was so commonly understood that few people bothered to write it down or mention it later. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said. People often don't mention the obvious. No one recorded that Joseph breathed oxygen, either; breathing was not remarkable or unusual. 

And yet, the entire premise of the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed was to figure out what was behind the "vail." Aside from the title, the book uses the term "unvailed" only once, on page 278.

"We proposed in the commencement of this work, to give to the world all the light, of which we were in possession, as to the real and original author or authors of the Book of Mormon. That there has been, from the beginning of the imposture, a more talented knave behind the curtain, is evident to our mind, at least: but whether he will ever ben clearly, fully, and positively unvailed and brought into open day-light, may of course be doubted."

The book then proceeds to describe the Spalding theory, which proceeded to dominate the narrative among nonbelievers. Obviously, the Spalding theory was feasible only if Joseph was dictating the text from behind a curtain, screen, or "vail." The books ridicules the other explanation--that Joseph dictated while reading words off a stone, or, alternatively, off the Urim and Thummim--pointing out that in such an event, there was no point in having the plates in the first place and the witnesses to the plates were irrelevant.  

Joseph Smith explained that Moroni had warned him not to let anyone see the plates.

Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed. (Joseph Smith—History 1:42)

This leaves us with one of two options. Either (i) Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim and dictated from behind a screen or (ii) he did not, and the warning about not showing the plates and Urim and Thummim was pointless. 

Here, I need to explain the acronym SITH. Because there are accounts of Joseph using both a stone in the hat and spectacles in the hat, I use the acronym SITH for both scenarios. Statements regarding "spectacles" not only don't necessarily refer to the Urim and Thummim, but they cannot refer to the Urim and Thummim, because Joseph was forbidden to display the Urim and Thummim until after the translation was complete and there is no account for an exception. Statements about "spectacles" represent (i) confusion with the stone, (ii) assumptions that the stone came from the Urim and Thummim, or (iii) speculation about what was behind the screen.

As we'll see, all we can tell from the SITH witnesses is that Joseph dictated something out in the open, where witnesses could observe. What we can't tell is whether what he dictated ended up in the text of the Book of Mormon, or even whether he was "translating" in any sense of the word during those open sessions.

With this in mind, we can see the logical fallacy of Skousen's conclusion.

Regarding the first highlighted sentence, I've proposed elsewhere that the original manuscript does tell us (or at least offers clues) that the open session David Whitmer described had to involve Second Nephi. We'll get into the details when we reach David's statement, but briefly, David says three scribes were at the table, taking turns as they tired, and that Emma was one of the scribes. Emma arrived some time after Joseph and Oliver, and her handwriting is not on the extant OM (mainly 1 Nephi). The scribes who wrote 1 Nephi did not write briefly and take turns; they wrote several pages at a time. The evidence therefore indicates that Joseph dictated 2 Nephi rapidly.

The second highlighted section is the logical fallacy. Despite the SITH witnesses, there is no evidentiary or logical reason why Joseph could not have used the Nephite interpreters to translate the plates. None of the SITH witnesses claimed to be present during the entire translation in Harmony and Fayette, leaving plenty of opportunity and time for Joseph and Oliver to work with the Urim and Thummim. And, of course, Joseph and Oliver both claimed that Joseph translated by means of the Urim and Thummim. 


Next, Skousen repeats two common but obvious errors. I haven't taken the time to find out where these errors originated, but they are ubiquitous, especially since they were perpetuated in the Gospel Topics Essays.

Error #1. Hyrum did not ask about the translation. He asked about the "coming forth of the Book of Mormon." In response, Joseph explained it was not intended to tell the world "all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon." 

The "coming forth" involved far more than just the translation, although the translation was certainly a significant element of the coming forth. Several of those present at the meeting did later discuss the translation, so they either did not think Joseph prohibited such a discussion or they directly violated his instructions.

In 1835, Joseph reported a conversation he had with a visitor, indicating that the "coming forth" began when he was around 6 years old.

He called to make enquiry about the establishment of the Church of the latter-day Saints and to be instructed more perfectly in our doctrine &c. I commenced and gave him a brief relation of my experience while in my juvenile years, say from 6, years old up to the time I received the first visitation of Angels which was when I was about 14, years old and also the visitations that I received afterward, concerning the book of Mormon, and a short account of the rise and progress of the church, up to this date.

