I have recently been studying about Joseph Smith’s usage of seer stones in place of the Urim & Thummim for the process of translating the Book of Mormon. Since some of the information I encountered was new to me, I thought a few quotes and commentary may help those who read this better understand at least a portion of how the Book of Mormon was translated.
It should be noted that the expression Urim & Thummim is never used in the Book of Mormon, but was likely adopted by the Prophet after becoming familiar with the Old Testament revelatory device through his translation of the Old Testament. Instead, the Urim & Thummim wielded by the Prophet included the Nephite interpreters comprising “two stones” fastened into the “two rims of a bow” as the “interpreters.” (See Mosiah 28:13; Ether 3:23) In other words, the Urim & Thummim known to the Prophet consisted primarily of a couple of seer stones that could be attached to a device for ease of viewing. It eventually became common for members of the Church to call the Nephite interpreters the Urim & Thummim, which isn’t exactly correct.
When he finally received the Nephite interpreters in September of 1827, Joseph was already quite familiar with seer stones and how they worked. In fact, Joseph had discovered at least 2 seer stones, the first in 1822 while digging a well with Willard Chase:
“In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me.... After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat.... The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alleging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but I would lend it.” (Eber Dudley Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 241-242; cited in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, "Joseph Smith: 'The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:2 (Summer 1982): 48–68) (emphasis added).
Of this seer stone, one witness reported that “[i]t was about the size of a small hen's egg, in the shape of a high-instepped shoe. It was composed of layers of different colors passing diagonally through it. It was very hard and smooth, perhaps by being carried in the pocket” (W. D. Purple, The Chenango Union (3 May 1877); cited in Francis Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959), 2:365). This seer stone was eventually consecrated on an altar in the Manti Temple in 1888 by Wilford Woodruff.
The source of the second seer stone is uncertain, but in 1841 the Prophet showed it to the Council of the 12 in Nauvoo and told them, Brigham Young reported, “that every man who lived on the earth was entitled to a seer stone and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.” The second seer stone was described as in “the shape of an egg though not quite so large, of a gray cast something like granite but with white stripes running around it. It was transparent but had no holes, neither on the end or in the sides” (Richard Marcellas Robinson, "The History of a Nephite Coin," manuscript, 20 December 1834, LDS Church archives; cited in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet," (Master's Thesis, University of Utah, Logan, Utah, 2000), 264).
During the translation process of the 116 pages, the Prophet used not only the Nephite interpreters but also regularly employed at least one of his seer stones placed in the bottom of a hat. Contrary to frequent Church criticism, our Church leaders have hardly tried to conceal this fact as evidenced by the following recent quote:
“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.” (Elder Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign, July 1993, p.61) (emphasis added)
Interestingly enough, using a seer stone in this seemingly odd manner was nothing out of the ordinary for Joseph Smith and practically everyone else at this time. (See “Joseph the Seer—or Why Did He Translate With a Rock in His Hat?,” Brant A. Gardner) In fact, what seems quite strange to us today was a widely accepted practice, even among the highly religious during the early 19th century. Joseph apparently had a gift to use his seer stones to see things others could not, including discerning property and the location of hidden treasure. Hence, Mr. Josiah Stowell’s interest in Joseph Smith to help him search for hidden Spanish treasure (see JSH 1:56).
Since Joseph openly employed the seer stone in the hat for translation, at one point during the translation of the 116 pages, Martin Harris apparently tested the Prophet’s abilities. After translating for a time each day, the two would often take a break and walk to a nearby river and throw rocks into the river to unwind:
“Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, ‘Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.’ Martin then confessed that he wished to ‘stop the mouths of fools’ who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them.” (Told in Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign, January 1988, p.6)
In an apparent reference to at least one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones, the Book of Mormon makes reference to “a stone” as distinct from the Nephite interpreters:
23 And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.
24 And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:
25 I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land. (Alma 37:23-25)
Gazelem is a name given to a servant of God, generally thought to be Joseph Smith. The word appears to have its roots in gaz – a stone, and aleim, a name of God as a revelator, or the interposer in the affairs of men. If this suggestion is correct, its roots admirably agree with its apparent meaning – a seer.
Notice that Alma speaks of a singular “stone” as separate and distinct from the plural Nephite “interpreters,” both of which are to be used for basically the same purpose. The stone, however, was to “shine forth in darkness unto light,” possibly referring to its usage in a hat as was Joseph Smith’s revelatory practice.
While it is not certain how much of the Book of Mormon was eventually translated using the seer stones, it is evident that their usage was typical.
[NOTE: For more information on the Prophet’s seer stones, see Joseph Smith/Seer Stones found in the FAIR Wiki.]