“Urim and Thummim” and the Revision of History


A few weeks ago I had a Facebook discussion with two individuals resolute in their belief that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon via “Urim and Thummim” and insisted Joseph was consistent in using the term from the beginning of the church.  

As one might expect, there’s considerable difficulty with that claim.  It didn’t take too long to determine that the use of “Urim and Thummim” in reference to the Nephite Interpreters developed over time and that Joseph Smith, so far as we can tell, never used the phrase prior to 1833. 

Despite the later adoption of the phrase, the belief that the Book of Mormon was translated using “Urim and Thummim” was cemented in the LDS narrative through Joseph Smith’s 1838 History,

“[The angel Moroni] also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants. Also that there were two stones in silver bows and these ​stones fastened​ to a breast plate which constituted what is called the Urim & Thummin deposited with the plates, and ​the possession and use of these stones​ that was what constituted seers in ancient or former times and that God ​had​ prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.”

There are two principle rejections to this claim.  Firstly, the phrase “Urim and Thummim” is not found in the Book of Mormon.  The Nephite prophets, including Moroni, were consistent in their use of “Interpreters” to describe the translation device.  Moroni would not have used “Urim and Thummim” in 1823.  Secondly, there’s no consensus as to what Urim and Thummim actually are.  And whatever tangible item they, or it, may have been, they were used for receiving oracles, not the translation of languages.

So, how did the Nephite Interpreters become Urim and Thummim?  Let’s dive in and attempt to answer the question.

THE ORIGINS OF THE URIM AND THUMMIM IN LDS THOUGHT

The first known reference to the Urim and Thummim in the LDS lexicon comes from Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith in the Boston Investigator, August 1832,

Q.-In what manner was the interpretation, or translation made known, and by whom was it written?
A.-It was made known by the spirit of the Lord through the medium of the Urim and Thummim; and was written partly by Oliver Cowdery, and partly by Martin Harris.
Q.-What do you mean by Urim and Thummim?
A.-The same as were used by the prophets of old, which were two crystal stones, placed in bows something in the form of spectacles, which were found with the plates.”

The next connection between the Nephite Interpreters and Urim and Thummim from a January 1833 editorial published by W.W. Phelps in The Evening and Morning Star, 

 “The book of Mormon, as a revelation from God, possesses some advantage over the oldscripture: it has not been tinctured by the wisdom of man, with here and there an Italic word to supply deficiencies; It was translated by the gift and power of God, by an unlearned man, through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles— (known, perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) and while it unfolds the history of the first inhabitants that settled this continent, it, at the same time, brings a oneness to scripture, like the days of the apostles; and opens and explains the prophecies, that a child may understand the meaning of many of them; and shows how the Lord will gather his saints, even the children of Israel, that have been scattered over the face of the earth, more than two thousand years, in these last days, to the places of the name of the Lord of hosts, the mount Zion.”

The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers add,

“Soon [after Phelps’ article was published] Smith apparently began applying the biblical term Urim and Thummim to the interpreters or spectacles.”

This is an important statement because of the appearance of “Urim and Thummim” in Joseph’s 1838 History.  In July 1833 a mob destroyed the Independence printing press and production of The Evening and Morning Star moved Kirtland under the editorship of Oliver Cowdery. 

In September 1834 the Kirtland High Council commissioned the D&C,

“The [Kirtland High] council then proceeded to appoint a committee to arrange the items of the doctrine of Jesus Christ for the government of the church of Latter-Day Saints which church was organized and commenced its rise on the 6th  of April 1830. These items are to be taken from the bible, book of mormon, and the revelations which have been given to the church up to this date or shall be, until such arrangement is made. Brother Samuel H. Smith then nominated brethren Joseph Smith Junr. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams, to compose said committee which was seconded by brother Hyrum Smith.”

Alexander Baugh of BYU notes,

“[In March 1835 W.W. Phelps] and John Whitmer, both members of the Missouri presidency, arrived in Kirtland to assist in the printing operations of the Church. Their responsibilities included reprinting The Evening and the Morning Star (first published in Independence, Missouri) and the printing of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate and Northern Times (periodicals), the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Church’s first hymnal. Immediately upon his and Whitmer’s arrival, Phelps immersed himself in the printing operations, which included editing, arranging, typesetting, and printing each of the manuscripts for the various publications. Although Frederick G. Williams (owner and proprietor), Oliver Cowdery (office and business manager), and John Whitmer (editor of the Messenger and Advocate) oversaw the day-to-day printing operations, Phelps, as an ad hoc editor, played a major role in all of the editorial decisions

“In preparing the manuscript revelations in Revelation Book 1 for inclusion in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Phelps also took the liberty to make a number of additions and editorial changes to the revelations, including a 1 March 1832 revelation by Joseph Smith. In the published version of the revelation, Phelps inserted a rather lengthy phrase about the establishment of Adam-ondi-Ahman and the authority of Michael, or Adam (49 words). The insertion appears in the latter part of verse three of section 75 of the 1835 edition and reads as follows: “who hath appointed Michael, your prince, and established his feet, and set him upon high; and given unto him the keys of salvation under the counsel and direction of the Holy One, who is without beginning of days or end of life.”  While Joseph Smith may have authored these words and directed that they be inserted as part of the printed text, Phelps may have written and inserted them and the Prophet given his approval.”

Let’s examine the published revelations and see how “Urim and Thummim” was added to fit the evolving narrative. 