Joseph Smith, Journal, 1835-1836

The two main accounts of the "coming forth" are found in Oliver Cowdery's eight letters and Joseph Smith-History. Neither of these accounts provides "all the particulars" about the ministering of angels, the obtaining and preservation of the plates, descriptions of the plates and other artifacts, whether there was one or two sets of plates, the visits to the repository in the Hill Cumorah (which Oliver later related, but not, as Brigham said, "in meeting," presumably recognizing Joseph's restraint), etc. 

Error #2. Joseph did not simply refer to the translation as having been done "by the gift and power of God." He and others often referred to the Urim and Thummim. Here are some examples.

Elders' Journal 1838[Moroni] being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.

Wentworth Letter (Church history)Through the medium of the Urim and Thummin I translated the record by the gift and power of God.

Joseph Smith-History. Also that there were two stones in silver bows, and these stones fastened to a breastplate constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim, deposited with the plates, and the possession and use of these stones was what constituted seers in ancient or former times, and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

“Latter Day Saints,” 1844: Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.

Orson Pratt's 1840 pamphletMr Smith, who, by the gift and power of God translated them into the English language, by the means of the Urim and Thummim...

Times and Seasons editor (1 Sept 1842):  containing an account of the gospel in much plainness, being translated by the gift and power of God by the use of the Urim and Thummim,

Lucy Mack Smith: on the 22 of september I [Joseph] had the Joy and satisfaction of again receiving the ​urim and thummin into my possession and I have commenced translating

Lucy Mack Smith: Not far from this time, as Joseph was translating by means of the Urim and Thummim, he received instead of the words of the Book, a commandment to write a letter to a man by the name of David Whitmer, who lived in Waterloo; requesting him to come immediately with his team,


In the next section, Skousen discusses what he calls "The first method: Using the Nephite interpreters along with the plates."

Here we have Joseph's account of copying and translating the characters "by means of the Urim and Thummim." We have John A. Clark's 1842 article relating what Martin Harris told him in 1828 regarding the "thick curtain or blanket ... suspended between them, and Smith concealed behind the blanket."

In both 1834 and 1841, Charles Anthon referred to the curtain that concealed Joseph from view, yet he also clamed Joseph "put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses." Left unexplained is how he (or Martin Harris) would know this if Joseph was concealed. The only possible answer is he (and Martin) related hearsay and/or assumptions.

These three accounts presumably originated with Martin Harris. Their existence suggests common knowledge that people didn't think they needed to record or report. 

The October 1831 statement attributed to Joseph Smith by Nancy Towle underscores the common understanding that Joseph had to have worked behind a screen. Joseph told her that in the box with the plates was "a pair of 'interpreters,' (as he called them,) that resembled spectacles; by looking into which, he could read a writing engraven upon the plates, though to himself, in a tongue unknown." Here Joseph explained he used both the Nephite interpreters and the plates, which had to take place behind a screen.

Beyond reporting these accounts, Skousen does not comment. And yet, he had just written a few pages previously that Joseph "consistently refused to tell others how the translation process worked." Here, Towle reported that Joseph explained he used the interpreters to look upon the plates, an explanation that Oliver Cowdery and Lucy Mack Smith corroborated--although inexplicably, Brother Skousen omitted their statements from this section. 


Page 11. The next section is "Shifting from the first method to the second one."

We have Emma's 1870 letter to Emma Pilgrim in which she said Joseph used the Urim and Thummim for the part that Martin Harris lost, and then used a small stone. This vague letter answers a question we don't have because Pilgrim's letter is not extant. Emma's letter is useless as evidence. Emma does not even claim to be writing from personal knowledge or observation. Her letter would read identically if she was merely repeating hearsay--which she certainly was regarding the translation instruments, given the screen. Even if we infer she described the stone from personal observation, Joseph had the stone long before he translated anything so she had plenty of opportunity to observe it independent of any connection with the plates. Note that she doesn't directly say he translated with the stone, only that he "used" it. She doesn't specify times and places, another red flag for any witness' testimony. 

