I just made Arrington and Bitton's The Mormon Experience (U of Illinois, 2d ed., 1992) my Book of the Month, which is now nestled in my sidebar just above the Now Reading list. ME is generally regarded as the premier one-volume LDS history, and it deserves a serious cover-to-cover reading rather than the spotty treatment I gave it several years ago during a bike trip in Southern Utah. Furthermore, reviewing ME is a great review in preparation for the new year's Sunday School curriculum, which covers Church History. This post will look at ME's coverage of Joseph's translating and "the Urim and Thummim."
First, here is their short summary on translation:
Details of the actual translation process are unclear. The only statement by Smith himself, contained in a revelation dictated in 1829, indicates that the process of translation was not automatic, required considerable thought, and was ultimately governed by a feeling-state verification. (p. 13)That seems like a surprisingly candid summary, and one that does not line up behind the word-for-word translation scheme often taken for granted in conservative Mormon commentary. However, I think they are incorrect in assuming that D&C 9:8-9, the 1829 reference that is the basis of their "feeling-state verification" term as a gloss for "your bosom shall burn within you," describes how Joseph himself translated. The revelation itself is addressed to Oliver Cowdery and appears tailored to Oliver's troubles with translation; there is no reason Joseph's experience with translating should be limited to those comments directed to Oliver, especially in view of the many sources giving a different description of Joseph's translation methods.
Second, I am confused by a specific reference they make to the "Urim and Thummim." According to biblical scholars, the term as used in the Old Testament refers to dice-like devices used by Israelite priests to get yes or no responses to questions presented to God for an answer. There is no apparent link between the Urim and Thummim and seeing stones or glass spectacles that one might use to discover hidden things or see translations of ancient writing, which concept links to the luminescent Jaredite stones of the book of Ether (which predates Israel and the Urim and Thummim) or, more recently, to seeing stones used by glass-lookers in New England. In the Book of Mormon they are called "interpreters" by the Nephites. So what's the connection?
Arrington and Bitton make the following statement regarding Joseph's first visit to the box containing the golden plates in 1824:
On the west slope he found a large rounded stone. Underneath he discovered a stone box containing the plates of gold and an instrument later used to aid in translation, which apparently consisted of two transparent stones attached like eyeglasses to a breastplate and which was identified by the angel as the biblical Urim and Thummim used by ancient seers. (p. 9)Their footnote for this statement gives only a reference to Exodus 28:30, not to any 19th-century source, although JS-H 1:35 could certainly be used to support the statement that it was Moroni who called the eyeglasses "Urim and Thummim." However, JS-H 1:35 was written in 1838, not 1827. Other treatments of early LDS history I have read have noted that originally the eyeglass-like devices found by Joseph were originally referred to only as interpreters. These accounts note that the term "Urim and Thummim" to describe the interpreters started only following comments by W.W. Phelps around 1833 noting some similarity of the interpreters to the obscure Urim and Thummim of the Old Testament.
So, lacking an adequate source from Arrington and Bitton, my question is whether anyone knows of an early reference identifying the eyeglasses as the Urim and Thummim? Or did were Arrington and Bitton simply careless in following the 1838 retrospective identification of the eyeglasses as the Urim and Thummim?