Chapter 15: Joseph's and Abraham's Revelatory Experiences
Both Joseph Smith and Abraham used a Urim and Thummim, a divine instrument God gives chosen seers enabling them to receive revelation and translate text. The Hebrew words Urim and Thummim mean “lights” and “perfections.” The phrase “Urim and Thummim” sounds like one object, thus the pronoun it and the singular an instrument. In Exodus and Leviticus, however, the phrase to describe this tool is “the Urim and the Thummim” and in Deuteronomy “thy Thummim and thy Urim,” which connotes two objects. Urim is even used without Thummim in 1 Samuel. Urim also means “revelation” and Thummim can mean “perfection” in the singular. Joseph described the Urim and Thummim as “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constitute what is called the Urim and Thummim” (Joseph Smith—History 1:35). Joseph found the Urim and Thummim with the golden plates. It was the same Urim and Thummim that the brother of Jared used (see D&C 17).
According to fairmormon.org, Joseph used the Urim and Thummim, also called Nephite interpreters, to translate the plates, when Martin Harris was his scribe.
The Nephite interpreters were intended to assist Joseph in the initial translation process, yet the manner in which they were employed was never explained in detail. The fact that the Nephite interpreters were set in rims resembling a pair of spectacles has led some to believe that they may have been worn like a pair of glasses, with Joseph viewing the characters on the plates through them. This, however, is merely speculation that doesn't take into account that Joseph soon disassembled the fixture, the spacing between seer stones being too wide for his eyes. The accompanying breastplate also appeared to have been used by a larger man. Like its biblical counterpart (the High Priest's breastplate contained 12 gems that symbolized him acting as a mediator between God and Israel).
Joseph’s experiences with translating the Book of Mormon and the Bible prepared him for his role in bringing forth the book of Abraham. Those who describe the translation process in general are no more specific than simply to state that it came “by the gift and power of God” as Nephi prophesied it would be (see Book of Mormon title page, testimony of three witnesses, and 1 Nephi 13:35).
Eyewitnesses provide more specific detail on what was involved in the translation process. Orson Pratt painted a vivid picture of Joseph receiving revelation as printed in the Deseret News in 1859: “I saw his [Joseph Smith] countenance lighted up, as the inspiration of the Holy Ghost rested upon him, dictating the great and most precious revelations now printed for our guide. I saw his translating, by inspiration, the Old and New Testaments and the Inspired Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyrus” (Studies in Scripture, vol. 2, 175).
Perhaps we could interpret Elder Pratt’s statement to support the position that Joseph received the book of Abraham word-for-word by direct revelation not via the Urim and Thummim. Dr. Henry Eyring, the scientist, wrote in support of this:
An example of what I am talking about is the recent discovery of the papyrus scrolls from which Joseph Smith was presumed to have translated the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. Modern scholars, looking at the scrolls, found nothing they considered to be similar to that book. I remarked at the time that such a finding didn't bother me in the least. God doesn't need a crib sheet in the form of a papyrus scroll to reveal Abraham's thoughts and words to Joseph Smith, with any degree of precision He considers necessary for His purposes. If the only function of the scrolls was to awaken the Prophet to the idea of receiving such inspiration, they would have fulfilled their purpose. (Reflections of a Scientist [Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1983], 46)
Another reliable witness, Wilford Woodruff, left his testimony of how the translation of the Pearl of Great Price was accomplished. On 19 February 1842, he wrote: “The Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim Ancient records & hieroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us” (Ibid, 169).
History shows that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim at the beginning of the translation of the Book of Mormon. After he completed the translation in June 1829, he returned the plates to Moroni. I always assumed he returned the Urim and Thummim too, but it may be an incorrect assumption. Perhaps the Lord allowed him to keep it and use it throughout his life. The other possibility is that the Lord returned the Urim and Thummim to Joseph on a case-by-case basis, such as when it was time to translate the book of Abraham. (An interesting article on the Urim and Thummim and seer stones can be found at www.ldsliving.com/Joseph-Smith-Had-a-Second-Seer-Stone-What-We-Know-About-It/s/83084.)
Abraham explained how and when he received the Urim and Thummim: “I, Abraham, had the Urim and Thummim, which the Lord my God had given unto me, in Ur of the Chaldees” (Abraham 3:1).Since Abraham lived in Ur as a young man, this means he probably had the Urim and Thummim in his possession for many years—unless of course, the Lord took it back when it was not in use, as perhaps with Joseph.
Abraham shared two additional components of his revelatory experience. As the spiritual bond intensified, the words that were coming into his mind became audible. Abraham heard the voice of the Lord: “The Lord said unto me by the Urim and Thummim” (Abraham 3:4). Abraham used this phrase, “the Lord said unto me,” in the context of using the Urim and Thummim, seven times. (The picture I see in my mind is Abraham receiving doctrine as though he were in a classroom of one where the instructor was Jesus Christ. Imagine being taught astronomy by the Creator himself!)
The second component shows another increase in the level of communication. As with Joseph, Abraham did not continue to depend on the Urim and Thummim. After hearing the voice of the Lord, it seems a physical instrument became unnecessary as the Lord addressed His prophet face-to-face. “Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made”(Abraham 3:11). As they were speaking together, Abraham noticed that the Lord gestures when he speaks: “And his hand was stretched out” (Abraham 3:12). Then the familiarity between the Lord and Abraham is again increased when the Lord touches Abraham’s eyes: “He put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof” (Abraham 3:12).
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017