David's statement that Joseph translated first by the urim and thummim and afterwards by a seer stone is obvious hearsay. He was never present in Harmony for any of the translation events there. This has the tell-tale signs of coordinated testimony, coming as it did seven years after Emma's letter.

Martin Harris' statement about the seer stone vs. the Urim and Thummim is also obvious hearsay, given his statements about the curtain, but it is useful to disprove the recent scholarly narrative that early saints referred to the seer stone as the Urim and Thummim. Martin clarified that "the seer stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates," evidently (but not explicitly) based on his experience seeing the Urim and Thummim as one of the Three Witnesses. Like Emma, Martin likely saw the seer stone in circumstances unrelated to the translation.

Aside from the problematic nature of these statements as reliable and credible evidence, the claim that Joseph didn't have or use the Urim and Thummim after the loss of the 116 pages contradicts what Joseph, Oliver, and Lucy Mack Smith said, and all of their statements are closer in time to the events in question. By Skousen's own standard, the statements in this section are comparatively unreliable. 


Page 12. The next section collects statements about "The second method: Placing the seer stone in a hat in order to obscure the light."

The first paragraph is an unintentional list of logical and factual fallacies.

1. Instead of "all eight" witnesses saying what Skousen claims, not one of the eight witnesses said what he claims. Instead, each described discreet experiences in different places at different (and unspecified) times. Skousen strings their statements together to create an illusion of consistency and continuity.

2. Skousen claims these witnesses "independently" testified, as if each was unaware of what the others had said. Yet all of these witnesses knew one another. This is a classic set up for collusion and coordination. The inconsistency of terminology does not contravene the possibility for collusion because it is equally evidence of hearsay; i.e., they heard different things and mingled them in their respective memories.

3. Whether they explicitly state the seer stone was placed in a hat is a bit of a red herring. None of these witnesses reported what Joseph actually dictated during their observations. 

4. We can infer there was no curtain or blanket, whether the witnesses stated or implied that was the case--but that raises the question about why Joseph conducted a "translation" in public.

We'll discuss these points as we evaluate the witness statements.


Refer to the original article to see the witness statements in full. Here we'll comment only on excerpts and commentary.

1. Joseph Knight Senior. Joseph Knight did not claim to be an eyewitness; his unsigned, undated statement is written mostly as hearsay. It relates historical events, such as Joseph going to the hill to get the plates, that he could not possibly have witnessed. There are parts of the statement in which Knight speaks from personal experience, such as "I paid him the money and I furnished him with a horse." He relates his personal experience staying at the Smith home the night when Joseph brought the plates home for the first time. He affirms that Joseph "was commanded not to let no one see those things." He relates Martin's trip to New York (obvious hearsay) and then describes the translation, but does not say he was present during the translation. Knight was pretty good about distinguishing between his direct observations and his hearsay recitations.

Later in the statement he explains that Joseph and his wife "came up to see me the first of the winter 1828" and Knight went down to see them in Harmony. Knight does say "Joseph talked with us about his translating" but he does not repeat what Joseph said and he does not attribute his description of the translation process to Joseph. Regarding the translation, Knight does not specify time and place. We don't even know when he wrote his statement, with the estimated range sometime between 1835 and 1847, 6 to 18 years after the fact. 

Here is Skousen's conclusion.


Recall that above, Skousen declared that Joseph Knight referred to the seer stone as the Urim and Thummim. Here he admits it's merely his assumption. And yet, in this same statement Knight tells us what Joseph saw "in his glass," which is obvious hearsay. Knight's statement might be useful if we're researching what people said about the translation, but it's useless testimony about actual facts because he did not personally observe Joseph's dictation and did not directly relate what Joseph told him..

2. Elizabeth Anne Whitmer Cowdery. This statement is merely a copy that William E. McLellin made on 15 February 1870 of an alleged statement Elizabeth wrote that is not extant. Part of the McLellin document is missing; Vogel and Welch offer different readings. 

By 1870, SITH was well entrenched. McLellin adamantly insisted that Joseph never had the Uirm and Thummim; he cited that as one of the reasons why he was no longer a Mormon and used Elizabeth's statement as supporting evidence. Whether he accurately copied Elizabeth's statement is anyone's guess, but the statement supports McLellin's view. I've shown elsewhere how her statement shares exact terminology with William Smith's 1883 statement and David Whitmer's 1887 statement, suggesting direct or indirect influence.

