The Nephite Interpreters
Pictured above is my latest rendering of the Nephite Interpreters that were in the possession of Joseph Smith for a time. I have always wondered what these instruments must have looked like so I began by creating a few simple illustrations. Over time, the illustrations evolved into a more realistically rendered piece of art and this is the latest version. One day, I think it would be interesting to try to construct a physical model.
You can begin to get an idea of what these interpreters must have looked like by examining quotes from witnesses that actually saw them; from there you are left with gaps that can only be filled in with speculation. Here are the aspects of this version that I feel are pretty solid:
- Triangular shape of the “stones”
- Figure-8 design of the frame
- “Glass” setting for the interpreters
Here are the characteristics that are speculations and assumptions that I needed to make to complete the design:
- The opposing directions of the “stones”
- The figure-8 frame and rod being all one piece of metal (This is assumed because it was said that the artifact and the rod fit together inside the pocket of the breastplate)
- The figure-8 frame having a hasp by the rod (assuming that the ‘bow’ description of the frame implies that tension holds the artifact together.)
- The direction that the rod is projecting from the frame
- The “glass” being grooved so that it would not slip out from the frame.
Here are some other unknowns:
- How were the “stones” set in the glass, what held them there?
- Were there any other straps or means for holding the artifact together?
The strongest descriptions of the interpreters that I have found are these three below. From them we can get a fairly decent amount of detail that can be used to create an illustration of what the interpreters might have looked like.
William Smith’s description:
“A silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, arround [sic] over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8…[T]hey were much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other.” These stones, he continued, “were attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened at the outer shoulde[r] edge of the breastplate and to the edge of the silver bow.” (Tyrell Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, p.22)
Another account from William Smith:
“Among other things we inquired minutely about the Urim and Thummim and the breastplate. We asked him what was meant by the expression “two rims of a bow,” which held the former. He said a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breast-plate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate and his brother said Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates.” (J. W. Peterson in The Rod of Iron I:3 (February 1924), 6—7.)
Lucy Mack Smith description:
“On the morning of September 22, after Joseph had returned from the hill, he placed the article [the Nephite interpreters] of which he spoke into my hands, and, upon examination, I found that it consisted of two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass, and the glasses were set in silver bows, which were connected with each other in much the same way as old fashioned spectacles. . . . He [Joseph Smith] handed me the breastplate spoken of in his history. It was wrapped in a thin muslin handkerchief, so thin that I could feel its proportions without any difficulty. It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards, as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material, for the purpose of fastening it to the breast.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith)
The Interpreters were only used to translate a portion of the Book of Mormon that we no longer have, the first 116 pages that constituted the “Book of Lehi” and perhaps the first two chapters of the Book of Mosiah . Joseph Smith used a seer stone in his possession to translate the entirety of the Book of Mormon that we now have  using a technique that involved placing the stone within a hat and holding both up to his face. Interestingly, there is an account from a man named Fayette Lapham who had apparently interviewed Joseph Smith sometime around 1830.
The account Fayette gives does not describe any part of the Book of Mormon we now know which could possibly mean that what he was describing could have been information from the lost 116 pages. He said that the interpreters were discovered, but nobody knew what they were so someone took them into their tabernacle where the Lord asked “What have you got in your hand, there?”, they replied that they “did not know, but had come to inquire”. The Lord instructed them to “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is” .
Maybe in order for a seer to use oracles of this nature, they need to be held up to the face while using something that could exclude natural light. If this is the case then it would explain why Joseph Smith placed his seer stone in a hat and held it up to his face during the translation process.
Though he used these instruments in his role as a seer, eventually Joseph Smith progressed to a point to where he did not need to use oracles of any kind in the exercise of this gift .
Just as we initially require the a physical record, the scriptures, to understand the word of God and then progress to actual experiences with him, perhaps a seer requires physical instruments like the interpreters, seer stones or a “Urim and Thummim” to fully develop the attributes of a seer.
Perhaps the seer stone was a type of Christ as well, a “stone which the builders rejected” (Mark 12:10) with no “comeliness” or “beauty” (Isaiah 53:2). There are many accounts in scripture that seem to teach us that there is nothing mundane in all of God’s creation; that it is foolish to look upon anything or any one as ordinary; that God can do great miracles through the least of things.
- Along with the Book of Lehi, Royal Skousen, Editor of The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, says that in the printers manuscript of the Book of Mosiah, the first chapter is listed as Chapter 3. Skousen proposes that all or part of the first two chapters were lost with the 116 pages. Skousen notes that every other book in the Book of Mormon is named for its primary author; but the Book of Mosiah begins with King Benjamin and is not named for him. Also, Mosiah does not begin with an introduction of the author or an explanatory introduction as is typical with other Book of Mormon books but “begins in the middle of things.” Skousen speculates that the original first chapter related Mosiah’s flight from the land of Nephi to Zarahemla and that the second chapter discussed King Benjamin’s early reign and wars. [Source: Wikipedia, note 1]
- “As a chastisement for this carelessness [loss of the 116 pages], the Urim and Thummim was taken from Smith. But by humbling himself, he again found favor with the Lord and was presented a strange oval-shaped, chocolate colored stone, about the size of an egg, but more flat which it was promised should answer the same purpose. With this stone all the present book was translated.”(The Historical Record. Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters (LDS Church Archives), 632)
- “While this thought passed through the speaker’s mind, Joseph, as if he read his thoughts, looked up and explained that the Lord gave him the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced in the Spirit of inspiration. But now he had advanced so far that he understood the operations of that Spirit and did not need the assistance of that instrument.” (Richard L. Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” Brigham Young University Studies 24 no. 4 (1984))