Non-Mormons may not know this, but early Mormonism is surprisingly full of “magical” Mormon objects, such as the Prophet Joseph Smith’s magic glasses, used to translate divine golden plates into the Book of Mormon. To outsiders, these sacred Mormon objects may seem odd, but to true believers, they’re an accepted part of the faith.
Photographs of Mormon seer stones, for example, were released by the church in 2015 in an effort to increase transparency about these early objects. The most famous of these stones, Urim and Thummim, were used by Joseph Smith as “lenses” in the glasses that supposedly helped him interpret the word of God. Confused? Read on to learn what all these “magical” objects, plates, stones, and swords are really all about.
The Golden Plates, Inscribed with the Word of God in ‘Reformed Egyptian’
On September 22, 1823, Joseph Smith claims an angel named Moroni revealed to him, among other artifacts, a set of 40-60 pound golden plates “under a stone of considerable size” near his father’s farm. Four years later – and eighteen months after being convicted for fraud and admitting in court he told people he had “necromantic” powers – Smith says Moroni allowed him to take the plates home and translate them from “reformed Egyptian” into English, thus creating the Book of Mormon.
Yes, the replica above looks like a modern three-ring binder, but that’s what Smith said they looked like. At first, he wouldn’t let anyone else look at them. If they did, they’d die, Raiders of the Lost Ark– style. Later, Smith had a revelation that more people could safely see the plates, and eventually a total of eleven “witnesses” claimed to have seen them. Once the translation was complete, Smith said Moroni retrieved the plates and took them back to heaven, where they reportedly still reside today.
Urim & Thummim, Used by Smith as Lenses in ‘Magic’ Glasses to Translate the Plates
How did the illiterate Joseph Smith translate the golden plates? He could only read a little English and he definitely didn’t know any “reformed Egyptian.” He also couldn’t write. What’s a prophet to do?
To translate, Smith said the angel Moroni gave him two transparent translation stones, Urim and Tummim, which he could use as magic glasses to read the plates. At first, Smith went through a series of scribes, who wrote down his words while he hid with the plates behind a blanket or curtain. Later, he would “translate” without even using the plates, seeing the text, via Urim and Tummim, in his “mind’s eye.”
Liahona, a Compass Made by God to Guide the Prophet Lehi to Safety
Joseph Smith and three witnesses claim the Liahona was shown to them by the angel Moroni, along with the golden plates. The picture above shows a 21st century artistic representation of Liahona, which is described in the Book of Mormon as “a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass.” Inside the ball are two spindles, one pointing, compass-like, in the direction Lehi – the Mormon prophet who traveled from Jerusalem to North American – and his family needed to travel in the wilderness.
How does it work? You gotta have faith. It apparently ceases to function if you lack faith or “disobey.” When it is operational, Liahona sometimes even displays written messages giving specific directions. It’s like a Mormon, faith-based GPS, and it was made by the Lord just for Lehi. It’s bespoke nature is in keeping with contemporary hipster trends.
The Sword of Laban, Used by the Prophet Nephi to Obtain the Gold Plates
Another artifact supposedly shown to Joseph Smith and his witnesses, the Sword of Laban had a “hilt of pure gold” and a blade of the “most precious steel.” Nephi, Lehi’s father, used the Sword of Laban to kill the sword’s owner, Laban (duh), because he “opposed the Lord’s imperative to relinquish the plates” and also “sought to take away” Nephi’s life.
The Book of Mormon claims Nephi took the sword with him to North America and used it as a model for other swords to use in the defense of his people. Brigham Young claims Joseph Smith saw the original Sword of Laban in a cave. Young says the sword had the following inscription: “This sword will never be sheathed again until The Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ.”
The Seer Stones, Which When Placed in a Hat Worn Over the Face Shine with Spiritual Light
Urim and Thummim weren’t the only magical stones used by Joseph Smith. Other so-called “seer stones” were supposedly used to translate ancient text and receive “revelations.” The picture above, released by the Mormon church in 2015, is allegedly one of these seer stones used by Smith. Unlike the magic Urim and Thummim spectacles, a stone like this was used by placing it in a hat:
Joseph Smith 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.
The Voree Plates, Supposedly Found by James Strang During His Bid to Succeed Joseph Smith
Supposedly discovered by early Mormon leader James Strang (pictured) in Voree, WI in 1845 following a visit from an “angel of the Lord,” the so-called Voree Plates could have been “the Book of Mormon version 2.0” (and Strang was just one of many Mormons who claimed to have found plates similar to those unearthed by Smith).
After Joseph Smith’s assassination in 1844, Strang and Brigham Young squabbled over who would be Smith’s successor. The alleged discovery of the Voree Plates, which, via Strang’s Urim and Thummin-assisted translation, “tells of the final struggle of an ancient people, written by a Native American named Rajah Manchou of Vorito,” was evidence to Strang he was the next prophet.
After all, like Smith,Strang was led to buried plates by an angel, and translated the plates with seer stones. Cut-and-dry, right? Church leaders, however, thought the plates were a “wicked forgery” and excommunicated Strang. A small group of so-called Strangites still practice Strang’s brand of Mormonism in Wisconsin today.
The Kinderhook Plates, Manufactured in the 19th Century by Attention Seeking Mormons
In 1843, a merchant named Robert Wiley, along with a “number of citizens” (how specific), claimed to have found six ancient brass plates in an Indian mound near Kinderhook, IL. They were presented to Joseph Smith for divine translation, but no translation ever occurred. The Mormon Church, however, printed articles speculating on the meaning of the plates, and some Mormons claimed Smith had plans to translate them. After his assassination, the plates were “largely forgotten.”
A few decades later, some of the plate discoverers said they were a hoax. In 1980, the Chicago Historical Society tested one of the plates and confirmed it was, indeed, of “nineteenth-century manufacture.”
The Plates of Laban, Another Strang Ploy to Position Himself as Prophet
When Joseph Strang was making his case to be the Mormon prophet after Joseph Smith’s assassination, he claimed to have in his possession the original “plates of the ancient Book of the Law of the Lord given to Moses,” known as The Plates of Laban. Seven other men testified they had seen and “handled” these plates, and said they featured engravings with “beautiful antique workmanship.” Strang allegedly used the plates to write the Book of the Law of the Lord. The whereabouts of the plates following the publication of the book – if they indeed existed – are unknown.
The Lost 116 Pages, Vanished Translations by Smith of the Golden Tablets
During Joseph Smith’s supposedly divine translation of the golden plates into the Book of Mormon in Harmony, PA, the man in the painting above, Martin Harris, mortgaged his farm, moved in with Smith, and became a scribe. Harris’s family in New York was skeptical of the endeavor, so Harris convincedSmith to let him take 116 pages of their work to his family to convince them of its worth.
While in New York, Harris claimed the pages were stolen. Rumor has it Harris’s wife burned them, either because she was “irritated at having earlier been denied a glimpse of the ancient plates,” or, as Christopher Hitchens relates, “she stole the first hundred and sixteen pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them.” The truth in unclear.
For a time, Smith claimed he lost the ability to translate. Following “much humble affliction of soul,” his gifts were restored. But Smith said he couldn’t simply retranslate the lost pages, because the pages may have been in someone else’s possession, and thus could be published in “altered form to discredit his ability to translate accurately.” So Smith instead translated other golden plates covering roughly the same time period as the lost work, the content of which remains unknown to this day.