At the time of the translation, Elizabeth was 14 years old. She showed her statement to McLellin 41 years later, in 1870, when she and McLellin were both at David Whitmer's home in Richmond, Missouri. 

Like the other SITH statements, Elizabeth's is aimed directly at the Spalding theory. She emphasizes that Joseph never had a curtain drawn when she saw and heard them translate and write. But she does not give specific times and places (upstairs or downstairs?), and she doesn't even identify the scribe, which is odd if it was her future husband, Oliver.  

Elizabeth's statement says "he would place the director in his hat..." Skousen claims "the interpreters are sometimes referred to as directors" in the Book of Mormon (Alma 37:21, 24), but that claim cannot be verified because it's equally plausible that different terms refer to different items. 

3. Emma Smith Bidamon, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma." This interview by Emma's son Joseph Smith III has been dismantled elsewhere, so I won't take the time to do it here, other than to point out that Emma's testimony about the translation aims at refuting the Spalding theory, that it is vague and ambiguous because it doesn’t specify time and place, and it is questionable because of Emma’s claim that she “frequently wrote day after day” yet Joseph complained he had no one to write for him. Emma could have been referring to her scribal work on the 117 pages, the book of Mosiah, or 2 Nephi, but we have no way of knowing from her statement. As with the questions about polygamy in her Last Testimony, Emma’s answers about the translation are superficial and her son did not probe for details.

4. Michael Morse, Emma’s brother-in-law, reportedly claimed that he saw Joseph “engaged at his work of translation” which consisted of SITH, “and then dictating, word after word, while the scribe—Emma, John Whitmer, O. Cowdery, or some other, wrote it down.”

This interview took place in 1879, well after SITH had become established. Again, Morse did not specify time or place. It’s not clear how he could have been a witness at the Whitmer home in Fayette, but his listing of John Whitmer as a scribe excludes Harmony. Because he claims personal observation, it appears likely that he was present at the demonstration where three scribes took turns because Joseph dictated so fast they tired.

5. David Whitmer, interviewed by John Traughber Jr., October 1879. Traughber said David always related the same testimony, that Joseph used SITH and “read the translation as it appeared before him.” He also related the Whitmer hearsay that “a spiritual light would shine forth, and parchment would appear before Joseph,” etc. Of course, David never looked into the stone to see what Joseph saw.

Kansas City Journal report. David corrected the report to clarify that Joseph used one stone.

Chicago Times, 14 October 1881. Here Skousen provides only a brief excerpt, claiming Joseph “used a small oval kidney-shaped stone, called Urim and Thummim, that seemed endowed with the marvelous power of converting the character on the plates, when used by Smith, into English.” He omits the description of the event, which is an important omission because it depicts the demonstration scenario.

6. Martin Harris. These are Martin’s accounts of swapping stones with Joseph, a story that is improbable for the meaning normally assigned to it. For Martin to fool Joseph with a stone “very much resembling” the stone Joseph had possessed and used for several years is highly unlikely in the first place. In the second place, Joseph was dictating from behind a screen, so Martin could only speculate what was going on. What is plausible is Martin assuming Joseph was using the stone, Martin swapping it out during the break by the river, and then Joseph playing along with Martin to allay Martin’s intense curiosity. 

7. Elizabeth L. McKune related an account to her brother on 29 September 1879, claiming she saw “Smith translating his book by the aid of the stone and hat.” She claimed that Reuben Hale acted as scribe until Martin Harris did the writing.

Her brother said Joseph’s excuse was that he had to keep the spectacles concealed, but he could let anyone inspect the “peep-stone.”

Again, no one recorded what Joseph dictated on these occasions. This account expressly relates a public demonstration. It also contradicts Emma’s claim that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim until the 116 pages were lost.

8. Joseph Fowler McKune, 1887, says Reuben Hale acted as scribe part of the time, that he “was quite often in Smith’s house,” and that Joseph had a “stove-pipe” hat with a stone in the bottom so that he bent over and dictate what he saw.

Skousen notes that McKune was born in 1815, so he was about 13 when he observed what he claimed. Again, no time or date is given, nothing about what Joseph dictated, and another contradiction of Emma’s statement.


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