URIM AND THUMMIM IN THE REVELATIONS

A January 1829 revelation canonized as D&C 10 in the 1833 Book of Commandments reads,

“NOW, behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up so many writings, which you had power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them, and you also lost your gift at the same time, nevertheless it has been restored unto you again: therefore, see that you are faithful and go on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work as you have begun. Do not run faster than you have strength and means provided to translate, but be diligent unto the end, that you may come off conquerer; yea, that you may conquer satan, and those that do uphold his work…”

In 1835 section was revised for publication as part of the D&C,

“Now, behold I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them; and you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened; nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again, therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of  translation as you have begun.

 In a revelation given to three Book of Mormon witnesses, presumably dated June 1829, we read,

“Behold I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do, with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also the breastplate, the sword of Labanthe Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the red sea; and it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.”

When I read this my suspicions were immediately raised.  I searched this revelation in the Joseph Smith Papers and found the following explanation,

“John Whitmer copied this revelation circa March 1831 into Revelation Book 1, but the page on which it was copied was removed at some point from that volume and is no longer extant. For unknown reasons, printers of the Book of Commandments chose not to include this revelation text in that volume. Some language used in the version copied into Revelation Book 2 does not fit an 1829 context, suggesting that version was modified from the original, although the degree of modification cannot be known.”

The language that “does not fit an 1829 context” is “Urim and Thummim.”  They add the following footnote,

“Featured version copied [not before 25 Nov. 1834] in Revelation Book 2, pp. 119–120; handwriting of Frederick G. Williams.”

Recall that Frederick G. Williams, counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency, was part of the committee assigned to curate and edit the revelations to be included in the Doctrine and Covenants. 

So we are left with a few possibilities:

  1. John Whitmer removed the revelation from Revelation Book 1 for unknown reasons.
  2. W.W. Phelps decided not to include this revelation in the Book of Commandments for unknown reasons.
  3. The revised revelations was scribed by Frederick G. Williams.
  4. The revelation was created in 1834 to support the emerging narrative of “Urim and Thummim.”

If there were an original revelation, why would John Whitmer remove it and W.W. Phelps leave it out of the Book of Commandments?  Perhaps we’ll never know.  

Joseph would later incorporate “Urim and Thummim” into the Book of Abraham narrative and again claim in the July 1838 Elder’s Journal published in Far West (edited by Don Carlos Smith) that he translated the Book of Mormon via the “Urim and Thummim.”

And this brings us back to Joseph Smith’s 1838 History which make reference to the “Urim and Thummim.”  It’s evident that Joseph Smith adopted this language after Phelps’ 1833 editorial, so Moroni would not have used those words to describe the Nephite Interpreters.   I don’t want to call Joseph Smith a liar, but we definitely have evidence of creative embellishment, something I think he had a proclivity to do.

URIM AND THUMMIM IN THE HEBREW BIBLE

What, exactly, are Urim and Thummim?  Well, nobody really knows.  The text itself is not clear.  There are less than a dozen references to Urim and Thummim in the Hebrew text, yet none of those passage explicitly describe the Urim and Thummim.   Victor Avigdor Hurowitz notes that, “no sound consensus has been reached about the specific nature of the Urim and Thummim and scholars are continually presenting new parallels and analogies.” 

The Gateway Bible describes it as,

“An elaborately decorated square of linen worn on the breast as part of the robes of Israel’s high priest ( Exod 28:15-30; 39:8-21; Lev 8:8 ). A piece of material of gold, blue, purple, scarlet, and fine linen was folded double into a square of 9×9 inches.”

Some Jewish traditions hold “he Urim and Thummim (urim v’tumim) refer to a single piece of parchment which had God’s ineffable name inscribed on it (the Tetragrammaton).” The Jewish Virtual Library adds

“The Urim and Thummim (Heb. אוּרִים וְתֻמִּים) was a priestly device for obtaining oracles. On the high priest’s ephod (an apron-like garment) lay a breastpiece (חֹשֶׁן) – a pouch inlaid with 12 precious stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel – that held the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:15–30; Lev. 8:8).”

In his review of Cornelius van Dam’s The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel, Hurowitz discusses van Dam’s proposal “that contrary to the majority opinion…the [Urim and Thummim] is a hendiadys designating a single object and not two or more items.”

Whatever they were and how they were used, they were not used for translating ancient languages.  We learn from the Book of Mormon text that the Nephites Interpreters were expressly used for the translation languages.  In Mosiah 28 we read that Mosiah,

“…translated [the twenty-four plates] by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow. Now these things were prepared from the beginning, and were handed down from generation to generation, for the purpose of interpreting languages; And they have been kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he should discover to every creature who should possess the land the iniquities and abominations of his people.”

Moroni later wrote,

“Behold, I have written upon these plates the very things which the brother of Jared saw; and there never were greater things made manifest than those which were made manifest unto the brother of Jared. Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord. (Ether 4)

CONCLUSION

The Nephite Interpreters and Urim and Thummim and different instruments with different purposes.  The Urim and Thummim, in fact, bears more resemblance to the Liahona than the interpreters.  Joseph Smith appears to have been more interested in the ancient Hebrew religion than the Christianity of the New Testament and religion of the Book of Mormon.  It makes sense that a man who believed he was restoring “the ancient order of things” would latch onto the Hebrew Urim and Thummim, just as he did the temples and priesthoods and setting himself up as “King of Israel.”  But it’s an error to refer to the Nephite Interpreters as Urim and Thummim.   The Nephite writers referred the instrument as “Interpreters” and so should we.

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