Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Monday, May 4, 2020

Elder B. H. Roberts, SITH intellectual

Jonathan Neville has been oddly quiet lately, so I thought I’d call him out on a disgraceful falsehood he published on April 20, 2020.

Regarding the historical claim that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by means of a seer stone that he placed into a hat—which he calls “SITH”—Neville wrote: “Until recent years, it was only the critics of the Church who promoted SITH.

This claim is demonstrably false, and Neville should know better than make such a statement. The testimonies of Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and other witnesses that Joseph used a seer stone to translate were published numerous times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Church periodicals like The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (e.g., vol. 43, no. 27; vol. 44, no. 6; and vol. 48, no. 25) and the Improvement Era (e.g., vol. 42, no. 10).
B. H. Roberts

In addition to those Church-sponsored publications that “promoted SITH,” as Neville calls it, Martin Harris and David Whitmer’s accounts of Joseph translating with a seer stone were included by Elder Brigham H. Roberts in his 1930 centennial six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church.

Roberts was called as a member of the First Council of the Seventy in 1888 and was appointed Assistant Church Historian in 1902; he served in both offices until his death in 1933. He was a tireless defender of the Church and the restored gospel who published over twenty books, including ones used as instruction manuals in church-wide priesthood quorums. He wrote and published the well-known seven-volume History of the Church, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism describes his Comprehensive History of the Church as “a high point in the publication of Church history to that time.… Roberts shows a faithfulness to documentary sources and rules of evidence. [His work] is a worthy monument to the Church’s first century and still attracts serious attention.”

In the first volume of Comprehensive History of the Church, Roberts wrote the following (emphasis added):

Relative to the manner of translating the Book of Mormon the Prophet himself has said but little. “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God,” is the most extended published statement made by him upon the subject. Of the Urim and Thummim he says: “With the record was found a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breast-plate.”

Oliver Cowdery says of the work of translation, “I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as they are called by that book, ‘Holy Interpreters’,” This is all that Oliver has left on record on the manner of translating the book.

David Whitmer is more specific on this subject. After describing the means the Prophet employed to exclude the light from the Seer Stone, he says: “In the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment 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.”

There will appear between this statement of David Whitmer’s and what is said both by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery a seeming contradiction. Joseph and Oliver both say the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim, which is described by Joseph as being “two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate;” while David Whitmer says that the translation was made by means of a Seer Stone. The apparent contradiction is cleared up, however, by a statement made by Martin Harris. He said that the Prophet possessed a Seer Stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as with the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he sometimes used the Seer Stone. Martin said further that the Seer Stone differed in appearance entirely from the Urim and Thummim that was obtained with the plates, which were two clear stones set in two rims, very much resembling spectacles, only they were larger.

The Seer Stone referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in company with his brother Hyrum, for a Mr. Clark Chase, near Palmyra, N. Y. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it—as described above—as well as by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.

Martin Harris’ description of the manner of translating while he was an amanuensis to the Prophet is as follows:

“By aid of the Seer Stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say ‘written;’ and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another appear in its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.”

The sum of the whole matter, then, concerning the manner of translating the sacred record of the Nephites, according to the testimony of the only witnesses competent to testify in the matter is: With the Nephite record was deposited a curious instrument, consisting of two transparent stones, set in the rim of a bow, somewhat resembling spectacles, but larger, called by the ancient Hebrews Urim and Thummim, but by the Nephites Interpreters. In addition to these Interpreters the Prophet Joseph had a Seer Stone, which to him was as Urim and Thummim; that the Prophet sometimes used one and sometimes the other of these sacred instruments in the work of translation; that whether the Interpreters or the Seer Stone was used the Nephite characters with the English interpretation appeared in the sacred instrument; that the Prophet would pronounce the English translation to his scribe, which, when correctly written, would disappear and other characters with their interpretation take their place, and so on until the work was completed.

In his Address to All Believers in Christ, David Whitmer says:

“At times when brother Joseph would attempt to translate he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed, [to exclude the light], he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelation from him.”

The manner of translation is so far described by David Whitmer and Martin Harris, who received their information necessarily from Joseph Smith, and doubtless it is substantially correct, except in so far as their statements may have created the impression that the translation was a mere mechanical process; and this is certainly corrected in part at least by what David Whitmer has said relative to the frame of mind Joseph must be in before he could translate.

(pp. 127–131)
Elder B. H. Roberts was as far from being a critic of the Church as anyone in Church history, and yet he freely and openly discussed Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon. Jonathan Neville would have us believe that, “until recent years, it was only the critics of the Church who promoted SITH [the stone-in-the-hat theory],” and yet we can clearly see that Neville is either lying or is grossly incompetent in how he treats key sources.

Neville, the Stoddards, Rod Meldrum, and other Heartlanders have recently begun to assert that Joseph Smith didn’t use a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. Their claims are contrary to longstanding teachings found in Church publications written by Church leaders.

—Peter Pan


  1. Does the use of a seer stone in any way relate to Book of Mormon geography in Heartlanders' minds, or is it a separate issue for them? (Similar to how their conferences have speakers and booths on all sorts of bizarre theories, but don't all necessarily relate to "Heartland" geography).

    1. David,

      Heartlander geography and their rejection of Joseph’s use of a seer stone are indirectly connected in that they see both as reflecting Oliver Cowdery’s written testimony (via Letter VII and the footnote to Joseph Smith History 1:71).

      More directly, though, those two beliefs are based on their total devotion to the views of Joseph Fielding Smith, who rejected the so-called Two Cumorah Theory and Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

      With all due respect to Joseph Fielding Smith, he was wrong on these two issues. But Heartlanders take his word as gospel, even though he published those views as his own beliefs and not as Church doctrine.

    2. Yes, it's dangerous to take everything published or said by Church leaders as doctrine, especially when it isn't presented as such. I suppose Heartlanders would also have to believe that we have never landed on the moon, if everything Joseph Fielding Smith said is doctrine. (Although, the mindset required to believe the moon-landing-is-a-hoax conspiracy seems similar to the Heartland conspiracy, so maybe they do!)

    3. Indeed it is dangerous.

      One problem with Heartlanders is their selective application of “correct/authoritative”: If something said or written by an authority agrees with their worldview, theyʼll embrace it and defend it. If something said or written by an authority disagrees with their worldview, theyʼll dismiss it or ignore it. They have no standards for determining doctrine other than their agreement with a statement.

    4. I've noticed that myself. It doesn't make for a very solid foundation for research, scholarship, or belief.


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