From the Mormon.org page on The Book of Mormon, we read, “By the power of God, Joseph Smith translated this book from an ancient record written on gold plates. In September 1827, Joseph received the record, which was written on thin plates of gold. Joseph translated the book into English by the inspiration of God and called the book the Book of Mormon.”
Inspiration is defined for us on the same page as “divine guidance that comes through the promptings of the Holy Ghost.” Let’s look a little closer at that process of translation. From the LDS Newsroom article on the Book of Mormon we read, “Joseph translated the plates in about three months after which he returned them to the angel Moroni. ” That’s 531 pages in 85 days!
The process of translating evolved
President Faust said, “The process of translating the Book of Mormon was an education for Joseph Smith. When the Lord called him, he was a young man, unlearned, simple, and very ordinary in the eyes of the world. The translation process taught the unlearned young man from New York essential lessons which were vital for his call as the prophet of the Restoration.”
In the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 5:4) the Lord said to Joseph, “And you have a gift to translate the plates.” The Lord also said in D&C 20:8 that He “gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon.” So literally, the Lord said that the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, just as we claim.
“These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’”
Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, 14, or Joseph Smith—History 1:71, note
How the seer stones were used
Moroni said to Joseph, “that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
“Joseph Smith would 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.
“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.”
Source: David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.
We do not know all the details
I think the process David Whitmer was describing above may have been true for only the early work when Joseph was first learning to translate. The Lord referred to the process of using the seer stones in translation as having “sight and power.” We know that Joseph did not need or use the seer stones in translating the later portion of the work but we do not know all the details.
Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Joseph Smith told him that he used the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced at translation but that later he did not need it, which was the case in Joseph’s translation of many verses of the Bible (Millennial Star, 11 Aug. 1874, 498–99 as quoted by Elder Maxwell).
We do not know all the details of the translation process or how much Joseph used or needed the seer stones. The Lord made it clear that it was a powerful and merciful gift: “And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon (D&C 1:29).
Judge the results, not the method used
The Lord told the three witnesses that He was pleased with the Book of Mormon as translated by Joseph Smith: “…he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true.“
The Three Witnesses testified: “And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.” They saw the plates as shown unto them by a angel.
Joseph Smith declared that “the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, . . . and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than any other book” (History of the Church, 4:461). I add my testimony to the witness of Joseph.
The Book of Mormon is a test
I am confident that there are many who are investigating the Church who turn to Internet sites to get an understanding of what the Book of Mormon is all about. When they read or hear about the use of seer stones for the first time (in a hat), it can seem strange and very different.
Even Hyrum, the brother of the Prophet was told by Joseph Smith that “it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon” and that “it was not expedient for him to relate these things” (History of the Church, 1:220).
Don’t get hung up on the use of a “seer stone in a hat” that may have been used in the early days of translating the Book of Mormon. The method of how it was translated is not a big deal. The real test of the authenticity of the book is found in Moroni’s promise. Ask God in prayer.